A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

What Are the Risks? It All Depends on Whom You Ask

Daily Telegraph vs. Financial Times

January 21, 2005

One of the lessons to be learned from the aftermath of the second Stewart report, released by the UK NRPB last week (see below), is that interpreting the mobile phone health data is much like reading Rorschach inkblots. What you see depends a lot on your mind-set.

Robert Matthews, the Daily Telegraph’s science correspondent, thinks that Sir William made “a bad call.” After noting that there were concerns at the NRPB press conference over last October’s Karolinska study, that showed a doubling of the risk of acoustic neuromas among those who had used a cell phone for more than ten years, Matthews went on to write: “What was not made clear, however, is that the tumor is benign, non-fatal and astonishingly rare: just one person is affected per 100,000 per year.”

He then added that Maria Feychting, who led the Karolinska study, is not very worried about all this. He quoted Feychting as saying: “I must say I am happy my children have mobile phones, because then I know where they are... I would not stop them using one.”

On the other hand, in today’s Financial Times, Clive Cookson took a different tack: “Although [an acoustic neuroma is] a benign tumor, it leads to deafness and loss of balance —and if it is not removed surgically, it will eventually kill the patient.” He quoted Anders Ahlbom, another member of the Karolinska team, saying “it’s a strong association” but one that must be replicated before it can be relied upon.

Contrast also the title of Cookson's article, “The Warnings We Must Listen To,” with Matthews’s, “Dial M for Myth.” [Unfortunately, there is no free on line access to this FT story. The FT will continue with a second article next Monday.]

Should we trust Matthews or Cookson? Should we follow the lead of Feychting or that of her mentor, Ahlbom? Cookson concluded with an important point: As the number of subscribers surges past 1.5 billion, even a tiny individual health risk could translate into thousands of deaths.” Let’s do the math. If the Karolinska study is found to reflect a real neuroma risk, then one cell phone user per 100,000 will develop a tumor each year. That comes to 15,000 cases a year based on today’s usage and 20,000 by the end of this year when, as Deloitte predicted earlier this week, there will be 2 billion owners of mobile phones. So, between 2015 and 2020, there could be (very approximately) a total of 100,000 tumor cases, most of which would have been avoidable. Could this be an acceptable risk for the convenience of using a cell phone without a hands-free kit? (We wonder why Feychting doesn’t ask her kids to use hands-free kits.) Do we really want to let the industry off the hook and not bother to do the research to better understand the health impacts of cell phones? Ahlbom told the Financial Times that it is the “the responsibility of the industry to support research.”

Matthews of the UK Telegraph closes with a quote from Adam Burgess of the University of Bath who predicted that the cell phone controversy will eventually go the same way as the now-forgotten scares over color TVs, VDTs and microwave ovens. Burgess, the author of Cellular Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution, should know better. (Disclosure: If you read the book, you may well conclude that Burgess believes that Microwave News has unnecessarily fanned the flames of the EMF controversy.) Burgess would have us believe that the radiation risks from these appliances are urban legends.

The truth is very different, and Burgess should know better. In each case, a technological fix reduced radiation exposures to the point where the risk could be justifiably ignored. For color TVs, lead was added to the glass of the cathode ray tube, thereby absorbing any troublesome X-rays. Whether VDT EMFs could cause adverse pregnancy outcomes was never settled —much like today’s cell phone industry, VDT manufacturers did not want to do any research. But the question became moot when TCO, the Swedish union, single-handedly forced the industry to reduce stray VDT emissions to a very low level. (TCO Development is now encouraging the production of safer phones.) And microwave oven radiation became a non-problem when the US FDA set tough leakage standards and actually enforced these rules. (That was a very different FDA than the one we have today that has been captured by the industry.)

Another important point is that in all three cases the radiation emissions were unwanted byproducts. Cell phones are very different, the radiation conveys the message. No radiation, no conversation.