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Is Your Mobile Safe?
November 17, 2003

As the residents of Wishaw hold a mobile-phone mast to ransom amid fears that it is damaging their health, Julia Stuart reports on whether the new technology is as dangerous as we think

No one knows how they managed it, but two weeks ago a mobile phone mast, blamed for a spate of cancers among local residents, was felled by vandals. Protestors immediately blockaded the site in Wishaw, Sutton Coldfield, preventing the mast being removed. Sleeping in tents and warmed by a brazier, they insisted they would not move unless the telecommunications company that owned it promised to erect its replacement elsewhere. Messages of support started arriving from anti-mast campaigners around the world, as well as food, drink and even flowers. When this paper went to press, the group were on their seventh day of protest. "They're well dug in," said an organiser. "They could still be there by Christmas."

One of them, Eileen O'Connor, said she was prepared to be arrested. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "I started wondering why I had got this cancer at the age of 38," said Mrs O'Connor, who has since had a mastectomy and undergone chemotherapy and radiotherapy. "No one in my family has ever had breast cancer, apart from my grandmother in her eighties. I was fit and training for the London Marathon. The mast is only 100m from where we live, and I wondered whether it was responsible as I kept bumping into neighbours in hospital who were all suffering from cancer as well.

"When I started speaking to scientists at universities all over the UK and reading research from around the worldabout other cancer clusters, I was horrified. There has been no turning back."

Mrs O'Connor, who consequently helped to set up Sutton Coldfield Residents Against Masts, said that since the mast was erected seven years ago, there have been nine incidents of cancer in 20 households within 500m of it. Three of the four other women who have developed breast cancer are in their forties and also have no family history of the illness. The other is in her fifties. Three women in their twenties have had treatment for pre-cancerous cervical cells, and two women in their twenties have had benign breast lumps removed. There have been three cases of severe skin rashes, as well as minor complaints such as disturbed sleep.

So is there a connection? There are currently about 50 million mobile phones in circulation in the UK, and 35,000 masts. A significant proportion of the radio frequency emission from a mobile phone is absorbed through the head. After fears about possible health risks hit the headlines in the 1990s, the Minister for Public Health requested that an independent committee investigate them. The Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones looked at hundreds of scientific papers, held five open meetings and took evidence from dozens of witnesses. The resulting report, published in May 2000, found that exposure to the emission of radiation from mobile phones and masts, provided they were weaker than the recommended guidelines, did not cause adverse health effects to the general population. It added, however, that scientific evidence suggested that biological effects could occur at lower exposures. The Stewart report urged a "precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies" until more evidence became available, recommending that children should be discouraged from making non-essential calls and that a national research programme be established.

As a result, in February 2001, the 7.4m Mobile Telecommunications Health Research Programme (MTHRP) was launched, funded by the Government and industry. A further 1m has come from the DTI and the Home Office. The research includes an epidemiological study into early childhood leukaemias and other cancers near to mobile phone base stations; possible effects on blood pressure and hearing in volunteers; the effects of mobile phone signals on brain function and the behaviour of exposed people; and whether the use of mobile phones can affect the risk of developing brain cancer or leukaemia. The first findings will be announced in November 2005. If results are found that show a health risk before then, the Department of Health will respond earlier.

A book published last week by a University of Bath academic claims that the public panic over mobile phones is essentially fuelled by the media. Dr Adam Burgess, a lecturer in sociology, argues in Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and a Culture of Precaution (Cambridge University Press) that the risk is purely hypothetical.

"There is certainly no compelling evidence to suggest that humans can be harmed by radiation from mobile phones or from masts," he says. "There is a series of one-off studies which suggest a degree of uncertainty, but there are thousands of studies like this and one can quote one against the other until the cows come home. What one has to look at is an accumulation of evidence."

Dr Burgess says that the laws of physics would have to be broken for anyone to be physically harmed by a mobile phone mast, because the amount of radiation they give out is too weak. He believes that the independent inquiry and the publication of a report making precautionary recommendations has been counterproductive. "It was only the Government holding an inquiry that has turned people's objections, which were initially relatively straightforward, into something much more difficult to deal with." No scientist would ever say that mobile phones and their masts were not harmful, as one cannot prove the obverse, he adds.

The inquiry was set up, Dr Burgess claims, because of the politics of post-BSE Britain. "Here was a chance for the Government, on what was in a sense a relatively inconsequential issue, to demonstrate their precautionary credentials. In the immediate sense it was stimulated by the media. Tessa Jowell said that the Government should respond to the media concern, as if that was the same as public concern."

More than 60m-worth of research is currently going on in Europe into this type of radiation. Dr Burgess believes it to be "arguably a waste of money". However, Professor Lawrie Challis, the chairman of the MTHRP, believes that more research is vital. "When one billion people are using these things around the world, and we haven't put transmitters next to our heads before, it seems to me not unreasonable that one should explore the possible risks."

Professor Challis, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham, believes that if there were a risk, it would be much more likely to come from the phones than the masts. Exposure from a mast is anything between 1,000 and a million times less than the exposure from a phone. On a mobile phone, you are exposed to up to 50 per cent of the international guidelines for radiation levels. Typical exposure from a mobile phone mast is 10,000 times or more below the guidelines. A few seconds making a call is comparable to 24 hours of exposure from a mast.

So what of the prevalence of cancers in Wishaw? "Cancer occurs for all sorts of reasons," Professor Challis says. "If you take a map of the incidents of cancer around the country, it won't come out evenly. There are 35,000 masts in the country. You will find some where there are almost no cancers, you will find a lot that have more or less the average number of cancers that you would expect, and some with a lot of cancers. So, sadly, the fact that there are some cancers around the mast at Wishaw, and probably none around the mast a mile away, is probably just an example of the way statistics work."

Last June, Professor Challis spoke to a meeting of concerned residents, convened by Mrs O'Connor. He acknowledged that there were biological effects associated with some masts, but that they did not necessarily have consequences to health. But, judging by the happenings in Wishaw, clearly a number were not convinced.


* Microwaves
Scientists had concerns that microwave ovens could leak radioactive rays. They are now believed to be perfectly safe.

* Air travel
A report by the US Federal Aviation Administration found that frequent transatlantic flyers are exposed to the equivalent of 170 chest X-rays each year. Air stewardesses are reported to be twice as likely to suffer from breast cancer, and pilots are more likely to get colon, rectal, brain and prostate cancers.

* Sun exposure
Sunbathing and sunbeds expose us to potentially dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation. About 2,000 people die from skin cancer in Britain each year.

* Cordless phones
Some scientists have compared owning a digital cordless phone to living with a mobile phone base station. Cordless phones use a radio signal to communicate between the handset and charger unit. However, the National Radiological Protection Board does not consider them to be hazardous to health.

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