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Hold That Call
The Ecologist
Journalist: David Edwards
December 26, 2001

The mobile phone invasion is an unprecedented experiment, pitting market forces against the health of the population, particularly the young. Governments, cashing in on the licencing bonanza, wave through plans for a forest of phone masts. Emissions guidelines are drawn up to minimise costs. Here, The Ecologist looks at the issues, beginning with a damning report which, says David Edwards, points to evidence of a cover-up. It may be good to talk, but why isn’t anyone listening?

Imagine you’re the government of the UK. You’ve recently taken 22.5 billion in licences for the new 3G network from the biggest mobile phone companies in the world and they want value for money. You’ve got a burgeoning market amongst technologically aware, image conscious teenagers that skyrocketed 250 per cent over the previous year (the 25 per cent of secondary school children who owned or shared a mobile at the end of 1999, became 64 per cent by the end of 2000). But then there’s also an ever-growing number of scientific studies associating serious health risks with mobile phone use, especially amongst children and teenagers, whose thinner skulls make them all the more receptive to the non-thermal effects of mobile phone radiation. What do you do?

Well, according to Dr Gerard Hyland in a report submitted to the Industry, Trade, Research and Energy Committee of the European Parliament on 11 July 2001, you bury your head and take the money.

Pointing to an industry-inspired cover-up, Hyland describes how the voice of those with a view contrary to the officially perceived wisdom ‘is at worst silenced, or, at best, studiously ignored.’ The situation is worsened by reports of mobile phone industry attempts ‘to “persuade” those who discover findings that prove potentially damaging to market development to actually alter their results to make them more “market friendly”’.

Dr Hyland, of the Department of Physics at Warwick University in the UK and the International Institute of Biophysics in Germany, further argues that existing safety guidelines relating to mobile phone masts are completely inadequate, since they focus only on the thermal effects of exposure to electro-magnetic fields.

In the report he warns that a major contemporary threat to the health of society is man-made ‘electrosmog’. The nature of the pollution is such that, for people living in the vicinity of mobile phone masts, there is literally ‘nowhere to hide’. In addition, given the short time for which humans have been exposed to it, we have ‘no evolutionary immunity against any adverse effects’.

Hyland reports that existing safety guidelines which are intended to protect the public– such as those issued by the International Commission for Non-ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) – ‘afford no protection’ against non-thermal influences of various kinds.

‘Quite justifiably,’ Hyland writes, the public remains sceptical of attempts by governments and industry to reassure them that all is well, particularly given ‘the unethical way in which they often operate symbiotically so as to promote their own vested interests, usually under the brokerage of the very statutory regulatory bodies whose function it supposedly is to ensure that the security of the public is not compromised by electromagnetic exposure.’

Also doubtless driven by market imperatives rather than genuine concern for public health are efforts to establish a global ‘harmonisation’ of radiation exposure standards, by attempting to persuade countries that currently operate more stringent limits – such as Russia and China – to relax them in favour of the higher levels tolerated in the West. It can be no coincidence, Hyland argues, that in Russia, where the frequency-specific sensitivity of living organisms to ultra-low intensity microwave radiation was first discovered over 30 years ago, that the exposure guidelines are approximately 100 times more stringent that those of ICNIRP!

Criticising the performance of the media, Hyland argues that there is ‘a regrettable tendency to attribute market-friendly results a greater significance, publicity and profile than ones indicative of the possibility of adverse health impacts.’ An example of this is provided by the publication of the results of a recent study in the USA, which found an increased risk amongst users of mobile phones of a rare kind of tumour (epithelial neuroma) in the periphery of the brain – ‘precisely where there is maximum penetration of radiation from the mobile phone’.

This aspect of the report, Hyland argues, ‘completely escaped the attention of the media, who focused instead exclusively on the finding that there was no overall increase in the incidence of brain tumours amongst mobile phone users.’

Hyland argues that research necessary to establish mobile phone safety has not merely been bypassed or compromised, ‘but rather – and more reprehensibly – that already available indications that the technology is potentially less than safe have been (and continue to be) studiously ignored,’ not only by the mobile phone industry, but by national and international regulatory bodies.

Hyland gives as an example the conduct of the UK National Radiological Protection Board, which was ‘unable’ to provide the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) – for whom they were acting as the secretariat – with certain highly relevant published papers, on the grounds that they could not ‘find’ them, ‘despite having been provided --with the full references by at least two individuals who gave evidence to the IEGMP, and curiously having had no difficulty in providing less significant papers from the same issue of the journal.

According to Hyland: ’If the same level of uncertainty and debate as currently surrounds the safety of human exposure to GSM radiation obtained in the case of a new drug or foodstuff they would most certainly never be licenced.’

Among the evidence of adverse health affects studied by Hyland, is the following:

• There is consistent empirical, anecdotal evidence from many countries that the health of some people is adversely affected in various ways when they are exposed to the type of radiation emitted by mobile phone masts, despite its intensity being well below existing safety limits. The anecdotal nature of many of the reported health problems – such as headache, sleep disruption, impairment of short-term memory, nosebleeds and, more seriously, an increase in the frequency of seizures in some children already suffering from epilepsy – does not constitute grounds for dismissing them out of hand. Given the lack of research on this relatively new technology, such reports are an indispensable source
of information, Hyland argues.

• There is documented evidence that long-term (involuntary) exposure to microwave radiation of intensities between that realised near an active phone and that found in the vicinity of a base-station does causes serious illness, such as leukaemia and lymphoma, in certain exposed people. This is the conclusion reached by a relatively recent re-analysis of the Lilienfeld report on the Moscow US Embassy irradiation during the ‘cold’ war, based on information that only became fully available following the Freedom of Information Act. This reveals that the original verdict of ‘no serious health effects’ was, in fact, a sanitised version of Lilienfeld’s findings, in which his statements of concern had been deliberately removed by the State Department.

Furthermore, children, Hyland explains, are at greatest risk for several good reasons, including:

• Absorption of microwaves of the frequency used in mobile telephony is greatest in an object about the size of a child’s head – the so-called ‘head resonance’ – whilst, in consequence of the thinner skull of a child, the penetration of the radiation into the brain is greater than in an adult.

• The still developing nervous system and associated brain-wave activity in a child (and particularly one that is epileptic) are more vulnerable to aggression by the pulses of microwaves used in mobile phone radiation than is the case with a mature adult.

• A child’s immune system, whose efficiency is, in any case, degraded by radiation of the kind used in mobile telephony, is generally less robust than is that of an adult, so that the child less able to ‘cope’ with any adverse health effect provoked by (chronic) exposure to such radiation.

Asking the question again: If you were the UK government, what would you do?

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