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Why No Wiser About Mobile Risks?
The march of phone transmitter masts is proving unstoppable. Matthew Wall raises concerns over the widespread ignorance about health effects of radiation
Walk down a busy high street and count the mobile phones and internet hot spots. Four years ago, there were 5m mobile phones in the UK; today, there are more than 50m. That adds up to a tidal wave of radio traffic. We all want to stay in touch, but the price of taking calls is becoming too high for many. Health and environmental concerns have sparked a war of words between campaigners and an industry that profits every time you tell your loved ones you are on a train.
Mobile-phone masts and base stations are springing up like virulent fungi — 50,000 of the eyesores will be dotted round Britain by 2007. Although nobody should underplay the benefits of the cordless revolution, the question remains: how safe is wireless technology? Here, the jury is out. On the one hand are the anti-mast campaigners who are convinced that radio frequency (RF) radiation from transmitters can pose a serious threat; they want to see new masts sited away from schools, hospitals and houses.
Lisa Oldham, director and founder of Mast Sanity (www.mastsanity.org), one of the UK’s largest groups campaigning against mobile-phone masts, says: “We’ve found all sorts of cancer clusters around masts — leukaemia, Hodgkin’s, breast cancer — as well as reports of dizziness, headaches and nosebleeds. The scientists say there is no conclusive evidence, but there is no such thing as conclusive evidence. What did they used to say about asbestos, or smoking?”
The communications industry, on the other hand, is desperate to dismiss such health fears as irrational, scaremongering nonsense. It simply cannot afford bad news after it paid the government an unprecedented £22.5 billion on licences for the third-generation (3G) spectrum. Forecasts see the UK mobile-phone market doubling between 2003 and 2007, from £864m to £1.6 billion. Health scares would be distinctly bad for business.
A recent study in the Netherlands, by the reputable Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, suggested a correlation between masts, 3G signals and poor health, although no ill effects were observed on older GSM networks. However, one report makes little impact on the debate, and government experts remain unsure of the potential risks.
In January this year, the UK’s Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation, working under the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB, www.nrpb.org), produced an update to the government-backed Stewart report on mobiles in 2000. The update, Health Effects from Radio Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, concluded that much of the research so far had been inadequate both in scope and methodology.
It stated: “The weight of evidence now available does not suggest that there are adverse health effects from exposure to RF fields below guideline levels, but the published research on RF exposures and health has limitations, and mobile phones have been in use for only a relatively short time. The possibility therefore remains open that there could be health effects from exposure to RF fields below guideline SAR (specific absorption rate) levels.”
Put simply: we don’t know how safe phone masts are. Some scientists claim there is far too much room for the industry to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. Don Maisch, an Australian researcher in electromagnetic fields, believes the communications industry glosses over potentially adverse health effects, reporting research selectively and restricting funding in case the results prove commercially damaging. “The cellphone industry has learnt from the tobacco wars that if you want to put off the day of judgment, you have to control the science,” he says.
The issue that angers campaigners most is the ease with which service providers are able to site masts, with little or no planning permission, and often close to schools. The Mobile Operators Association (MOA), which represents the mobile-network operators, says that for masts under 15 metres — the height of a five-storey building — they have only to submit a notification to the local authority. Unless they hear objections, they can then go ahead. For masts above 15 metres, full planning permission has to be obtained.
Even so, telecoms operators are virtually unstoppable. Local councils’ hands were tied by the Labour government when it granted operators legal rights to use public-highway land for telecoms development. The government’s 2001 guidance to councils states: “The planning system is not the place for determining health safeguards. If a proposed development meets the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection guidelines for public exposure, it should not be necessary for a local planning authority to consider further the health aspects and concerns about them.” Final decisions are therefore made by laymen in local government, who have been told to ignore the scientific issues.
Paul Miner, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has called for far tighter controls: “Mobile operators continue to be able to put up many new masts without having to apply for planning permission. This means that locals and the council might object to an inappropriate mast proposal, but the mast will go up regardless.”
