Being Told The Truth About Mobile Phones?
The Sunday Times
Journalists: Cherry Norton and Richard Woods
December 20, 1998
Companies insist mobile phones are safe. Users suspect they cause
ill-health. Now scientists say the industry is downplaying evidence of the
Ringing the alarm
Ralph Mills first knew something was seriously wrong with his brain when he
began to get lost in his garden. As a long-distance driver he had spent
years navigating his way across Europe without difficulty; suddenly he could
not leave his house without someone to guide him.
Baffled, he visited his GP.
Within an hour he was in hospital, where doctors found a brain tumour the
size of a tennis ball above his right ear.
Mills, from Harlow in Essex, had never been seriously ill before and has no
history of cancer in his family. Was his tumour mere chance? Or could it, he
wondered, be related to his constant use of a mobile phone? His company had
given him a mobile in 1985 and for 12 years he had used it, often for about
an hour and a half each day.
"I never thought my mobile phone could ruin my health," said Mills, who is
no longer able to work. "But now I believe they are a real hazard."
He is preparing to sue the manufacturers of the phone for failing to warn
him of alleged health risks. More than 20 other people who believe they have
suffered brain tumours, memory loss or damage to their immune systems
caused by mobile phones are also lining up to seek legal redress.
"A year ago the health risks associated with mobile phones looked very
speculative," said Martyn Day, of Leigh Day and Co, a firm of solicitors
that has 24 clients who want to sue mobile phone companies. "But the
evidence is mounting up."
This weekend one of the field's leading scientific researchers has accused
the mobile phone industry of failing to publish new evidence of a link
between phone radiation and health. He alleges he was asked to rework his
results, which are not yet publicly available, in a more favourable
light. Another researcher claims his funding was stopped after he unearthed
findings a mobile phone company preferred not to see publicised.
As concerns intensify, the industry maintains there is no risk. "Our
position is that there is no substantive evidence to link the use of mobile
phones to any adverse health effect," said Tom Wills-Sandford, from the
Federation of the Electronics Industry, which represents mobile phone
To many independent observers, the language of the debate and the battle
lines being drawn are all too reminiscent of the arguments over smoking and
cancer. After 40 years of research, while the tobacco companies still
maintain no link between smoking and cancer has been proven, most doctors
believe cigarettes pose a serious risk to human health. Will the same happen
with mobile phones?
The image phone companies like to project is of dynamic people revelling in
the freedom of mobile communications. Though concerns about the health
effects surfaced at least five years ago, the novelty and convenience of the
phones drowned out any dissenting voices. As isolated lawsuits claiming
health damage began to emerge in the United States, Britain lagged behind,
ignoring them in the excitement of developing its own cellular networks.
But in America, Australia and Scandinavia, scientists were beginning to
uncover worrying evidence that microwave radiation could cause physiological
damage. One of those at the forefront of the research was Dr Henry Lai, an
expert in non-ionising radiation and a professor at the School of Medicine
and College of Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle,
Two and a half years ago The Sunday Times disclosed for the first time
scientific research pointing to the possible threat that mobile phones posed
to health. Three studies, one by Lai, had found evidence of potentially
damaging changes to brain cells linked to radiation. It was the first
insight into the risk of mobiles "cooking" the brain based on well-founded
Lai and a colleague, Dr Narendra Singh, had discovered that low-level
microwave radiation could split the DNA molecules in the brains of live
rats; such splitting is associated with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's
disease and cancer.
From March to August this year, Lai continued his work, funded by Wireless
Technology Research, a body that has received more than £25m in backing from
mobile phone companies. His latest study seems to confirm and expand upon
his earlier findings.
"Our work has shown that there is an increase of 50% in damage to DNA when
it is exposed to mobile phone radiation," he said. Memory loss is another
He delivered his report to WTR in August. It has not been published. Last
week he revealed it was sent back to him twice with requests for
"They are asking me to change my whole interpretation of the findings in a
way that would make them more favourable to the mobile phone industry," he
said. "This is what happened in the tobacco industry. They had data in their
hands but when it was not favourable they did not want to disclose it."
WTR could not disagree more. Its chairman, Dr George Carlo, flatly denied
any attempt to manipulate Lai's findings.
"It is unequivocally untrue,"
he said. "The report was amateurish and unprofessional. We have had to try
to bring his report up to a level where it can be peer-reviewed and
Lai is not alone in his concerns. Professor Ross Adey, a biologist
specialising in radiation effects, has carried out two large studies on
animals for Motorola, one of the biggest mobile phone companies. He
discovered that microwave radiation had a physical effect on the animals,
although it did not necessarily cause brain damage.
