Journalist: Blaine Greteman
February 24, 2003
This is the largest biological experiment in
the history of the world," shouts Leif Salford, an unusually animated
neurosurgeon at Lund University, in Sweden. Salford's not talking about his
own work. He's talking about the 1.3 billion people around the world who
regularly chat away on their mobile phones, "freely pressing radiological
devices to their brains."
Salford's own research involves much smaller samples — of mice, not men —
but it is raising big questions about the safety of human mobile-phone use.
In a paper that will be published in April by the U.S. journal of the
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Salford's research team
suggests that even tiny levels of radiation from standard European mobiles
may cause neuron damage in the brain.
Since 1992, when David Reynard filed suit in Florida against the
mobile-phone industry for causing the tumor that killed his wife, American
trial lawyers have been dialing for dollars, convinced that mobile phones
could be the next tobacco. But unlike tobacco lawsuits, which have cost the
industry over $200 billion, Reynard's suit and the host of others that
followed were thrown out due to a lack of scientific evidence that mobile
phones cause cancer.
Indeed, after a large study last year at Adelaide's Institute of Medical and
Veterinary Science showed no increased cancer risk — contradicting a damning
earlier study from the Royal Adelaide Hospital — the industry breathed a
billion-dollar sigh of relief. "It may be reasonable to ask if we are like
tobacco," says Michael Milligan, secretary-general of the European
industry's representative group, the Mobile Manu- facturers Forum. "But the
most important thing for us is that while the World Health Organization has
always been very strongly against the tobacco industry, they've been very
involved with mobile phones and their view is very balanced: there are no
established health effects."
Yet Professor Salford's work may soon have lawyers heading back to court.
Unlike most studies done so far, Salford and his team at Lund did not focus
on cancer, but on the blood brain barrier (BBB) that protects the brain from
the chemicals, toxins and proteins that circulate in our blood. Over 25
years ago, notes Louis Slesin, editor of New York-based Microwave News, U.S.
army and government scientists showed that microwaves from sources other
than phones could open up the BBB. "This stuff sticks out like a sore
thumb," says Slesin, "but nobody in the mobile-phone industry has wanted to
They may no longer have a choice. With a series of studies beginning in
1992, the Lund group has shown that in laboratory rats, at least,
mobile-phone radiation opens up this barrier so molecules of the blood
protein albumin — which should be far too large to penetrate — can seep
through. These results have recently been duplicated in another laboratory,
and their latest study shows for the first time that when the bbb is
breached by albumin, the excitable brain cells that allow us to think, talk
and dial mobile phones — namely neurons — may die.
Many health-conscious consumers already shop around for the lowest-radiation
phones. But they'll get little consolation from the Lund study: the neurons
of rats died even when radiation levels were 1,000 times smaller than the
current E.U.-allowed level, although the rats were only exposed for two
hours. "It's a damned small little thing," says Salford. "These levels
easily exist inside the brain of a human when he has the antenna next to his
Or maybe even when he doesn't. The group has shown albumin leakage at powers
as low as 0.5 milliwatts — a level that exists as far as 1.8 m away from a
mobile phone's antenna. "Passive mobile phoning, like passive smoking, may
also soon be an issue," notes Salford. An even bigger issue may be the
increasing use of wireless technology in everyday devices like
refrigerators, ovens and computers. These gadgets are expected to provide
manufacturers with much of their growth as mobile-phone use reaches its
saturation point; but they will also create a cocoon of microwave radiation
around our daily lives.
For the time being, though, the findings are probably most worrying for
parents of the 80% of European teenagers who use mobile phones. The Lund
research team used young rats (12 to 26 weeks of age), because their
developing brains and thinner, smaller skulls are comparable to those of the
teenagers for whom phones are a must-have accessory. "Just don't give them
to children," says Salford, affirming a message delivered in 2000 by the
U.K.'s Stewart Commission on the health effects of mobile phones. So far,
however, such warnings have largely been ignored by the young users who send
billions of text messages every month and who feed a thriving industry that
pitches everything from mobile games to cartoon-themed phone covers to
Phone makers say they're trying to take a responsible approach to these
concerns, rather than simply denying them, a la big tobacco. "We were
established to contribute to research on just these kinds of issues," notes
Milligan, who says it's important to test this preliminary research to
confirm or disprove it.
Salford agrees, and is careful to emphasize that he thinks mobiles have
saved far more lives than they'll ever cost. But when he speaks on his own
phone, he uses a headset and places the handset as far away as possible.
And, just before hanging up, he adds, "I also keep my conversations very
short!" Until research settles the issue of mobile phones and health more
definitively, that may still be the safest call.
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