Health Costs Of The
Journalist: John Horvath
July 26, 2006
The Risks Of Cell Phones Should Clearly
Be Explained To The Public
There is an old saying that a revolution devours its own children.
Nowhere is this more accurate than in the present "information
revolution." More specifically, it's that of the mobile communications
which contains the greatest risk. Central to this are mobile phones
(also known as cell phones) and the potential health hazards they pose.
There has been much information (and misinformation) about the issue.
Sadly, the lessons of the past have not been learned as governments,
big business, and consumers -- like the three monkeys that prefer to
cover their ears, eyes, and mouths -- go down the same road traveled by
other industries in the past, such as silicon, asbestos, and tobacco.
In particular, government and big business -- both fearful of the
impact negative news might have on an economy increasingly dependent on
advanced information and communications technologies -- have conducted
a complex (and so far successful) campaign to accentuate the positive
aspects of mobile communications technology whilst silencing opposition
to the contrary.
With the release of the Adelaide Hospital Research study (henceforth,
the Adelaide study or AHR) in April 1997, it has been concluded that
cell phones can cause health problems. The question, therefore, is not
whether they cause problems, but the nature of these problems. What is
more, cause-and-effect aren't necessarily immediate and obvious.
After its initial completion, the Adelaide study was not published for
nearly two years. It was rejected, according to the scientists
involved, for political reasons. Additionally, the journal Science said it was too hot to handle, and Nature insisted that the work be replicated first before publication.
In a nutshell, the Adelaide study looked into tumor promotion in
transgenic mice using GSM-pulsed cell phone exposures for up to 18
months at relatively normal power-density levels. It follows the
Lai-Singh study in Seattle which showed a radical increase in
double-strand DNA breaks in rat-brains following 2 hours of exposure to
The study provides a clear-cut result showing genetic alterations in
cells following reasonably low level exposures to cell phone radiation.
It showed a doubling of the number of tumors in mice following one hour
of exposure per day, over a 9 to 18 month period.
The concern is mainly about the potential for future health problems,
rather than for the present. Most cancers are caused by progressive
damage to DNA. Hence, the use of a cell phone over the lifetime of a
human being can produce tumors and other health effects which manifest
themselves only later on in life. What is more, these problems can be
passed on to succeeding generations, depending on the extent and nature
of the DNA damage.
Yet DNA-cancers are only one problem. Many other short and
long-exposure brain conditions such as Alzheimer's and melatonin
changes are also implicated in the study.
Although the findings in the Adelaide study are enough for Luddites to
start destroying cell phones en masse, it's actually a low-probability
-- but high potential risk -- problem. Moreover, few things in our
society can be considered perfectly safe. Thus, allowance must be made
for the productive value in having these devices.
Still, this doesn't means that consumers shouldn't get adequate
warning. Nor does this justify supporters of the cell phone industry to
avoid the issue through the spread of misinformation and outright media
Often, the misinformation being spread is of a very subtle nature. For
example, "adverse health effects" are often referred to rather than the
dreaded word "cancer." In much the same way, the word "energy" is used
as a cover for radio waves or radiation exposure. Likewise,
"communications equipment" replaces the word cell phones, where
possible, as the potential cause of problems. As one observer noted,
"it's enough to make you not want to risk using a normal phone, isn't
The combined power of industry lobbyists, "tobacco-science," and public
relations have thus far been able to keep a cap on this problem. They
put their trust in the surety of public ignorance and the "concern
overload" people nowadays suffer from due to the constant bombardment
of health, nutrition, and environmental claims and counter-claims.
Muddling the Issue
Generally, the relationship between cell phone use and health is
muddled in three different ways: through denial or suppression of the
facts, misinformation and confusion, and by claiming that results are
There is no denying that radio frequency (RF) radiation causes adverse
health effects. However, by using certain phrases which invariably
point out that there is no "conclusive" evidence, it is suggested that
continued use is fine until a "definitive" link can be found. In
effect, it totally ignores the precautionary principle which should
come into play in these kinds of situations.
Still, in order to give the impression that the issue is being looked
into seriously and not simply swept under the rug, various
inter-governmental agencies have expressed their opinions and showed
some "concern" over the issue. The World Health Organization (WHO), for
example, had already in 1997 called for more research into whether
mobile phones, power lines, and radar might cause health problems such
as cancer and Alzheimer's disease. More specifically, the WHO's
five-year program was to pool studies to assess risks linked to
exposure to electrical and magnetic fields in the frequency range of
Far from being an impartial body dedicated to an objective assessment
of the issue, the WHO has unfortunately done its share to help the
mobile phone industry to muddle the issue. This has usually been
accomplished through the skillful utilization of diplomatic language.