"Motorola were not happy that there were any health effects," claimed Adey.
"Their line is that there are no effects." He said the research had been
transferred to another group.
According to Motorola, Adey has his wires crossed. "Our contract was not
with Adey personally but with the institute at which he worked. He left the
institute and so we were forced to reassess and sever our contract with
them," said Norman Sandler, head of corporate affairs for Motorola in
Illinois. "It has nothing to do with his past research. All research to date
has shown there is no evidence to support or substantiate any health risks
associated with mobile phone radiation."
That remains the industry's view in Britain, but the public are becoming
disillusioned. The entrepreneur Richard Branson has asked staff at his
Virgin Group to fit protective earpieces to their mobile phones after a
close friend, who was a heavy mobile phone user, died of a brain tumour.
A 27-year-old British woman, thought to be a senior executive with a mobile
phone company, is preparing to sue a phone company after suffering a brain
tumour. The woman, so far unnamed, used a mobile for more than an hour a day
for two or three years.
The mood is beginning to turn from one of surprise and scepticism to one of
suspicion. Next month an epidemiological study of cancer rates among 11,000
mobile phone users will be released. Though companies claim phones do not
heat up the brain, the temperature of the debate is rising fast.
Sir Richard Doll, the scientist who found the first strong evidence of a
link between smoking and cancer, remembers the problems well.
Though he does not draw similarities between his research into smoking and
the potential risks of mobile phones, he does believe the health effects of
radiation are worth studying.
"There is some suggestive evidence, which is difficult to dismiss, that
radiation emitted from power lines can have adverse effects on human health.
So it is imperative to establish whether or not there is a causal link," he
He was the proposer of a study launched last month by the National
Radiological Protection Board to establish whether mobile phone and
telecommunication radiation can cause cancer. Hundreds of telecommunication
engineers will have their health monitored. Doll believes radio masts
present a more likely risk than phones.
Research has linked radiation from the aerials - of which there are 8,000 in
Britain - to various health risks.
In public, the phone companies dismiss such concerns, but some of their less
obvious actions suggest they are worried. Six leading manufacturers have
taken out patents for phone components aimed at reducing health risks.
Several of these applications were made more than five years ago -
suggesting the companies have long considered there was at least a potential
Patents for microshields, which are designed to reduce the radiation
received by the mobile phone user's head, go back as far as 1993. Shields
are now available from independent companies. They do reduce radiation - the
question is whether that radiation is harmful.
Put simply, the case for the prosecution is that mobile phones emit low
levels of microwaves that may affect the brain in the way a microwave oven
cooks food, though at a much higher power.
Recent independent research has suggested an increase in cancer rates among
mice exposed to mobile phone radiation; another recorded memory loss in
humans; and a large epidemiological study showed an increase in fatigue and
headaches among people subjected to the frequency of radiation similar to
that used by mobile phones.
The industry denies the findings, claiming the research is flawed,
inaccurate and fails to reflect the everyday realities of how people use
As the war of words intensifies, at stake is an industry worth about £6
billion a year. More than 12m people now use mobile phones in the UK, and
the numbers are growing fast.
"It is impossible to predict how devastated the market would be if an
adverse health link were found," said Alan Lyons, a telecommunication
analyst at the City bank ABN Amro. "But the whole industry is adopting an
ostrich approach to whether or not there are any serious health risks."
Ringing the alarm
Mobile phones emit microwave radiation whenever calls are made. The
brain is made up of watery tissue good at absorbing microwave radiation.
Scientists believe there may be two main effects: 1. heating tissue 2.
altering cell membranes. Microwaves can make membranes more permeable to
potassium and calcium ions, which are important to cell functions. Changes
may cause damage.
A research project conducted by Dr Alan Preece at Bristol Royal Infirmary,
to be published next year, is expected
to show that exposure to mobile phone radiation affects short-term ability
to perform simple mental tasks.
Earlier this year, a study of 11,000 mobile phone users carried out by Dr
Kjell-Hansson Mild, at the National Institute of Working Life in Umea,
Sweden, suggested an increase in fatigue, headaches and skin irritation for
Phone companies also dispute a 1997 study by Dr Michael Repacholi at Royal
Adelaide Hospital in Australia, which recorded increased cancer rates in
mice exposed for an hour a day to electromagnetic fields of the kind emitted
by digital mobile phones.
Among the first indications of a risk was work conducted by Dr Henry Lai and
Dr Narendra Singh on rats in 1996 which found microwave radiation can split
DNA molecules. Breakages are linked with illness that include Alzheimer's
disease, Parkinson's and cancer.
Scientists say that cordless phones do not pose any health risks because
they use one fifth of the power of most mobile phones.
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