Mobile phone "radiation" - still no evidence of harm to humans

by Guy Kewney | posted on 15 January 2004

It has been four years since the last Government-sponsored investigation into the "dangers of mobile phones." Plenty of research is still going on, but the British National Radiological Protection Board was concerned to assess what has been discovered in the meanwhile. The answer seems to be: Nothing

Guy Kewney

This week's report, known as the AGNIR survey - Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation - ignored psychological issues (like the effect of phone use while driving, or the public anxieties about masts in public places) and simply looked at whether people have got ill - data from epidemiological and biological studies, carried out since the Stewart report, which reported in 2000 to the Minister, Tessa Jowell.

In other words, it has looked to see if anybody has found any sign that phones harm people, and specifically, to see if cancer can be attributed to the use of high frequency radio.

Opponents of phone masts will be able to cling to some crumbs of comfort in the report, headed by Professor Tony Swerdlow of the Institute for Cancer Research, because it doesn't go so far as to say that it phone radiation is proven safe, and it lists several ongoing research projects which won't report conclusively for a year or two, and which, conceivably, might come up with a smoking gun.

But if you ignore the theory, and just concentrate on "have researchers found anything yet?" the answer is "No."

What is mobile phone radiation in the dock for? Several things: it's been suggested cellphones cause cancer, that they make users forgetful, or make study difficult, and that the real problem is the effect of the base stations. It's also been suggested the very young may be more vulnerable.

But there's no evidence to support any of this. Professor Swerdlow's group summarised: "Studies reviewed by the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones" (back in 2000, the Stewart Committee report) "suggested possible cognitive effects of exposure to RF fields from mobile phones, and possible effects of pulse modulated RF fields on calcium efflux from the nervous system."

After looking at all the research done since, they found that the story wasn't that clear, and earlier research suggesting that there might be dangers, has been somewhat discredited. "The overall evidence on cognitive effects remains inconclusive," said the Swerdlow group. "The suggestions of effects on calcium efflux have not been supported by more recent, better-conducted studies."

And as far as cancer goes: "the biological evidence suggests that RF fields do not cause mutation or initiate or promote tumour formation, and the epidemiological data overall do not suggest causal associations between exposures to RF fields, in particular from mobile phone use, and the risk of cancer."

The Swerdlow group also tested the base-station problem, and reported:

"Exposure levels from living near to mobile phone base stations are extremely low, and the overall evidence indicates that they are unlikely to pose a risk to health."

The only real area where it remains worth looking for dead bodies, could be in the effect of phone wireless on children, because we still don't know anything about this. "Little has been published specifically on childhood exposures to RF fields, and no new substantial studies on this have been published since the IEGMP report."

There is research being conducted in this area - a full list of all research projects currently under way and known to the Swerdlow group is listed at the end of the full report, and some of those do focus on children, including children too young to use phones themselves. But there's no data emerging yet to indicate that this is likely to prove a fruitful investigation.

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