Mobile phones and health

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The explosion in the use of mobile phones during the past decade has been accompanied by much debate on their potential side-effects. A number of studies have been carried out in an attempt to ascertain whether using mobile phones has an adverse effect on health. While it is difficult to disprove health risks, industry points out the inconclusiveness of the majority of studies undertaken thus far.

Mobile phones operate only in a very small proportion of the radio spectrum, which is part of the non-ionising electromagnetic spectrum, generally considered as not bearing any health risks. 

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The electromagnetic spectrum                                                                          Source: RTD Info

 

The fact that mobile phone antennae provide almost blanket coverage nowadays and the close proximity of end-user devices to central parts of people's nerve systems have, however, led scientists to investigate the potential health risks of mobile telephony in depth. 

In 1999, the Commission gave legal effect to the first European standard on public exposure to Electro Magnetic Fields (EMF) generated by mobile phones. The standard was incorporated into Directive 1999/5/EC and obliges manufacturers to ensure that their products do not give rise to adverse effects on health.

Moreover, the Commission considered it necessary to propose a common framework to protect the general public from possible health effects of non-ionising radiation. It sees this as part of its efforts towards ensuring a high level of health protection to the citizens of the Community.

The existing variations and gaps in provisions and guidelines contribute to a sense of confusion and insecurity felt by many Community citizens and undermines confidence in health authorities.

Such a framework can be put in place by Council recommendation under Article 152 of the EC Treaty and deals with the general principles of limiting exposure so that adverse health effects can be prevented.

In June 1998, the Commission proposed a draft Council Recommendation on the limit of exposure of the general public to electromagnetic fields (0 Hz – 300 GHz).

The Recommendation was adopted on the 12th July 1999 by the Council (OJ L 199/59 of 30/07/1999).

 
Main Policy Options 

The main provisions of the recommendation are to:

  • Limit the exposure of the general public to electromagnetic fields 
  • Strengthen public awareness about the risks and protection measures against electromagnetic fields 
  • Establish European standards on electromagnetic fields

The recommendation requires member states to report to the Commission on any rules (binding and non-binding) they may adopt at national level. A 2002 report by the Commission provides an update on member states' efforts to reduce risks related to EMF.

The main areas that are currently being debated include:

  • Special risks for children
  • Living in the vicinity of base stations
  • Pros and cons of hands-free mobile phone sets
  • Credibility of the scientific studies that have been done
  • Policy steps that governments should take

Research: 

  • Due to the still relatively recent rapid growth in the number of people with mobile telephones, there is a lack of data on the longer-term effects of low exposure to radiation from mobile phones and their base stations (antennae). Two ten-year studies carried out  in Britain and in five Nordic countries are so far the most long-term research carried out. 
  • Scientific data is also missing on the risks of exposure to radiation from antennae for mobile phone networks. With the expected roll-out of Third Generation (3G) mobile telephony, the grid of these antennae will become even denser, and the antennae will become more powerful. 
  • The Research Framework Programme Five (FP5) project REFLEX has delivered results from an in-vitro study on potential hazards from low energy electromagnetic field exposure. 
  • The FP5 project GUARD has presented its results on potential adverse effects of GSM cellular phones on hearing. 
  • The FP6 projects EMF-NET and EMFnEAR  will follow in a few years time with more research on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields and on the potentially higher risks from 3G (UMTS) mobile phones, respectively. 
  • The example of radioactivity, the harmful effects of which were not initially recognised, is often cited as a reason for policy-makers to take a precautionary approach to the issue. 

The current consensus is that there is no totally convincing scientific evidence linking the electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones with illnesses. This was confirmed by a long-term study conducted by scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in London and published in the British Journal of Cancer on 30 August 2005. The study examined possible links between the use of mobile phones and the occurrence of acoustic neuroma, a benign tumour of the nerve linking the ear to the brain. Since this nerve is most exposed to radiation from the mobile phone, it would also be most affected if there were a health risk from the radiation.

The scientists found a slightly higher number of patients to have the tumour on the ear they usually used for phone calls. But it found no linkage between either the number and duration of phone calls or even the cumulative time someone had spent on a mobile phone and the risk of suffering from an acoustic neuroma.  Conclusions from the study may be drawn only for everyday mobile phone use for up to ten years. It did not deal with possible radiation risks from mobile network antennae. 

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