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The mobile phone industry says its phones and masts are safe, but some scientists and consumers aren't convinced. Sarah Scott argues that we should exercise caution while research continues
Mobile phones have taken the country by storm, with one in four people currently owning one. Although many people will now have heard of a suggested link between mobile phone use and brain tumours, most feel that the huge benefits of this new technology outweigh any possible risks.
But while cellular phone use involves an element of personal choice, another more insidious issue is often overlooked: mobile phone masts. Springing up like mushrooms across the country, these masts are now almost as common a sight as electricity pylons. But just how much do we actually know about the potential health effects of long-term exposure to them?
Mercury states that "all mast emissions are within guidelines", and are therefore safe - a view shared by the rest of the industry and the government. But if this new technology is already known to be safe, why are international governments, the mobile phone industry, the World Health Organisation and the European Union channeling billions of pounds into research to determine exactly how "safe" it is?
For people who claim to be affected by microwave radiation, such as Jane Palmer, this is seen as an ongoing human experiment which is nothing short of scandalous. She claims that after Orange installed a mast 70 metres from her home in south Wales 18 months ago, her daughter Nicola, aged six, began experiencing severe epileptic fits.
"Nicola was diagnosed as epileptic soon after birth, but since the age of two her illness had improved dramatically and she only experienced one or two fits a month," says Jane. "Following the installation of the mast, she began having four to six severe fits a day."
On one day, Nicola experienced no fits at all, something at first her mother was unable to explain. It was later discovered that on that particular day the mast had been turned off. Nicola's epilepsy also shows significant improvement when Jane takes her away from the property. Orange deny that the mast could be contributing to her illness. They say there is no scientific evidence to suggest a link between phone masts and epilepsy.
According to the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), which advises the government, the only recognised biological effects of microwave radiation are thermal - where body tissues are heated, in the same way that a microwave oven heats food - but this only occurs after exposure to very high levels, on which the current safety guidelines are based.
However, there is now a growing body of internationally published scientific evidence suggesting that it may be possible for much lower levels to cause health problems. In June, a conference was held in the House of Commons to discuss this possibility. It was attended both by MPs and the world's leading scientific experts in the field.
Zenon Sienkiewicz, speaking on behalf of the NRPB at the conference, defended the government's reluctance to exercise caution, saying: "Fantastic claims require extraordinary proof."
But is the idea that microwave radiation from mobile phones and masts could cause cancer and other health problems really that fantastic? Also speaking for the NRPB, Sir Richard Doll, the scientist who made the link between smoking and lung cancer, said: "We should keep our minds open to the possibility that this radiation could be harmful, because it is man-made and our bodies have not been exposed to it throughout evolution."
It has been estimated that the average caveman came into contact with hundreds of millions of times less electromagnetic radiation than is in evidence today. It is only over the last 100 years that humans have been widely exposed to this man-made "electrosmog", so without an in-built defence system to counter such exposure, it would be wise to treat it with at least a degree of suspicion. But technology is progressing at such a pace that it is difficult for biological research to keep up and there is a tendency for these new technologies to be presumed "innocent until proven guilty".
Richard Doll does not think there is yet enough scientific evidence to cause serious anxiety but admits there is "suggestive evidence" and does "feel anxious that further intensive research is conducted". Microwaves are just part of the whole spectrum of electromagnetic energy. It is already well known that high intensity radiation such as X-rays and nuclear radiation can cause cancer by damaging cells. This type of energy is called ionising radiation.
Non-ionising radiation - which includes microwaves, radiowaves, visible light and the electromagnetic fields from domestic appliances - was not generally thought to cause such damage. However, there has been long-standing concern over suggested links between electrical pylons and childhood leukaemia, and many leading scientists are now warning there could be effects we don't yet understand resulting from exposure to non-ionising radiation.
Dr Gerard Hyland, senior lecturer in theoretical physics at the Warwick university, believes that the microwave radiation from mobile phones and masts can interfere with the body's own electromagnetic field. The newer digital systems emit pulses of radiation 217 times every second. This means that the body is constantly bombarded with "flashes" of radiation, which may lead to problems similar to those caused by flashing lights in epilepsy sufferers.
Further evidence of a potential problem comes from one of the world's leading scientific experts, Prof Henry Lai, of the University of Washington, Seattle, who has spent many years researching the biological effects of microwaves. He has demonstrated that damage occurred to DNA strands in the brain cells of rats when exposed to radiation similar to that emitted by a mobile phone. In response to industry claims that mobile phone radiation is safe, he says: "I cannot agree at all with what they're telling the public. There is a concern and probably it's not safe."
Scientists at Porton Down laboratories have recently shown that this radiation also affects the nervous systems of rats, leading to potential problems with memory, learning and epilepsy. Indeed, a great many people are already reporting symptoms from what they say is exposure to mobile phone masts, ranging from headaches to sleep disorders and neurological problems, but the government has failed to respond, despite the fact the Maastricht treaty relating to environmental protection recommends caution.
This has led to calls for the adoption of the precautionary principle when locating masts, which would allow for health effects we have yet to fully explain. Margaret Dean, on behalf of the Northern Ireland Families Against Telecommunications Transmitters group (Nifatt), has been campaigning for a complete overhaul of the current planning system, which allows masts to be erected without full planning permission as part of a "permitted development" programme; the introduction of a "safe" distance between masts and schools, hospitals and housing; and full consultation with residents living near proposed sites.
"People who live and work near these masts continue to be exposed day after day - their basic human rights have been sacrificed in the pursuit of profit," she says. At present, mobile phone companies can wave a financial carrot, often up to £8,000 a year, in front of cash-stricken local health and education authorities to allow a mast to be erected on their land. Concerned parents have removed their children from schools because of concerns about possible risks of exposure to radiation. There are currently more than 200 campaign groups in the UK protesting that further research is needed and that, without it, there is a risk that the public - especially children - may become involuntary guinea pigs. Graeme McAlister, of Friends of the Earth, Scotland, has been involved with many such groups and reports that over a third of the local planning authorities in Scotland have already adopted the precautionary principle. He says: "We are not advocating anything radical. We are merely advising a precautionary approach until further research can be carried out."
In addition, the Local Government Association, which represents 150 local authorities throughout England and Wales, has produced a report criticising the current policy of central government and coming down heavily in favour of the precautionary principle. So, where do we go from here? A resolution passed at the Liberal Democrat conference acknowledged concerns over long-term exposure and called for local residents to be given more control in the planning process.
A recent report by the Science and Technology select committee has called for more publicly-funded research and recommends that UK exposure limits are reduced by a factor of seven, although this will have little practical impact. With the government apparently determined to protect the multi-billion pound industry at all costs, what will be the consequences? In the absence of precautionary measures, saying "Sorry" will not be enough.