By Tom Leonard
Could mobile phones be giving us brain cancer? And has the ¬mobile phone industry spent years trying to bury the ¬scientific evidence that it does in order to protect its ¬$3 trillion, 4.6billion-¬customer, global business?
According to Devra Davis, an eminent ¬American scientist and one of the country’s leading epidemiologists, the answer to both these questions is a resounding ‘yes’.
With mobile phone use soaring, especially among the young, Dr Davis says we could face a ‘global public health catastrophe’ in as little as three years if the problem is ignored.
Mobile phones are low-powered radio ¬frequency transmitters which produce ¬microwave radiation.
The debate over the cancer risks from this radiation has been going on for years. Yet the lack of any conclusive evidence has allowed the industry to claim phones are safe and led to sceptics being dismissed as scaremongers.
But now the alarm has been raised by an award-winning academic and toxicologist who was in the group that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
So should we think twice before clamping a mobile phone to our ears?
In a new book provocatively titled ¬Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What The Industry Has Done To Hide It And How To Protect Your Family, Dr Davis says we have underplayed the threat from mobile phone radiation for too long.
She says: ‘Is it possible that the pervasive use of mobile phones is causing a host of ¬subtle, chronic health problems, damaging our ability to have healthy children and creating long-term risks to our brains and bodies?
‘The fact we do not have clear answers to this question at this point in the history of electronic technology is not an accident.’
Dr Davis says crucial scientific evidence, some of which has existed for decades, has been ignored – particularly that involving experimental research on animals and human cells.
Her work includes supporting research from studies in the U.S., Sweden, Greece, France and Russia. For example, a team at the ¬University Of Washington found that just two hours of mobile phone-level radiation splintered the DNA of brain cells in rats, making them ¬similar to cells found in malignant tumours.
In humans, the evidence is less dramatic, but equally worrying.
In Moscow, a study has found that while the brains of children who regularly use mobile phones look the same as the brains of those who do not, users have poorer memories and other learning problems.
Dr Davis, who is a grandmother, is worried about the effect on ¬children, arguing that their thin, pliant skulls make them more vulnerable.
Last year, the Finnish ¬Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority warned that regular use of mobiles could damage children’s brains, ¬confirming previous warnings in the UK, France and Israel.
Dr Davis believes children are ‘growing up in an unprecedented flood of radio frequency signals’. She says they should only use mobile phones in emergencies. ‘The dangers for children are not definitively proven but do we really want to risk it?’
The most troubling research, she says, threatens male fertility. Research in seven ¬countries, including the U.S., China and Australia, suggests that keeping a switched-on mobile in a trouser pocket can have a ¬drastic effect on sperm count.
‘All the research shows the same thing – if you take young men who are trying to become fathers, those who use mobile phones at least four hours a day have about half the sperm count of others,’ says Dr Davis. ‘Sperm exposed to mobile phone radiation in the lab is sicker, thinner and less capable of swimming.’
Using a mobile for four hours a day sounds a lot, but Dr Davis says 20 per cent of the young males in a 2008 study, by America’s Cleveland Clinic, used their mobiles for this long. However, her most compelling evidence about the health ¬dangers, and that mobile phone manufacturers are probably aware of the risks, is buried in the small print of the ¬instructions that ¬accompany every new phone.
Those for the latest BlackBerry (the Torch), warn users to ‘use hands-free ¬operation if available and keep the device at least 0.98 inches from your body (including the abdomen of ¬pregnant women and the lower abdomen of ¬teenagers)’ when it is switched on.
Apple tells iPhone users to keep them 0.625 inches away from their body and to point the dock connection towards their ¬shoulders ‘to increase ¬separation from the antenna’.
Dr Davis says at least two ¬senior scientists who work for mobile phone companies told her they were ‘deeply ¬concerned’ about the health risks. Insiders say phone manufacturers are now developing safer models.
Many studies looking into the cancer risks of mobiles have been inconclusive.
In May, the hotly-anticipated Interphone report for the World Health Organisation drew no conclusions, but suggested that heavy phone users could be at risk.
The research team was divided about their findings, but that didn’t stop the UK-based GSM Association, which represents the global mobile industry, from deciding the report supported a consensus that there was ‘no established health risk’.
Dr Davis specialises in how the environment affects our health and wrote a book about how the tobacco ¬industry was not ¬initially ¬honest about the links between cigarettes and ¬cancer. Similarly, she says, the debate in Britain over the ¬dangers of asbestos lasted a century.
She insists the mobile phone industry has behaved the same way, working, often with ¬government help, to ¬discredit independent scientists while ensuring that others toe the line for fear of losing their funding.
‘Those studies that have been paid for by the industry tend to find that there’s not a problem,’ said Dr Davis. ‘Studies that are ¬independent – while there are fewer – tend to show there is a problem. I don’t think that’s an ¬accident. This has had a chilling effect on the ability of policy-makers to form policy.’
She said the debate has been distorted by a ‘show me the bodies’ approach to evidence.
But it is too early to expect ¬mobile phone users to develop brain tumours, she said.
The same slow development of problems occurred when the Hiroshima bomb survivors were tested: after ten years ¬researchers found no evidence of brain cancer, but 30 years later many cases were found.
While defenders of the safety of mobile phones point out that official statistics show the ¬incidence of brain cancer is ¬falling in countries like the U.S., Dr Davis says people ¬typically don’t develop it until they are over 65 and, at present, people in that age group have not been big mobile phone users.
‘The absence of an epidemic right now is hardly cause for great relief,’ she says.
In most countries, heavy mobile phone use is recent. Even in Scandinavia, home of many of the world’s biggest mobile phone makers, only half the population owned one in 2000.
Dr Davis finds it ¬frustrating that there are ¬simple ¬precautions that users could be ¬taking. She says ¬fashion will have to adapt, with people keeping phones in bags and the ¬knee-level pockets of cargo trousers, well away from their ovaries or testicles.
Her book, ¬published in Britain next month, has already been ¬challenged in America over its science. But Dr Davis doesn’t ¬dispute that mobile phone radiation is weak – she stresses the cumulative effect on people using phones for several hours.
Her solution is for a ‘major, independent research ¬programme, not a fake one like those we’ve had for decades’.
As for her own habits, she has cut down her dependence on her mobile but still uses one.
‘We’re as dependent on mobile phones as we are on our cars,’ she says. ‘They do a lot of good – they save lives in emergencies – but we have to be smarter about how we use them.’
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