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Cell threat disputed

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The potential health effects of mobile technologies was thrown into the spotlight again this week, as a visiting speaker and new European study probe the issue.

Retired military intelligence scientist Barrie Trower visited the country this week to address various concerns around the health risks of cellphone use, under the auspices of the newly-founded Electromagnetic Radiation Research Foundation of SA.

Speaking at a media briefing in Johannesburg, he warned that radiation from cellphones and masts causes severe behavioural and health problems, but some of the claims remain widely disputed.

Trower spent his military career specialising in “microwave warfare”, and said he observed that microwaves, often with added pulsed frequencies, caused behavioural disturbances such as depression, mood swings, and suicidal tendencies, as well as health problems, including lowered immunity and cancer.

According to Trower, cellphone technology is producing these effects in the general population, through pulsed microwaves on some of the frequencies known to be harmful. He provided documentation to substantiate these views, including studies by the British Journal of Psychiatry and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Trower also pointed to the findings of a publication called the Bio-Initiative Report, which he said involved an overview of research to establish a safe level for general exposure. The report states: “Based on new studies, there is growing evidence among scientists and the public about possible health risks associated with these technologies.”

Yet, a number of studies find no such correlation, and various international organisations have criticised the report, saying it's not balanced. These include the Australian Centre for Radiofrequency Bioeffects Research and the Health Council of the Netherlands, among others.

The EMF-NET, a scientific consortium of 41 participants funded by the European Commission to investigate the issue of electromagnetic fields (EMF) and health, said in its comments on the Bio-Initiative Report: “There is a lack of balance in the report; no mention is made in fact of reports that do not concur with authors' statements and conclusions. The results and conclusions are very different from those of recent national and international reviews on this topic.”

It adds that none of these health effects has been established in any national or international reviews that assessed biological and health effects from exposures below internationally accepted EMF limits, when the whole database of scientific literature is reviewed.

Yesterday, the largest study to date on the long-term health effects of mobile technologies was announced, aiming to track at least a quarter of a million people in five European countries for 30 years.

Unlike most previous large-scale studies, the Cohort Study on Mobile Communications will focus on long-term use, as it may take several years for diseases such as cancer to develop, the Mobile Telecoms and Health Research Programme said in a release.

Playground danger?

One of Trower's biggest concerns is that there's no known safety level for microwave radiation for children, and he said no popular study to date has included children.

Trower advocates that cellphone masts and WiFi systems should not be in allowed in schools, due to the health hazards it brings for children and staff. He said he had identified 200 leukaemia clusters of 10 or more children near masts in the UK, France and Spain.

He noted that children are particularly susceptible because they absorb more microwave radiation than adults, due to their smaller size; because their immune systems are not fully developed; and because the relative softness of their bones allows the microwaves to penetrate more easily.

According to Trower, this is particularly worrying as cell transmitters are being installed in schools, often because it provides extra income. “When they [cellular companies] say 'we follow international guidelines', they haven't read them, because the guidelines say there's no safe level for children.”

The guidelines alluded to are those of the independent scientific organisation ICNIRP (the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection), which were devised to ensure exposure to radio waves does not cause adverse health effects. The standards, recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO), have been adopted by more than 80 countries, including the European Union.

Based on an analysis of all the scientific research on electromagnetic fields and health, the limits recommended for the general public have been set at about 50 times below the levels where health effects can start to occur.

International studies

The WHO has set up the International EMF Project to assess the health and environmental effects of exposure to electric and magnetic fields, and released several progress reports detailing studies done.

Global telco Ericsson states in a company note on health and mobile communications that the great majority of the hundreds of studies listed in the WHO research database does not indicate any adverse health effects linked to mobile telephony.

Several expert groups and health authorities have reviewed all the available research and the WHO, for example, summarises the current status as follows: “None of the recent reviews have concluded that exposure to RF fields from mobile phones or their base stations causes any adverse health consequence.”

It adds, however, there's also been a consistent message that some additional research would be helpful to increase the knowledge and to ensure the best possible assessment of health risks.

A report following a workshop on EMF risk communication in 2007, organised by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, in collaboration with the WHO EMF Project, states: “There is ample agreement among experts in Europe and worldwide that scientific evidence on possible adverse health impacts from exposure to EMF fields below the ICNIRP limits is still insufficient and inconclusive.

It adds that “it is necessary to support further research in this area to fill out knowledge gaps, and to periodically review and update the exposure limits according to the best available scientific knowledge”.

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