Many communities, especially those near schools, feel powerless to stop the march of the masts. “We are swamped with people protesting and worrying about the effects on children,” Lisa Oldham says. “There are hundreds of groups around the country trying to stop new masts being erected and get existing masts taken down.”
The campaigners, however, face a stony-faced industry with the law on its side. The MOA said: “There is no policy regarding the siting of masts near schools, other than the requirement to consult with them. But the consultee has no right of veto.”
Not surprisingly, the All-Party Parliamentary Mobile Group, in its report into the siting of masts earlier this year, highlighted a “lack of trust” between communities, government, the communications industry and local authorities. The MOA says tighter controls would simply slow the roll-out of essential communications technology and blames local authorities for not liaising enough with the industry.
Resistance to mobile communications does not stop with masts. The argument surrounding the health implications of radiation from handsets rages unabated, as spasmodic scientific studies continue to raise alarm. One recent Hungarian study suggested that mobile phones kept in trouser pockets could reduce male sperm count; another, from Sweden, suggested that RF radiation could damage red blood cells.
So where does the truth lie? In 1999, the government-backed Independent Experts Group on Mobile Phones (www.iegmp.org.uk), chaired by Sir William Stewart, a former chief scientist under the Tories, reviewed scientific evidence on RF radiation. It found no compelling evidence that mobile phones were harmful, but, given the paucity of research, Stewart advised a precautionary approach.
Children, in particular, could be more vulnerable to radiation from handsets because their nervous systems are still developing; their tissues, too, may absorb more radiation than adults. Stewart recommended that children under 16 should restrict mobile-phone use to essential calls and keep call lengths to a minimum, a view endorsed by the British Medical Association (www.bma.org) and the Department of Health (www.dh.gov.uk).
The debate over handset emissions has moved on to a phone’s SAR value, a measurement of the emissions given out every time you make or take a call. Under EU guidelines, mobiles cannot be sold unless they have an SAR value of less than two watts per kilogram of body weight. The table of bestselling phones (above right) shows that they all comply, though all emit more radiation than the UK’s safest. The message is that you could be wise to select a phone with a low emission rate.
Professor Lawrie Challis, chairman of the Mobile Telecommunications Health Research Programme (www.mthr.org.uk), an independent organisation funding research into RF radiation, nevertheless warns: “With an event like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, you’re likely to see the effects after five or six years. With mobile phones, you might not see the effects for 20 years. Yet most of us in the UK have been using them for only six or seven years. So we have to be cautious and continue doing research.”
This is not the path followed by the mobile-phone industry. Motorola’s international website (www.motorola.com) blithely states: “There is no scientific basis to restrict the use of mobile phones by children, and this remains a matter open for parental choice.” On the site of the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF, www.mmfai.org), the global association that counts Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung among its members, the “Research” link reveals a disappointingly brief, selective round-up of research findings. In mobile land, it seems all is rosy.
Such an apparently cavalier stance angers leading scientists. Stewart and Challis have criticised mobile-phone manufacturers for not giving clearer information about the radiation-emission levels of their phones. Challis says: “When I wanted to buy a low-exposure phone, the chap in the shop knew nothing about SAR, and there was nothing on the box. Eventually, I found the SAR value on page 68 of the instruction booklet. Industry and government must be more honest with the public.” At least the MMF website now lists SAR values for its members’ mobile phones, which is a step in the right direction.
The number of mobiles, networks and cordless home phones is growing so fast that the World Health Organisation (www.who.int) actually wonders whether meaningful health-impact studies are still possible. So many competing radiation sources are sited close to each other that pinpointing any risk is problematic.
Given all that we do know about emissions — and all that we don’t — one question cries out: Are we all guinea pigs in some global multibillion-pound commercial experiment? When I put this question to Dr Michael Clark, science spokesman for the NRPB, he replied: “In a way, yes we are.” Scary.