References to "mixed evidence" and that "science would likely prove
otherwise" already instilled within the WHO a framework for accepting
industry claims that cell phones are totally safe.
While industry and international organizations pursue studies which are
focused on damage control in deference to gathering scientific
evidence, true research is laid to waste on the sidelines. To put it
simply, no one wants to fund this kind of research.
Meanwhile, the media has been inundated with corporate spin and "junk
science." The injection of misleading studies helps to further muddle
the issue. There's no transparency within the process, which is one of
the hallmarks of junk science, as opposed to true research. As a
result, the mass media -- when not in the direct employ of the cell
phone industry -- is taken along for the ride.
Apart from all the corporate spin, junk science, and media
manipulation, some companies have been taking advantage of the
situation and exploiting concern over cell phone use for their own
economic benefit. By doing so, they end up belittling the issue. For
instance, an online advertisement for the "Protector" anti-radiation
health cover for cellular phones makes various spurious claims. One is
that a cover made from leather and a "special" material can reduce
exposure to harmful radiation by 95 percent. The fallacy should be
obvious: if so much of the transmission is indeed filtered out, then
your cell phone probably doesn't work properly either.
Often, those hoping to cash in on other people's misery are just as
guilty of spreading inaccurate information as industry spin doctors.
For example, the advertisement for the Protector case generalizes facts
and muddles the issue by mixing two separate aspects together -- that
of RF radiation as a health risk, and that of cellular phone
interference with other communications equipment. Thus, the claim that
"it is a regular thing to see the new signs in the hospitals and
airplains [sic!] that forbid the use of cellular phones" has nothing to
do with "protecting your brain".
In the end, it's not only that prolonged cell phone use can be
hazardous to your health, but that there are no adequate warnings of
the dangers it imposes. Admittedly, very few products we use nowadays
are risk free. Yet this doesn't mean cell phones should never be used
and are not useful. As with household appliances most of us use
everyday (such as microwave ovens and television sets) for which
warnings, information, and suggestions for proper use are all provided,
what is needed for cell phones is more information and less spin so
consumers can make well-informed choices and know about the risks they
Hype over Health
In addition to muddling the issue, concern over the safety of cell
phones has been drowned out by the hype surrounding mobile
communications. With the advent of third generation mobile phone
technology (better known as 3G technology), this hype has become more
prevalent. The reason for this is not only to keep the "revolution"
going, but big telecom operators (and, subsequently, the financial
institutions which lend them money) need 3G technology to be a
resounding success in order to recuperate the enormous amount of
capital they invested.
As a result, mobility is now regarded as the dominant trend of the
future. Because 3G technology is supposed to be an integral part of
this next phase of the revolution, the trend in so-called "network
research" has concentrated on blurring the distinction between
computers and telephones. Thus, as a Sunday Times
article in 1999 reports, "phones and internet services fuel each
other's growth." To its credit, the article goes on to note that "as
with all revolutions, there are reservations. Health concerns about
mobile phones are unresolved, with microwave radiation linked in one
recent study in Sweden to increased tiredness and headaches."
Some see the blurring of computer-mediated communications and telephony
as a shrewd strategy on the part of large telecoms and cell phone
operators alike. By maintaining such a focus, they are both looking to
"capture" the Internet access market, or at least a large portion of it.
Yet it's not only business interests that have high hopes for 3G
technology. Governments also look to 3G technology as the latest
chapter in the evolution of the "information society." For Europe, the
development of cellular networks is considered very important, so much
so that the E.U.'s political, economic, and research policies are all
geared toward exploiting this trend for all its worth. With the world's
most advanced mobile communications system and highest per capita cell
phone ownership in the world, European leaders feel that this is the
one avenue by which Europe can surpass the U.S. in terms of economic
This future hope for Europe is primarily based on successful past
experiences. European industry has built on the competitive advantages
gained during the development of the second generation digital mobile
cellular system (GSM) and, in 1997, became the world's largest service
provider, overtaking the United States. The E.U. is now set to maintain
its lead in telecommunications technology with the 3G system known as
the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), and companies
are joining forces across Europe to ensure they take advantage of new
Unfortunately, concern over the success of UMTS is such that the
European Commission appears willing to forego public health for the
sake of economic interests, as well as "supporting the communications
revolution." For example, a new directive regarding the approval of
telecommunications terminal and radio equipment adopted by the European
Council was established in early 1999 which follows a "light"
conformity assessment regime, one based upon the principle of a
manufacturer's declaration. This means the assessment and approval of
such equipment has been shortened.
