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The jury is still out on the question of whether mobile phones damage your health, but the wired generation is taking no risks. Devices that protect against potentially harmful side effects have become hot accessories. DAVID FLYNN reports.
Can I call you on your mobile? Yes, indeed. With a cellular phone strapped to your belt, stashed in your handbag or mounted in your car, there's almost no escape - from family and friends, colleagues and clients, even the kids' school secretary. And well-connected users wouldn't have it any other way.
One in three Australians owns or uses a cellular phone and that number is set to soar as mobiles become more affordable and their role in business and personal life becomes more appealing.
But are you dialling a direct line to everything from headaches to cancer? The same pulses of near-microwave radiation that connect your mobile phone to nearby base stations and then into the land-locked phone network are also coursing through your body when you make or receive a call.
While the amount of power coming from the phone's antenna is quite low, its proximity to the user's face is raising concerns that prolonged exposure to the electro-magnetic radiation could lead to harmful side effects.
People speak of headaches, earaches, a burning sensation at the temple, sore and watery eyes, blurred vision and even toothaches.
Some scientists cite local and overseas reports on the potential long-term dangers of intense radio frequency (RF) radiation to the human body, ranging from abnormal cell growth to chromosome damage.
The results of research undertaken so far are disputed. As the trade journal Microwave News puts it: "Almost all health studies on cellular phones are sponsored by the cellular industry."
It's the new smoking-causes-cancer scare for our increasingly wired generation. There are consultants, advertising campaigns, PR spin doctors, scientific studies, claims and counter-claims, law suits, "cover ups" exposed in TV documentaries and current affairs programs, plus enough hints of a conspiracy theory to please any addict of The X-Files.
About the only thing that's certain is a public perception that signals emitted by mobile phones may be damaging. On that basis, an industry has sprung up to help phone owners minimise possible risks.
The hottest accessory is the personal hands-free kit, which allows people to make and take calls on their cellular phone while it remains well away from the head. The standard personal kit uses a single cable running from a plug in the bottom panel of a mobile phone to an earpiece. It looks like half a Walkman. Halfway along the thin black cord is a tiny microphone that either is clipped to the shirt collar or hangs loose. If you look hard enough you can also find a few variants on this theme, such as NASA-like units with a swivelling boom microphone. The result is that you can wear your phone at the waist, keep it on a desk or on the passenger seat in the car - anywhere but next to your thinking gear - during a conversation.
Mobile phone manufacturers now offer personal hands-free kits, priced at about $100 each, for all their models. You can opt for a less expensive but still compatible kit from an accessory line such as Cellnet, but call your mobile phone service hotline and consult your dealer before you buy to ensure there is no risk to your phone's warranty if a related problem occurs.
While these kits keep the phone away from your head, they may not minimise emissions from the phone's antenna or body, so radiation shields are also being manufactured for concerned users.
"If you are concerned about exposure to RF energy, there are things you can do to minimise exposure," advises Motorola, in the handbook for one of its cellular phones. "Obviously, limiting the duration of your calls will reduce your exposure to RF energy."
A German mobile manufacturer, Hagenuk Telecom, has taken the more extraordinary step of releasing a "low-radiation" model.
"Independent research carried out around the world concludes that cellular phones may be linked with everything from headaches to cancer," says Joseph Pirzada, director of Microshield Australia and importer of a leather case claimed to "reduce harmful radiation by up to 90 per cent".
"We know there's a problem; we know mobile phones are causing the problem. The difficulty is that we cannot find the mechanism causing the problem," says Pirzada. "What is it about cellular phone signals that triggers these symptoms? I mean, there's still no substantiated evidence that tobacco smoking causes cancer, and cigarettes have been around for a lot longer than mobile phones."
Yet the risks are non-existent, according to Danielle Meere, marketing services manager for Nokia Mobile Phones. "Like any new technology, there is a period where people ask questions about the product. But all scientific research to date shows no evidence that electromagnetic fields emitted from mobile phones have any effect on human health," she says.
Nor are customers being deterred, says Paula Callenbach, Ericsson's general manager of marketing. "Given the continued growth of mobile phones in this country and around the world, it would seem to suggest that people's enthusiasm towards mobile phones has not been dampened as a result of the issue of radiation," she says.
Pirzada believes the situation would be rectified if substantial research funding was available. "Look at the billions of dollars spent on investigating smoking-related diseases. Our Government is putting aside a measly $4.5 million for radiation research and that's to cover the frequency spectrum, not just mobile phones. It won't even scratch the surface. The European Commission is spending 12 million pounds [$25 million] to study radiation, but this project won't begin until 1999 and won't end until 2004."
The largest Australian study to date, conducted at Adelaide Hospital, found that mice subjected to cellular radiation for one hour a day, at strengths equal to those of mobile phones, developed lymphomas after 18 months. Critics say the experiment was flawed because it exposed the entire body of the mouse to radiation, whereas any radiation from mobile phones is localised in one body part; and the mice themselves had been bred to be predisposed to developing lymphomas.
Dr Peter French, chief scientific officer at the Centre for Immunology attached to Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital, has conducted his own research by doping cells with near-microwave radiation. The cells changed shape and their ability to receive instructions from genes was hampered, although Dr French stresses that this laboratory research does not necessarily translate to the human body and it was "far too early to indicate they would cause cancer".
So how worried are mobile phone users? Steve Smith, a Melbourne-based sales director, admits that his girlfriend is more concerned than he is.
"I'm on the phone all day. I probably make and receive five calls an hour and am in Sydney three days a week at the moment, so it's a tool I have to use. But I haven't experienced any side effects and I don't do anything to lower the risk," he says.
Kathie Tidemann, an advertising executive from Bondi, holds an entirely contrary view: "Mobile phones? I hate them with a passion, but they are a necessary evil in my line of work. I can feel the heat on the phone after using it for long periods and that does concern me, but I am disillusioned with anti-radiation devices. So I use the phone as little as possible ... and try to keep the calls short. I have a hands-free kit and I use a normal phone to access my voicemail."
"It's true that if you're on a long call you get a hot ear," agrees Dianne Hood, a technical manager from Potts Point, who uses her phone on average three times a day. "I have also had staff report headaches when they have to use them a lot, particularly on older analog phones. I think the issue is unproven, but it does have a certain validity so I guess I'm neutral."
Human resources manager Geoff Court, of Springwood, admits to hearing about mobile phone radiation. But he doesn't worry about it because he uses his mobile only a few times a day. "Most of my calls don't last more than two minutes," Court says, "and I'd only be concerned about it if I was on the phone for significantly longer periods."
Many companies, aware of their health and safety responsibilities, are also investing in anti-radiation products to safeguard those staff who use mobile phones during the normal course of their work.
For example, the phone-wearing sales staff at City Ford's Surry Hills showroom employ a mix of two devices, the Microshield case and EarZY shield, both supplied by their employer.