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Hidden Menace Of Radiation
The Times
Journalist: Nigel Powell
February 26, 2001

Every time you pick up a mobile phone, switch on a television or walk past an electricity pylon, you are exposed to electro-magnetic radiation.

Although EMR is naturally occurring, our increasing dependence on technology is worrying some scientists, who fear that it may be damaging our health.

EMR comes in many types. One end of the spectrum — visible light — is harmless, but, as the frequency decreases, EMR has the potential to become much nastier as non-ionising radiation. It is our increasing exposure to this radiation that is prompting scientists and campaigners worldwide to demand more research into the possible health risks.

The best known example of this is the debate over the safety of mobile phone use, and the placement of transmission masts. Kent County Council recently banned the erection of further mobile phone masts in its area because of the health worries of residents.

The research being undertaken covers three main areas: epidemiological (possible causes of diseases in human populations); biological studies, which look at strictly controlled results of exposure in laboratory conditions; and the anecdotal, which reviews reports from individuals who have been affected directly.

The earliest scientific studies focused on the potentially detrimental effects of electro-magnetic radiation on the body. It was found that EMR above a certain strength could cause human tissue to heat up.

Current safety guidelines are based on this data, but modern research suggests that the effects could be more far-reaching. Symptoms include sleep disorders, subtle yet important changes in the blood-brain barrier — which protects the brain from toxins — and detrimental effects on the immune system and short-term memory.

Despite the research, however, there is no definite proof to link ill health with exposure to electro-magnetic radiation.

Unlike the proven link between smoking and lung cancer — typically, smokers are ten times more likely to fall ill or develop the cancer than non-smokers — the correlation between EMR and ill health has not been quantified sufficiently.

Critics say that in order for the research to be more acceptable there should be some precisely defined explanation of how EMF causes ill health and that such a link should be further substantiated by studies from other researchers.

To date, the sceptics claim that neither of those criteria has been met properly.

In spite of the impasse, all parties to the debate are agreed on one thing: more research is required to reach a definite conclusion.

In the interim, campaigners are fighting to drive down exposure levels worldwide. Some are particularly worried about the potential effects on children and pregnant women.

Cindy Sage, an American environmental consultant and policy researcher, says: “One thing that worries me more than anything right now is the move towards installing wireless computer networks into schools.

“ This has the potential to increase children’s exposure to harmful radiation by a hundredfold. We urgently need a proper public debate before it’s too late.”

Other environmentalists also believe that not enough is being done to guide the public and that safety guidelines should be set even lower immediately.

Worries over the future
Many forecasters say that in the next five to ten years, much of the world will undergo a mainstream adoption of wireless technology.

An explosion of mobile phone use, the advent of third generation (3G) systems now being built, and the installation of millions of wireless computer networks in offices and homes will greatly add to the amount of radiation to which people will be exposed every day.

The 3G cellular network, for instance, will need four times the number of transmitter masts required by the current mobile phone system. Each of these technologies will use microwave and radio frequency radiation in one form or another, from handsets to transmitters and base stations.

Some scientists believe that this exponential increase in the radiation “soup” may result in a corresponding rise in dangers to our health.

“We don’t know enough about the real effects of electromagnetic radiation yet,” says Professor Henry Lai, of the University of Washington in the Seattle.

“I have a list of about 600 research papers from the past ten years alone, 70 per cent of which show definite effects from exposure to this kind of radiation, but the industry continues to say that there is nothing to worry about.”

Lack of research funding
Scientists who are studying the effects of EMR are hampered by the lack of funding for the long-term studies that are needed to prove definitive links between EMR and cancers or other illnesses.

“Obtaining funding is now almost impossible because of other areas which are considered more important,” says Professor Eugene Sobel, of the University of Southern California School of Medicine.

“This is despite the fact that we seem to have stumbled on evidence that EMF exposure leads to an increased risk of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”

Sobel’s work, along with that of other scientists in the field, suggests that prolonged exposure may lead to a disturbance in the body’s absorption of calcium, which in turn could upset our melatonin balance, which is a key aspect of the body’s health mechanism and is the regulator of our body clocks.

He also believes that the telecom industry’s reluctance to acknowledge a problem is no different from the attitude adopted by any industry when it feels threatened by potentially damaging research.

“It is also easier to demand more definitive proof where there is a huge financial loss at stake,” says Sobel.

What are we paying for progress?
As we all become more high-tech, debate rages as to whether we are putting our health at serious risk

There is a range of medical problems which some people believe can be attributed to excessive exposure to electro-magnetic fields, or EMF radiation, Nigel Powell writes. For the past three years Robert Vanechaute has suffered from such excruciating headaches that he is sometimes forced to his knees by the pain, in addition to recurring panic attacks and a constant ringing in the ears.

Alan Davis, a former telecoms engineer, has not had a good night’s sleep in more than five years and has difficulty concentrating or remembering his words in the middle of a sentence.

