Mobile Phones, Health Effects and the Problem with Advertisers
Jim Mochnacz worked for British Telecom's Cellnet for eight years, initially siting and installing mobile phone transmission masts, before managing installations throughout a third of Britain. At the end of this period, Mochnacz fell seriously ill with problems of memory loss, chronic tiredness, personality changes, a permanent ringing in his head, and a feeling of constriction around his skull like a metal band tightening. "When I was working on transmission masts I had such huge electrical currents going through my head that my teeth would clamp together," Mochnacz says. "I couldn't wear a digital watch, the LCD display just faded away on my wrist. To stop my jaws clamping, I had to have all my metal fillings removed." Ten years on, the problems remain: "I'm convinced I've got 'microwave poisoning' , for want of a better phrase."
Steve Corney, a colleague of Mochnacz, was tasked to drive around mobile phone base stations checking signal strengths. "Unfortunately, he had two mobile phones," Mochnacz says, "one to each ear. He'd be speaking to different headquarters checking signal strengths at different sites and so on. He lost his memory totally. He forgot, not only where he'd left his car, but even the fact that, a few years before, the company colours had been changed from yellow to grey. His speech and hearing are permanently damaged." Corney stammers when he speaks but also when he listens: sounds break up like a faulty radio transmission, making it hard to understand what is being said to him.
A "definitive" British government-backed report released by the Stewart Committee in May recommended that children be discouraged from using mobile phones because they are more at risk from radiation. The media made light of the report declaring that these recommendations had been made on the basis of literally no evidence. The BBC and ITN news both reported that there was "no evidence" of a risk to human health. The Guardian focused on the fact that the Stewart Committee had found, not a risk exactly, but "a risk of a risk".
Even the esteemed journal New Scientist joined in: "There is currently no evidence that mobile phones harm users or people living near transmitter masts."
A remarkable statement - even anecdotal evidence is evidence - given that the government report had recommended that children be discouraged from using mobile phones.
The Stewart Committee found conclusive evidence that mobile phones have biological effects on humans even where the radio frequency or microwave radiation is emitted at very low levels. Children are most susceptible because their skulls are thinner, allowing their brains to absorb more radiation, and their cell growth and brain wave activity are still developing. It is expected that, following the report, mobile phones will have to carry health warnings.
Sources close to the committee said: "The effects of exposure to radio frequency radiation at levels way below the current guidelines are a cause for concern. This is very new technology. We may not be seeing cancers now but in 10 years, who knows? That is why we need to take precautions and plan to prevent future problems."
Indeed the very real evidence that led the committee to make its recommendations regarding children included British and Finnish studies, which showed that, microwave radiation from mobile phones does affect the brain.
Alan Preece, of Bristol University, who conducted the British study, said he was confident that mobile radiation affected the human system but stressed it was still too early to say whether it was harmful. Dr Preece said: "There is undoubtedly an effect but we just don't know what the mechanism is which is causing it."
Research carried out by Dr Henry Lai at the University of Washington, in Seattle, also submitted to the Stewart committee, discovered that radiation from mobile phones could split DNA molecules in rat brains - the kind of damage that in humans is associated with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. In Norway and Sweden, researchers found that workers who used cell phones for over 15 minutes a day were more likely to complain of fatigue, and more likely to suffer headaches, than those who used the phone for less than two minutes. When phone use exceeded an hour, the fatigue level went up 4 times and headaches 6 times.
One reason that the press were able to talk in terms of "no evidence" and trivial risk, was that vital evidence of harmful effects on children from transmitter masts had been kept from the Stewart Committee by a government agency, the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB).
The independent panel had asked the NRPB, acting as its secretariat, for copies of a study on schoolchildren living near a radio mast in Latvia. They were told that the research was unpublished and unobtainable. Sarah Ryle of the Observer has since reported that the research, published in an international scientific journal in 1996, +was+ peer reviewed by other scientists and has been easily obtained by ordinary members of the public.
The study by the Latvian Academy of Sciences examined the impact of a military radio transmitter on local schoolchildren, comparing them with a control group. The research, which studied nearly 1,000 children aged 9 to 18, found that "memory and attention were significantly impaired in all children living in front of the Skrunda station".
Dr Hilary Kennedy, a biologist and chairperson of Northern Ireland Families against Telecommunications Transmitter Towers (NIFATT), said, "I believe that the NRPB has misled Sir William Stewart's committee". NIFATT's secretary, Margaret Dean, has said, "By withholding the findings of this important study I also believe the NRPB is guilty of a gross disservice to the general public."
Also unreported in the press, was evidence provided by the Wireless Technology Research (WTR), a leading surveillance and research organization funded by the US telecoms industry. The role of WTR is to identify and solve any problems concerning consumers' health that could arise from the use of mobile phones. In February of last year, after six years of research, the WTR presented findings that its Chairman, George L. Carlo, described as "surprising".
The WTR found that the rate of death from brain cancer among handheld phone users was higher than the rate of brain cancer death among those who used non-handheld phones that were kept away from their head. The risk of a benign tumour of the auditory nerve was also fifty percent higher in people who reported using cell phones for six years or more. The risk of rare tumours on the outside of the brain was more than doubled in cell phone users as compared to people who did not use cell phones. There also appeared to be some correlation between brain tumours occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head. Laboratory studies looking at the ability of radiation from a phone's antenna to cause functional genetic damage were "definitively positive".
Carlo reported that while none of these findings alone were evidence of a definitive health hazard from mobile phones, the pattern of potential health effects "raised serious questions". The response of the telecoms industry to the WTR's findings has been shocking. George Carlo says, "Today, I sit here extremely frustrated and concerned that appropriate steps have not been taken by the wireless industry to protect consumers during this time of uncertainty about safety. Alarmingly, indications are that some segments of the industry have ignored the scientific findings suggesting potential health effects, have repeatedly and falsely claimed that wireless phones are safe for all consumers including children, and have created an illusion of responsible follow up by calling for and supporting more research."
In an attempt to utilize the best sites for providing strong signals, mobile phone Network Operators are increasingly approaching schools and owners of blocks of high-rise flats for permission to erect transmission masts a few feet high on their roofs. Dr. David Carpenter, the former Executive Secretary of the New York Power Lines Project, now employed as the Dean of the State of New York School of Public Health, is outraged by this practice:
"In my view it is totally irresponsible to position a cellular antenna near a site where children spend significant periods of time. While I am not saying that the association between these exposures and childhood cancer is proven beyond any shadow of a doubt, I do see evidence to be suggestive."
A major problem, as ever, is the clear clash of interest between the corporate media and the reporting of business-unfriendly news. In a rare departure from the mendacious norm, Richard Ingrams of the Observer noted last December that, "Looking at the advertisements in the Christmas pages of the newspapers, you get the impression that the only things that will be given as presents this year are mobile phones - different varieties of which are displayed on almost every page."
The conflict of interest, Ingrams noted, is not difficult to discern:
"When the newspapers are obviously doing so well out of all this advertising, it is not so surprising that they tend not to give much coverage to the growing evidence that mobile phones are not only anti-social but extremely dangerous."