The argument in support of this directive is that faster technological
progress and the shorter time it takes to develop such equipment
requires a "new approach," which means radically simplified
legislation. However, relying on a manufacturer's declaration that a
product is safe is foolhardy; because of obvious vested interests,
there is no guarantee of an objective assessment. If anything, it's a
clear case of a conflict of interest.
Such radically simplified legislation undoubtedly means that products
will enter the market which haven't been adequately tested. In
particular, since the health risks of prolonged cell phone use has not
been adequately dealt with, this means that a manufacturer's
declaration has taken precedence over the precautionary principle.
At this point, one might argue that even if prolonged cell phone use is
a health risk, the nature of 3G technology would actually minimize such
risks. Since information is received audio-visually through the screen
and transmitted via a keypad, the risks associated with holding a
powerful electronic transmitter so close to the brain no longer
applies. Moreover, ways have already been devised to keep the hand
piece and antennae away from the head. The use of earpiece and
mouthpiece cellular phone attachments is a prime example of this.
Yet such attempts have so far failed to adequately address the issue.
Earpiece and mouthpiece cellular phone attachments have not become all
the rage as industry experts had hoped. Although these extra little
gadgets are claimed to make cell phones "safer," they also tend to make
personal interaction more difficult.
Additionally, there are more dangers to using cell phones than just
radiation exposure. Medical specialists have noticed an upswing in
cases of impaired muscular coordination, apparently caused by the use
of Palm Pilots and similar hand-held devices. It seems that writing
characters each on top of the last can induce long-term confusion in
some individuals. Subsequently, such people find it nearly impossible
to write on paper, producing instead a baffling doodle.
Aside from all this, there is a more fundamental problem. Concentrating
on 3G takes the focus away from the telephonic use of cell phones. In
other words, it's still a dangerous product in terms of radiation
Lessons of the Past
Without a doubt, there's still a lot we don't know about how cell
phones might affect us. What we do know is that they are powerful
electronic transmitters, and have been linked with DNA damage and other
such problems. Because of possible health risks associated with holding
cell phones close to the head for long periods, the cell phone industry
has conducted a sophisticated -- and so far very successful -- campaign
to accentuate the positive and silence anyone who raises the
possibility that their product might have a problem.
In terms of corporate behavior, this is clearly a case of history
repeating itself. The cell phone industry, and to some extent
government agencies, have been acting the same way as in the past when
other industries were confronted with the knowledge that they were
marketing a product that, for all intents and purposes, could be
labeled as dangerous and unsafe. The best illustration of this is that
of the tobacco industry.
The cumulative balance of evidence against cell phones is about the
same today as that against cigarettes twenty years ago. The tobacco
industry held sway over much of the research into the health effects of
smoking for many years -- and blocked good research.
As with tobacco, there are several lines of defense being used (and
will be used) by industry to shelter themselves from criticism. The
first is to simply dismiss preliminary early studies. When this quickly
becomes untenable, research results are then hidden from view, as the
tobacco industry had done in the 1960s to avoid a probe launched by
John F. Kennedy's administration in the U.S. When hidden research can
no longer be denied, the third line of defense is to play for time.
Against some of the more resounding claims, cosmetic changes are
introduced in order to allay fears. For the tobacco industry, this
meant putting filters in cigarettes; for the cell phone industry, it
has meant the introduction of cryptic warnings, such as not to hold the
device too close to the head.
While all this is going on, a subtly aggressive advertising campaign is
being undertaken to increase the number of consumers and, more
importantly, make them addicted to the product. To this extent, direct
advertising is geared foremost to the young and usually equates the
product with social success and acceptability.
For the tobacco industry, accomplishing this task hasn't been too
difficult since the product itself is naturally addictive. For the cell
phone industry, it requires a little more effort; for instance, when
phone companies give away free cell phones to get consumers hooked on
With such a campaign in hand, the spin doctors can then avoid the
fundamental issue -- i.e., health and welfare -- and focus on economic
aspects instead. Thus, after having successfully forced the product on
to the market and expanded its consumer base, industry is then able to
acknowledge health issues -- to a certain degree -- knowing that people
and the economy are too addicted to the product anyway.