Vanechaute attributes his problems to the 50-60 hours a month he spent using his mobile phone in the late 1990s. For Davis, working on high-power transmission masts was all in a day’s work until he found he was making potentially dangerous mistakes on the job — a consequence, he believes, of the levels of radio frequency radiation to which he has been exposed.

All over the world, law suits are being filed against cellular operators over brain tumours allegedly caused by mobile phone usage. There have also been reports of large clusters of people developing leukaemia and other cancers while living close to microwave transmission masts. In 1999, an investigation headed by Professor Gordon Stewart of Glasgow University reported that people living near to powerful television transmitters were up to 33 per cent more likely to suffer from cancer than those who lived further away.

A direct link between disease and EMF radiation has yet to be proved conclusively, but Davis is in no doubt. “I have a list of 70 names of people who have worked in the industry who have suffered illness after exposure to this type of radiation,” he says.

“It all boils down to the fact that there’s a huge amount of money riding on the back of the telecommunications revolution which takes no account of people like us.”

The jury is still out
Every electrical appliance has a differing strength of magnetic field which surrounds it when working. Equipment such as televisions and computer monitors emit radiation as a normal part of their function. A typical background magnetic field in your home is probably about 0.9milligauss (mG), and the International Commission on Non Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has suggested that people should not be exposed to more than 10,000mG of magnetic fields for more than a few hours a day. There is no guarantee that these are “safe” levels, and some researchers are calling for mG levels to be set dramatically lower.

Power and microwave transmission equipment
High-power transmission equipment and some heavy industrial equipment can have much stronger electro-magnetic fields than domestic appliances. There have been several studies linking these fields with ill health, in particular cancers and disruption in biological functions of the body caused by prolonged exposure in the workplace, or through proximity to power masts or pylons. They have been associated with childhood leukaemia. Other effects, such as increased risks of the onset of Alzeimer’s disease, have also been noted.

Some scientists believe that one reason for the increased risk may be the ionising effect of the equipment’s electro-magnetic fields on carcinogenic pollutants in the surrounding air, causing it to stick to the lungs when inhaled.

Mobile phones
Mobile phones are low-power radio devices that transmit and receive microwave radiation at frequencies between 900MHz and 1800MHz. Although public safety guidelines originally revolved around a possible “tissue heating” effect of this microwave radiation while the phone was in use, research now appears to show additional and significant effects arising from exposure to the radiation emitted by mobile phone masts. These include direct DNA damage in human cells, increases in lymphoma cancer rates, and decreases in the cognitive function.

The British Government has agreed a 7 million study in response to a report by the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones which suggested that the “gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach”. The report recommended that safety guidelines for handset radiation be lowered considerably.

Risk is minimal, say government medics
Despite the growing concerns surrounding electro-magnetic fields, many doctors and scientists still do not believe that there is a significant risk to our wellbeing, writes Nigel Powell.

The Department of Health, for example, has confirmed merely that the Government is “responding fully” to the Stewart Group report published last year, but is taking no further action.

The report — from a party of independent experts on mobile phones — concluded that there was no evidence that radio frequency radiation exposure had adverse health effects on the general population, although it did go on to recommend that children be discouraged from using mobile phones until more research had been undertaken.

Dr Michael Clark, of the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) — the organisation responsible for setting public safety guidelines in relation to EMR in the UK — is confident that there is no overall danger to health from electro-magnetic fields, especially in relation to power line masts.

“Over the past 20 years the scientific consensus, based on many large studies of people’s health, has been that there is no risk from electricity in the home or from power lines near homes, except for a weak association with childhood leukaemia seen in some studies,” says Dr Clark. “The evidence for this seems to be sporadic, and the number of cases is small. There could be something else causing the effect rather than the power line.”

What research has found
Dr Allen Frey, technical director with Randomline, a US research company, noted that the permeability of the blood-brain barrier — which protects the brain from toxins, bacteria and viruses was significantly increased after exposure to pulsed microwaves. These findings have since been replicated in several different studies around the world.

1994 Drs Henry Lai and N.P Singh, of the University of Washington, found both single and double-strand breaks in DNA after test exposures to cellular phone frequency microwaves.

1997 Dr Michael Repacholi, in an Australian research project funded by Telstra, the telecommunications company, found a significant increase in B-cell lymphomas (found in most cancers) in test animals after long-term exposure to microwave frequencies similar to those from cell phones and microwave transmitter towers.

2000-2001 Two recent studies from Dr Peter Inskip of America and Joshua Muscat, a research scientist at the American Health Foundation in New York City, have made headline news by reporting no link between the use of mobile phones and cancer. Both studies were conducted over several years.

2001 C. Johansen and J. H. Olsen, Institute of Cancer Epidemiology, Danish Cancer Society, have just released a study that appears to show no association between the use of cellular telephones and tumours of the brain or salivary gland, leukemia or other cancers.

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