Katinka von Grafenstein
One of the most important technologies in the life of many people nowadays is their mobile phone. It is integrated in every step during the day, is carried around near the body and lies next to the head in the night. Mobile phones emit electromagnetic waves of radiofrequency to send and receive signals from base stations. Part of the radiation will be in direction of the person who uses the phone and is absorbed into their tissue. Do we really know if long-term exposure to this radiation is completely risk free and should scientists recommend a more careful and regulated usage of mobile phones?
Radiofrequency fields consist of non-ionizing radiation and there is no known evidence that they damage human DNA as ionizing radiation like x-rays and gamma rays can do. Still there are concerns that radiation from mobile phones could increase the risk of brain tumours and be responsible for changes in brain activity, reaction time and sleep patterns.
The only known and proven effect of radiofrequency radiation from mobile phones is a small rise in temperature in the region where the phone is closest to during usage, for example the side of the head while speaking on the phone. With radiation from modern phones under given guidelines this is just a rise of a fraction of a degree which is not considered to be a risk to health.
In addition there have been several studies in different countries on the increase of risk for brain cancer through radiofrequency fields. Most of them state that there is no significant increase of risk for brain tumours and no convincing and conclusive evidence that mobile phones bring any risks for human health. Therefore the current international consensus and definitely what the population takes for granted is that mobile phones do not cause cancer.
However, there are two big problems in my opinion. First, cancer can take a long time to develop and there is still very little data for long-term exposure to radiation from mobile phones. In 2010 there was a study published called INTERPHONE project which found an increase of risk for gliomas in the brain for a usage of 30 minutes every day over ten years. Based on this findings and the general uncertainty about long-term exposure the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IARC) classified in 2011 electromagnetic radiation of radiofrequency as Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic. It was not put into Group 2A, probably carcinogenic or even into dangerous Group 1. This is reasonable since the INTERPHONE study could not link an increase of risk for cancer at a lower exposure than 30 minutes daily over ten years and other studies did not find a link at all. But is ‘possibly carcinogenic’ not possibly still too much for the amount of mobile phone usage we see in our society today?
Ten years of mobile phone use is easily achieved. I personally will have owned and used a mobile phone for ten years in only three more years. Moreover, how the situation looks now I will use a phone for many decades after that and we have nearly no data for use longer than 15 years. The amount of calling time depends surely on each individual, but 30 minutes is not very much and I am sure many people are on the phone 30 minutes a day for social or work-related purposes. Is it therefore responsible to wait for research to have the needed evidence or should we approach mobile phones more carefully?
Of course there are already regulations in terms of the Specific Absorption Rate which measures the amount of energy that is absorbed into body tissue. But these have been set up only in consideration of the temporary rise in temperature for example while making a phone call. Here it is considered totally safe if the temperature of the body tissue rises up to 0.1 degree. Today’s mobile phones meet this condition. But without conclusive long-term data we cannot be sure that exposure to radiofrequency fields over decades is really risk free and does not increase the risk of cancer. Therefore I believe there should either be stricter regulations or at least the population should have more knowledge about possible risks so they could decide for themselves and reduce their personal mobile phone use until there is more convincing evidence from research about the actual risks.
The second significant problem is the effect of radiation from mobile phones on children. Nowadays children are in contact with phones from an early age and often get their own phone already in primary school. This does not only increase the period of time they are exposed to radiofrequency waves but there are also concerns that children might be more susceptible to radiation. As well as their body their nervous system is still developing, resulting in more vulnerability to factors that may cause cancer. Furthermore, in the brain of a child there are larger areas exposed since the head is smaller than that of an adult.
The number of studies on the effect of radiofrequency radiation on children is still rather small. However, in 2007 Dr. Lennart Hardell from a Swedish university published a study which stated that the risk of brain cancer through mobile phone radiation depends significantly on age. The usage of mobile phones would increase the risk for brain tumours by a factor of 5.2 for under 20 year olds, whereas only by 1.4 for all ages. So why are there no different and stricter regulations for mobile phone usage for children? The restrictions to the Special Absorption Rate apply equally to every member of the population. Considering Hardell’s research maybe there should be special phones for children with less exposure rates.
The question is whose responsibility it is to promote a more precautious stand towards mobile phones. Scientists, who are experts in the field and conduct research? Politicians, who could initiate regulations or the ones, who produce and sell mobile phones? In my opinion it is unrealistic to expect this from the latter ones, since they won’t frighten their customers with eventual but not proven risks, just to decrease their profit. Therefore I think it is the responsibility of scientists to point out more strongly that we do not have enough evidence to be sure about the safety of radiation from mobile phones. Then it would be the responsibility of politicians to take action.
I only hope that either mobile phones turn out to be safe enough with no significant risk to human health or that scientists and researchers recommend at an early stage a more precautious approach which would result in political regulations and in more awareness of the public – just in case there is an unpleasant surprise waiting for us in twenty years.