ON A recent visit to Cambridge, I bumped into a famous academic friend who was marching purposefully down the street, talking loudly to himself. A psychologist, Peter has always been considered somewhat eccentric. However, talking to oneself in public is not an accepted behaviour, even amongst our top dons.
On a closer inspection, it transpired that he was simply using an earphone extension to his mobile phone and a mini-microphone. I’ve only ever seen people with hearing deficiencies use earphones, so it made me feel temporarily depressed to think that Peter has gone deaf at the tender age of 39. Must have been something to do with the students being noisier these days, I thought to myself. It turned out that he was working on a study of the relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields in mobile phones and the occurrence of brain tumors. This is a study run in response to a European Commission expert group that has recommended further research on long-term effects of telecommunications devices. Although his research is not yet complete, what he discovered during the planning stage was enough to make him rush to a mobile phone store and buy an earphone set The problem is affecting an increasing number of people since the use of mobile phones have soared among young and old, rich and poor alike. And judging by the share prices of Nokia and Ericsson, it must be a huge growth industry. We are all trying to become more efficient in our daily struggles, and mobiles allow improved management of time. Since walking and talking somehow qualify as multi-tasking, it also makes us feel more efficient. But this gain of a few minutes per day may also cost you a few years of your life, and a line on your tombstone: “A mobile phone user: Lived an efficient but short life.”
The problem with the current state of knowledge on SAR (Specific Absorption Rate), which is used to measure the permissible heat absorption rate for humans, is that we have radically changed the pattern of using the mobiles since the original standards were set back in 1992. Then, the talk time was horrendously expensive, and even the most dedicated yuppies were only using the phones for 10-15 seconds at a time, enough to bark “buy” or “sell”.
Over the last few years, the Internet and e-mail have driven up use of mobile phones, due to introduction of voice-to-e-mail. The ability to call to another phone and leave a message that then gets converted into e-mail and sent to people as text is very handy if the issue you are briefing them on is complex.
Many people also use a mail-to-voice service. I call my answerphone number and pick up e-mail messages in the form of voice, converted from text from my e-mail inbox. We have also started using three-way calling facility, as my normal office phone doesn’t afford me that luxury and therefore all the conference calls are done on mobiles. All together, these services have increased my use of the mobile phone by around two to three hours per day, every day, particularly when I work outside of the office. And here comes the crux of the matter – almost all of the research conducted so far on the safety standards for electromagnetic power density in mobile phones has been done with acute exposure, not chronic. That means the poor rats and mice exposed to mobile phone radiation had their brains fried consistently over 24 hours.
What we are looking at today is a chronic use – a number of hours every day for a prolonged period of many months. Such chronic use of mobiles is a lot harder to study , not least because trying to get money for any long-term research in these days of funding shortages is an almost impossible task. Since it is the same tissue that gets exposure daily, it is likely that we may experience cumulative effects resulting in damage to the tissue. What are the risks? Multiple, as even the acute-use studies showed mobile phone radiation may encourage and accelerate the growth of pre-cancerous and cancerous cells.
Studies so far have not excluded the possibility of radiation causing indirect damage to DNA, according to the Single Cell Gel (SCG) Expert Panel. Other studies list possible damage to blood-brain barrier, neurotransmitter activity damage and effects on metabolism. Ole Svane, a Danish physician, wrote a report for the European Commission raising the issue of damage to the sensitive tissue in the ears, leading to nerve damage (www. microwavenews. com/ FDA_Workshop_Abstracts. html).
Current mobile phone safety standards are based on patterns of mobile phone use that predate clever things like three-way conferencing which may go on for several hours. They also don’t take into consideration the shift in gender use of mobile phones. Originally, male users were on average using their mobiles for less than a minute per conversation. As anybody who has a teenage daughter will tell you, women, spend on the average 20-35 minutes per telephone conversation.
So the question to be asked is the appropriateness of standards issued in 1992 to today’s mobile phone usage patterns. Since acute and chronic use result in a radically different heat absorption into the brain tissue, we must push the hugely powerful mobile phone lobby to come clean and give us more up-to-date figures and stricter controls. Since many research papers on the safety of mobile phones are conducted on behalf of the mobile phone companies, and not objective bodies, it is important to press the Government to run independent studies that take into consideration that the use of mobiles is a moving target. What was safe yesterday is not necessarily going to extrapolate for our mobile phone use of today.
Meanwhile, get that earphone, keep the time of your conversation down to 10 seconds, or, even better, get a beeper. All these things will be good for your wallet, not just your brain. Mail me with your experiences with mobile phone use to firstname.lastname@example.org