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Italian scientists are trying to find out if our obsession with mobile phones will be the death of us. Rob Stepney reports.
Set in the pancake-flat landscape around Bologna, the castle of Bentivoglio hides a secret. Deep underground, in the cramped basement, are the sounds and smells of thousands of rats. Living rats in cages surrounding odd-looking antennae. Dead ones being painstakingly dissected and examined under microscopes.
Bentivoglio does toxicology. Its background is in testing chemicals in the environment that may cause cancer. However, its immediate future is investigating the health effects of another ubiquitous accompaniment of civilisation: electromagnetic radiation.
Some electromagnetic radiation is natural. We have evolved under a glow of visible light, UV and warming infrared rays from the sun. But technology has flooded our environment with ever more electromagnetic radiation. It leaks from powerlines and electronic devices, while some is intentionally pumped into the air, such as radiowaves and signals from mobile phones and their base stations.
In the biggest research project of its kind, toxicologist Morando Soffritti, head of the Ramazzini Foundation's Centre for Cancer Research, and his team hope to find the answer to what happens when humans are exposed to that radiation. Among the questions to be researched is whether a lifetime's exposure to mobile phone emissions increases the risk of cancer.
In each of four small rooms, a stubby antenna, the equivalent of a mobile phone base station, rises a metre from the floor, surrounded by plastic cages on wooden shelves (metal would distort the electromagnetic fields). The walls are covered in black foam rubber impregnated with graphite, soaking up radiation that would otherwise escape. To check if any health effects vary with dosage, three intensities of radiation are being tested. Animals in the fourth room act as controls. Temperature, humidity, light and food are the same, but their antenna is never switched on.
When they die, the rats will be examined for signs of cancer. Microscopic study of thin slices of tissue will reveal even small areas of disease. As soon as the base station experiments are completed, the rooms will be used to replicate the effects of our exposure to radiation from mobile handsets.
In the former stable of the castle a dozen great bobbins are stacked with rat cages, each wrapped with electric cable. Five kilometres of it in all exposes animals for 19 hours a day to the electromagnetic fields experienced by people living under powerlines.
Seven thousand rats are part of this study. Each has a number so its parents and siblings can be identified. "It's important to know if there is an inherited predisposition which can interact with environmental factors,'' says Soffritti.
In three decades of work on 160,000 mice and rats, the Bentivoglio labs funded largely by Italian charities and benefactors have identified a score of substances capable of causing cancer. Among them are xylenes and toluene (both present in petrol), the fungicide mancozeb, and vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate, both used to make plastics.
To provide a definitive answer to the mobile phone question, the lab is exposing thousands of rats to controlled radiation from their 12th day in the womb until they die of old age or disease. The rats have a normal or near-normal lifespan and are exposed only to the levels of electromagnetic radiation we voluntarily experience. But are long-term carcinogenesis studies in rodents a reliable guide to what happens in humans? Soffritti believes so. Substances that cause cancer in us cause cancer in other animals, and vice versa.
Soffritti says the Bentivoglio experiments are unique in scale and design.
"The crucial fact is that past studies, of relatively small numbers of animals, have not matched the pattern of exposure seen in humans,'' he says. "Most important, the animals have not experienced mobile phone radiation, as our children will, for their entire lifetime. With some of our studies, if we'd ended them at two years, and not followed the rats for their whole lives, we'd never have found that the substance investigated was a cause of cancer.''
Watchdogs such as the World Health Organisation have examined the available research about mobile phones and conclude we just don't know what if any dangers they pose.
We should have first results from the powerline study (which is almost completed) in a little over 12 months. However, it will be three years or more before the mobile phone findings are through.
In the meantime, does Soffritti use a mobile? "Only when I have to.''