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Health Costs Of The Information Revolution
Ohmy News
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 microwaves.

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 manipulation.

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 it?"

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 "inconclusive."

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 0-300 Ghz.

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 face.

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 growth.

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 developments.

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 exposure.

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 their service.

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 replication studies.

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.

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