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A close call: Why the jury is still out on mobile ohones

Allegations of lobbying, bad science, not enough science, conflicts of interest, political inertia, scaremongering and lawsuits: the debate surrounding the safety of mobile phones has it all. With more than five billion users worldwide, mobile phones have become central to modern life in just two decades. But could they be a health hazard?

Scientists at the Children with Cancer conference in London this week will advocate that governments adopt the "precautionary principle" -- advising phone users to take simple steps to protect themselves and their children from possible long-term health risks of electromagnetic fields, especially head cancers.

They will call for urgent research into new Office of National Statistics figures that suggest a 50pc increase in frontal and temporal lobe tumours between 1999 and 2009.

British MP Caroline Lucas, the country's Green Party leader, will next week table an Early Day Motion calling for mandatory safety information at the point of sale, and for widely publicised advice to text, use headsets or corded landlines for long calls.

But the Health Protection Agency's new report on the "potential health effects" on mobile phone technologies on Thursday is likely to conclude that there is only one established risk, and that is crashing the car if people talk and drive.


The scientists cannot agree, so what should the public be told? The UK's Department of Health currently has a confusing online-only leaflet stating there is no immediate concern but under-16s should be encouraged to minimise phone use and choose hands-free kits or texting. In contrast, France has banned phones from primary schools and advertising targeted at children, and companies must provide headsets with every phone.

Israel recently became the latest of a small but growing number of governments to introduce legislation requiring all mobile phones and adverts to come with a health alert. The law also seeks to ban, as with tobacco, companies from marketing to children.

An attempt by San Francisco's lawmakers to require similar health warnings is being vigorously fought by the industry on the grounds it would violate the companies' first amendment rights.

Professor Darius Leszczynski, from the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland, has warned about possible health hazards of mobile phones for more than a decade. He was one of 30 experts at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC), the global authority on cancer risks, who last year concluded mobile phones radiation is "possibly carcinogenic". Leszczynski will tell conference delegates that there is enough evidence to support an even stronger classification of "probably carcinogenic".

Dr Annie Sasco from the Epidemiology for Cancer Prevention unit at Bordeaux Segalen University is at the conference discussing the increase in childhood brain cancers.

"It's not age, it's too fast to be genetic, and it isn't all down to lifestyle, so what in the environment can it be? We now live in an electro-smog and people are exposed to wireless devices that we have shown in the lab to have a biological impact. It makes sense that kids are more sensitive -- they have smaller heads and thinner skulls, so EMFs get into deeper. It is totally unethical that experimental studies are not being done very fast, in big numbers, by independently funded scientists."

The rate of frontal and temporal brain tumours has risen from two to three per 100,000 people in a decade. Denis Henshaw, Emeritus Professor of Human Radiation Effects at the University of Bristol, said: "Even if the risk is still only one in a million, with five billion phone users, it means a lot of extra brain cancers."

The mobile phone industry says that most health agencies agree that there is "no credible evidence of adverse health effects from mobile phone technology".

Yet buried in the small print, companies issue precautionary advice.

For example, BlackBerry's booklet says: "Use hands-free operation if available and keep the BlackBerry device at least 0.98in (25mm) from your body (including the abdomen of pregnant women and the lower abdomen of teenagers) when the BlackBerry is turned on and connected to the wireless network... reduce the amount of time spent on calls."

The iPhone4 guide says: " ... when using the iPhone near your body for voice calls or wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep it at least 5/8inch (15mm) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips or holders that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 5/8inch (15mm) separation between iPhone and the body."

The research is split almost 50:50 on whether mobile phones pose a health hazard or not.

But the balance changes if funding sources are considered, with around three quarters of the "negative" studies -- no health risks -- funded by industry, according to analysis by Joel Moskowitz of Berkeley.

Most studies are at least part-funded by industry, or involve researchers with industry links.

Moskowitz said: "The mantra that 'we need more research' is true, but there is already enough evidence to warrant better safety information, tighter regulation, mass public education and independently funded research carried out by teams of specialists who are not beholden to industry."

Campaigners had hoped that IRAC's "possibly carcinogenic" classification in 2011 would trigger public health warnings.

Instead, most governments emphasised the need for more research, largely without committing any funds, even though simple steps like texting, using hands free devices, better phone design and not carrying phones next to the body, significantly reduce exposure to EM radiation.


Campaigners claim that the mute response can partly be blamed on industry successfully spinning the message as good news, a claim that the Mobile Operators' Association vehemently denies.

The industry has been accused of trying to discredit and marginalise scientists who produce "unfavourable" results for almost 20 years.

In 1995, Professor Henry Lai of the University of Washington accidentally discovered that exposing rats to microwave radiation, the same type emitted by phones, damaged the DNA in their brain cells. He has described industry efforts to discredit his work as "scary".

A decade later the EU-funded Reflex study found that EMF radiation had the potential to cause genetic damage in human cells, at much lower levels than considered safe by regulators.