Mobile phone and wireless health risks

by Colin Bryant, TelecomsAdvice

Micro-waves cook things don’t they? And don’t Wi-Fi, mobile and cordless DECT phones work on something like microwaves? Will my brain be cooked from using them? Will that local 3G base station give my children cancer? What about other types of wireless and radio – CB, satellite phones and broadcast radio and television? Electromagnetic radiation from power lines and heavy electrical equipment? Yes of course there are health risks from all these things and parents are right to be concerned, but frequencies and signal strengths differ and there are guidelines for shielding, distance from source and time of exposure in both construction and use.

Research is ongoing and the effects of long-term exposure can only be projected until we have real-time experience. Government health guidelines tend to err on the side of caution - we hope - but the research on which they base their regulations may be industry funded and subject to subtle or not so subtle pressures.

Protesters against power lines, mobile phone and wireless base stations are as concerned about the visual impact on the local environment of these structures - and the effect on the value on their property - as the health aspects. Local Authority Councillors and town planners are between NIMBY/environmental campaigners on one side, and local businesses and residents wanting better mobile coverage and Wi-Fi Internet connectivity to boost trade and employment. Hidden agendas and scare campaigns abound.

However, ignoring conspiracy theories and looking at practicalities, the power requirements of handsets and base stations may be a good place to start. The further away the base station and the more demanding an application, the more powerful signal a handset or wireless device needs to produce. So a satellite phone which needs to transmit around 800 km may be assumed to pump out more powerful waves than a DECT/cordless phone or a Wi-Fi base station 100m away. Third generation (3g) mobile phones with their multimedia applications will need more powerful signals than the current GSM mobiles, and their base stations will have to be more powerful or more numerous and closer together, or a combination of these factors. But, to save battery life, handsets modify their power output to the minimum necessary for communication with the base station - so a closer base station means you get less exposure from using the handset. A mobile phone mast close to a school may mean lower exposure when the students do actually use their phones. Wi-Fi Internet connectivity is a newer application but one which is quickly spreading through a combination of public, commercial and residential base stations.

A particular concern has arisen with the increasing use of Wi-Fi in schools. Wi-Fi is economical to deploy and caters easily for students with a variety of school issue and personal laptop computers - but there are reports of individuals who appear to be particularly susceptible to the signals and who suffer from headaches and/or symptoms which suggest that their concentration and memory may be affected. 

The Times of London quotes Dr. Michael Clark of the HPA (the UK health agency)  as saying, “When we have conducted measurements in schools, typical exposures from Wi-Fi are around 20 millionths of the international guideline levels of exposure to radiation. As a comparison, a child on a mobile phone receives up to 50 percent of guideline levels. So, a year sitting in a classroom near a wireless network is roughly equivalent to 20 minutes on a mobile. If Wi-Fi should be taken out of schools, then the mobile phone network should be shut down, too — and FM radio and TV, as the strength of their signals is similar to that from Wi-Fi in classrooms.”

Government and business at all levels is committed to rolling-out this technology but Sir William Stewart - Chairman of the UK Government group looking at this whole issue - has expressed concerns that caution needs to be exercised until more specific research has been carried out. Cynics will say that such committees and research scientists will always call for more research and reports to be written, even to the extent of scare-mongering - it keeps them in work - but this is surely a case where we do need specific research to address justified fears and as soon as possible. The individuals who feel ill and think it may be caused by radio waves need individual consideration - it is unlikely that there are immediate serious effects for most people but this could have long-term health implications for all of us.

A group of UK medical researchers decided to "test whether people who report being sensitive to mobile phone signals have more symptoms when exposed to a pulsing mobile signal than when exposed to a sham signal or a non-pulsing signal."

The results published in the British Medical Journal in March 2006 (based on research conducted between 2003-2005) concluded, "No evidence was found to indicate that people with self-reported sensitivity to mobile phone signals are able to detect such signals, or that they react to them with increased symptom severity. As sham exposure was sufficient to trigger severe symptoms in some participants, psychological factors may have an important role in causing this condition." This is not to say that people who feel ill aren't ill, but the cause may not be exposure to radio waves.

Common sense (and government guidelines) tell us to limit the time that children use a mobile phone - their skulls are thinner and their brains are still developing. Some handsets are worse than others - look for the SAR - Specific Absorption Rating (the lower the better). In the end we have to leave the overall regulation to our elected representatives and their scientific advisers, influencing them wherever possible by democratic means to invest in independent research, and in the meantime balance our own personal use between concern for our health, convenience and necessity.

Further more detailed scientific info and up-to-date guidelines at:

Mobile Operators Association

UK Department of Health

Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones

World Health Organisation

Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research

Reviewed January 2011

last updated : 21/01/2011

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