Doctors spend a lot of time on their smartphones and tablets, not just to talk to colleagues, but to look up drug reference data bases, and check e-mails.
But should these essential communication tools carry a health warning? It is a question that has remained unanswered for over a decade as scientists dispute findings and argue about safe levels of electromagnetic radiation – microwaves that are emitted by mobile phones and other wireless devices.
This question now needs to be answered urgently, according to experts who believe that mobile phone emissions could harm the human body, especially the brain. A study published online in the British Medical Journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, showed that heavy users of mobile phones over a period of time had a three-fold risk of developing brain tumours compared to non-users. And brain tumours are now the number one cause of cancer death in young people.
‘There are concerns that mobile phones could be linked to rising levels of brain cancer, leukaemia in children, and could even be contributing to the increase in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,’ explains Dr Andrew Tressider, GP Patient Safety Lead at NHS Somerset, a GP Appraiser and teacher of medical students, who is also a trustee of Electrosensitivity UK. However, there is a growing concern that this is an inconvenient truth which is being ignored.
So why has it taken so long to get a definitive answer about mobile phones – one way or the other? The fact is that scientists can’t agree about the evidence. In Sweden, scientists looked at the results of 11 studies involving people who had used mobiles for more than a decade and found they were 20 per cent more likely to develop a benign tumour in the inner ear, and 30 per cent more likely to develop a type of brain tumour known as a malignant glioma, however these results have been disputed by the industry.
Even a major study which was reported in 2010, the Interphone study, showed a difference of opinion. On the one hand, it showed that there was a statistically significant risk of developing certain brain cancers among people who were heavy users of mobile phones for at least 10 years (half an hour a day, which seems very light usage now). But some of the researchers themselves dismissed this finding, preferring to emphasize that moderate users had no extra risk.
So what are the facts? Mobile phones emit microwaves, a kind of electromagnetic radiation. These fields are very strong compared with naturally occurring background microwave levels. (actually trillions of times higher) and they could have a cumulative effect over a long period of time, particularly on the brain which is very close to the handset when you hold the phone to your ear. Unlike from microwave ovens, microwaves from phones don’t cause tissue to heat up, but they do create biological effects. There is evidence from the EU REFLEX project and others that shows the radiation changes the structure of cells causing for example double strand DNA breaks
A study in the 1970s showed that weak amplitude modulated radio waves, where the strength of the signal rises and falls at low frequencies, could remove calcium from brain cell membranes. This made it more likely that the cells would rupture and leak. And it may not just be brain tumours which are implicated. In 2007, a group of 25 international scientists — known as the BioInitiative Working Group —also expressed concern about a possible raised risk of breast cancer, changes to genes, and inflammation in the blood vessels associated with conditions such as heart disease.
And male fertility may also be affected by mobile phone signals. Both laboratory and clinical studies have demonstrated alterations in fertility, motility,and morphology in sperm exposed to Electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones.
Everyone agrees that there is no way to turn the clock back and ban mobile phones. Mobiles have become must-have items because they allow people to stay in touch wherever they are and are a central part of the digital revolution. Smart phones and apps have turned them into entertainment consoles, virtual shopping assistants and even heart rate monitors.
According to one UK poll, half of us actually start to panic if we can’t locate our phone, an anxiety disorder known as nomophobia. Studies looking at the effects on adults are also ongoing. The COSMOS study, the UK arm of which is jointly funded by the telecoms industry and Government and also led by Imperial College London, is currently following the health of 290,000 adult mobile phone users for 20-30 years to address the knowledge gap in possible long term health effects of mobile phone use. Some experts worry that this study will not reveal any statistically significant results because brain tumours are rare – In 2010, the lifetime risk of developing a brain and other central nervous system tumours in the UK was 1 in 77 for both men and women, or 8.8 per 100,000 people. (2007). And it will take so long to get results that it is almost akin to a delaying tactic. Retrospective studies like the previously completed case controlled Interphone and Hardell studies have shown an increase in brain tumour risk which is particularly high for children.(A five-fold increased risk).
So far, the link to cancer has been worrying enough for the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research into Cancer to classify radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans in 2011.Official figures don’t show a steep rise in the number of patients with brain tumours, but this may be because the upwards curve is still relatively flat or because brain cancer is underreported, according to NICE. Around 8,600 primary brain tumours are registered in the UK every year, although this is thought to be an under-estimate. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) report that “almost half of intracranial tumours are not recorded by cancer registries” and research by the charities has suggested that the true number is closer to 16,000. Secondary tumours in the brain are not recorded, but estimates put these as high as 32,000.
Dr Tressler says that the best policy is to assume possible harm, not the opposite, since damage done now can’t be undone if the concerns now are proved to be a hard fact. Current UK health policy guidelines advise that children under 16 should be encouraged to use mobile phones for essential purposes only, where possible use a hands-free kit or text and, if calls are really necessary, to keep them short. Microwaves that come out of mobile phones have to be set at a maximum level by law – essentially to ensure that they don’t cause damage to tissue. But the UK maximum is among the highest in the world, which causes concern to many scientists who think it is too high and doesn’t take account of the huge rise in the usage of these devices. For example, heavy use of mobile phones was defined as half an hour a day back when a major international study called Interphone published its results in 2010. ‘Now, that seems like very light usage to most people who may spend hours each day on their device,’ says Dr Tressler.
There are ways to reduce your exposure to this radiation. Most important is to use a lead instead of putting the handset to your head. And pick you mobile phone wisely. Exposure to radiation, shown as Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) levels, varies widely in different models. It can be hard to find this information on phone packaging in the UK. In Germany, where the issue is already taken extremely seriously, an easily accessible list of phones and radiation exposures is published in Germany, where low-radiation models, defined as having SAR of 0.6 or under, are encouraged. Microwaves do have a physiological effect at a cellular level. GP Dr Andrew Tresidder believes that the microwaves can cause immediate physiological problems in susceptible people. ‘Electrical devices, like mobile phones and wireless phones, emit electrical fields and magnetic fields. Because these fields are invisible and cannot usually be felt, it is easy to ignore them, and to assume (wrongly) that they are not relevant to health. The human body is composed of physical organs, blood, bone, muscles, nerves and so on – but it also consists of invisible energy fields permeating this physical body.’
Around one in three people already do suffer from a syndrome called electromagnetic sensitivity, including Dr Tressider, who says that symptoms include headaches, tiredness, heart palpitations and muscle pain. There is also emerging evidence that these fields could interefere with sleep patterns, even they are below safe maximum levels. Dr Sarah Loughran, a research fellow at the University of Wollongong specialising in bioelectromagnetics, says: “Indeed, accumulating evidence suggests that pulse-modulated RF EMF may alter brain physiology. Exposure-related increases in alpha power during waking and the spindle frequency range during sleep have now been consistently shown.”
Sarah Williams, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, takes an optimistic view – for now – but also hopes that research will continue: “Overall, the balance of evidence shows that it is unlikely that using a mobile phone causes brain tumours or other types of cancer. But there isn’t enough good evidence to completely rule out any risk, so it’s sensible to continue to monitor brain tumour rates and to do more high-quality research to be sure, particularly among people who use their phone a great deal.”