Finally, when the overriding amount of evidence makes even this
position untenable, a threat veiled in the form of a plea is made, in
that litigation will destroy the business, and society will then have
to pay the economic price. This, even though the business is destroying
the health of society which, in turn, places its own economic burden in
terms of loss productivity and an unnecessary strain on government
services, namely health care.
What many within industry don't realize is that adopting such an
approach for the sake of short-term gain is ultimately self-defeating.
The breast implant industry provides a case in point. It was nearly
destroyed because of deceptive practices by a few manufacturing
companies and the arrogance of plastic surgeons. In the end, they
almost destroyed their own market by avoiding research and trying to
manipulate public opinion through tobacco-science. Ironically, it seems
little has been learned, as an attempt is underway to make breast
implants acceptable again.
Corporate history is replete with such examples. Health concerns are
swept aside for the sake of profit until the charade can no longer be
maintained. The makers of leaded gasoline, for example, systematically
suppressed information about the severe health hazards of their product
for decades. These health hazards include, among other things, lower
IQs and learning disabilities, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, high
blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.
The fear of losing business and profits is based on a short-sighted
view of the situation; skirting around health concerns ultimately
defeats the purpose. Yet, despite lessons from the past, the cell phone
industry is still intent on muddling the issue for the sake of pushing
through a "mobile revolution." Little do they realize that the practice
of ignoring fundamentals will eventually boomerang on them once adverse
health effects begin to make themselves known -- and felt.
Back to the Future
A cell phone is an intense source of high-frequency magnetic fields
that is held very close to the brain. Studies have investigated various
health hazards -- reduced fertility, brain tumors, memory loss,
behavioral changes, and damaging effects on a child's development.
Naturally, this has raised concern and fear about the effect of cell
phones on human health.
Industry scientists claim to have no proof that cell phones are
harmful, saying that there is as yet insufficient scientific basis for
confirming or disproving the claims made by the likes of the Adelaide
Hospital Study. Nevertheless, many of these same scientists are not
prepared to commit themselves to their absolute long-term safety.
In an attempt to remove further doubt, the research arm of the cell
phone industry has initiated a feeble attempt to look into the problem.
Yet such research is mostly safe and reasonably non-controversial. For
accurate results, control of the direction of the research must be
taken away from the cell phone industry. Any research that is not
perceived as independent is pretty much a waste of time.
Already, there exists much evidence to point to the harmful effects on
human health of the extensive use of cell phones. Unfortunately, much
of this research has been discounted because the results of the studies
have not been replicated. This is because when such disturbing results
have become known, the industry has consistently failed to fund
When first confronted with lawsuits and the resulting publicity, the
cell phone industry mounted a public-relations offensive, claiming at
news conferences and in news releases that there were thousands of
studies that proved the safety of cellular phones. Yet the industry has
largely put forth studies that looked at the effects of radio waves
outside the cellular frequency.
Meanwhile, industry regulators who are supposed to be acting in the
public interest have clearly failed to do their part. None of the
organizations in question have much credibility. They are run by people
who have long worked as industry lobbyists, or who are employed by
government departments which are widely believed to have been
"captured" by the industry they are supposed to regulate.
Regulators often see their job mainly in terms of keeping information
of adverse cell-phone problems away from the media and the public.
Throughout Europe, the push to develop GSM digital phones as a
world-wide standard has taken precedence over the health and safety of
the public, because this is potentially a billion dollar business.
When it comes to corporate abuse, it's almost taken for granted that it
is primarily the U.S. which facilitates industry to push ahead a
pro-business agenda and to silence critics. Yet with the issue of cell
phone radiation, this is not the case. It's Europe which has done
little in terms of research and critically appraising the product. The
reason for this is quite obvious: cell phones are key to Europe's
global economic strategy, and the fact that Europe is the leader in the
field has made politicians and policy makers unwilling to look too
closely or critically at the matter, for fear of jeopardizing Europe's
one economic advantage over the U.S. and Japan.
At this point in time, what is needed is a comprehensive precautionary
approach to the use of cell phone technologies. This doesn't mean an
absolute ban on the use of cell phones but, rather, it requires
government and industry officials to fully inform the general public as
to the potential risks. But even more important than this, there is a
desperate need to have continued independent research. Research that is
not influenced by economic or political considerations, but by
scientific standards alone.