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Hidden Menace Or Hollow Scare? Mobiles Get An
Just when phone firms thought the horror stories were over, a series of scientific studies are about to return health risks to the spotlight.
After making waves for being a danger to our health, mobile phones have recently been losing their capacity to shock.
To the relief of the world's largest mobile operators and handset manufacturers, the diversion of food scares and the publication of a handful of inconclusive reports into mobiles and health have taken the heat off the sector.
Last week a US judge threw out an $800m (£510m) lawsuit against Motorola brought by a man claiming his phone gave him brain cancer. This judgment helped to soothe the nerves of investors who had worried that the mobile market could become a breeding ground for legal actions.
But the mobile phone companies shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security. A raft of government-sponsored research into the health effects of using mobiles is about to be published, starting this autumn. There are 17 studies under way in the UK and a staggering 366 projects being co-ordinated by the World Heath Organisation.
We'll soon learn if mobile use causes human cells to vibrate; whether it stresses the "blood-brain barrier"; if it causes the body to release too much calcium; whether it warms our brains; and even if talking on the phone makes us bad drivers.
Any whiff of a link and the already battered mobile stocks could take another fall.
"The key message from us is don't dismiss health concerns as immaterial," says Chris Alliott, telecoms analyst at investment bank Nomura. "Investors should be aware that over time these issues could arise and this could hit sentiment in the sector."
The man in charge of the UK's mobile phone research programme is Professor Sir William Stewart, the Government's former chief scientific adviser.
Sir William was the author of the country's first comprehensive study of mobile use and health, published in 2000. This concluded that "the balance of evidence to date" suggests mobile phones "do not cause adverse health effects". Nevertheless, the report said there was "scientific evidence" to show biological changes in humans as a result of mobile use, and it recommended further studies.
Today, Sir William says there is still not enough evidence to either prove or disprove adverse health effects. "In my view the case is unproven. I still use a mobile phone. But I don't allow my grandchildren to use one."
He predicts that in two to three years he will be able to say with some confidence whether mobiles damage people's health. "With cigarettes it took years before it became accepted that they were a health hazard," he says. "With mobiles we can't afford to wait 30 years before we know if they are a hazard."
Next month he will host a seminar to tie together various research projects being carried out by European countries. The event will be sponsored by the Mobile Telecommunications & Health Research Programme (MTHR), which is backed by the Government. The meeting, says Sir William, will "aim to shape views on the implications of mobile phone use".
While it is far from certain that mobile phone firms will be in the clear, Sir William points to a couple of early conclusions. First, he believes the evidence that emissions from mobile base stations cause ill-heath is "negative". This is a boost for Vodafone, T-Mobile, mmO2, Orange and Hutchison 3G, which are building an estimated 50,000 new base stations and masts in the UK to support third-generation services.
On top of this, Sir William believes that some reported ill-effects from mobile use – nausea and headaches – could be a result of genetics. "There is a group of the population that has these complaints. We need to find out if this is genetic. This could be much in the same way that some people are allergic to nuts and others to antibiotics."
One of the first MTHR-funded studies to be published will be a Transport Research Laboratory investigation into the effects of using hands-free mobile phones while driving. Due to be released next month, this will be of particular interest to Transport Secretary Alistair Darling, who is considering introducing a blanket ban on mobile use in the car. But Sir William cautions against making sweeping changes. Instead, he argues that the Government should focus on fining bad drivers.
More pressing are people's fears over a possible link between mobile use and cancer. Previous studies on the subject have given mixed messages. A World Heath Organisation report, published in 1997, found mice were more prone to lymphoma when exposed to radiation from mobiles. Other studies have shown no link. There are six government-funded research projects into mobile phones and cancer – studying brain tumours, leukaemia and abnormal changes to cells. The first is expected to be published early next year.
One curious side-effect of mobile use is that the brain can perform tasks quicker after a blast of radio waves. This is accompanied by a 0.1°c increase in the temperature of the brain, known as "hot-spot warming". While some people have hailed this as a benefit, there are worries that it could have a long-term effect on health. Therefore, the MTHR has funded research into hot-spot warming, to be published in 2004.
On top this, there are two projects examining whether mobile use causes the body to increase its release of calcium. The mineral is essential for the healthy operation of the heart, nerves, muscles and glands. Sir William's original report warned that radio frequencies of 16hz (lower than the frequency used by mobiles) could affect the body's calcium balance. Early results of the latest studies could be published in December.
Trevor Brignall, a director at consultancy Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, says the mobile phone industry has so far taken a positive approach to the health fears. "A lot of the handsets on the market produce significantly lower levels of radiation than the models available three years ago," he points out.
Nevertheless, if the studies about to be published show any link between mobile use and ill-heath, the companies could be at the centre of another damaging scare.