Mark Bridge writes:
Mobile phones fry your brain. That’s been a warning from some people pretty much since the first cellphones appeared. And although the mobile phone industry has changed and the technology has advanced, the warnings haven’t gone away.
Ten years ago, the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones under chairman Sir William Stewart was set up to look at concerns about the possible health effects from the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters.
The report from the working group – known as The Stewart Report – was called Mobile Phones and Health and was published on 11th May 2000. Although Sir William’s report recommended that the subject was reviewed again in three years time, it’s still The Stewart Report that’s become the UK’s definitive document on mobile phone safety for many people.
And that’s hardly surprising, given the amount of publicity that surrounded it and the commonsense advice it offered. “Most evidence suggests that mobile phones won’t harm you but it’s worth being careful and taking a closer look anyway” would be my personal summary.
Now, I hear you say, you work in the mobile industry. How can we trust you? (Well, I don’t just work in the mobile industry, but I take your point). The answer: because I don’t want my head to melt. I don’t want anyone’s head to melt. And if the mobile phone business is cooking brains, I’ll find something else to do – like warning people not to use those evil brain-melting devices.
Which is why I was rather worried when I saw a headline that said Cellphones Cause Brain Tumors. It directed me to a publication from the International EMF Collaborative entitled “Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern, Science, Spin and the Truth Behind Interphone”. Interphone is the name of an international study that’s exactly the kind of thing Sir William Stewart was talking about. It ran for six years, cost millions of pounds and saw dozens of scientists looking at data from thousands of people. The research ended around three years ago but conclusions haven’t yet been published. Some say the data was skewed and relied too much on memory, which could easily lead to subjects deliberately or unintentionally blaming health problems on mobiles. The International EMF Collaborative suggests the data is skewed the other way. Its report says telecom-funded studies are highly questionable when compared with independent studies that “consistently show there is a significant risk of brain tumors from cellphone use”.
Personally, I’m not convinced by that risk. Early mobile phones were certainly higher-powered than current devices – but I wouldn’t be using a mobile phone today if I thought there was a significant risk of it harming me. And I certainly wouldn’t be promoting their use without a big “warning: melty brain” sticker being placed on every mobile phone as a minimum requirement. Mind you, I’d also appreciate an explanation from someone who knows a fair bit about research – Dr Ben Goldacre would be good – telling me whether or not I should really be worrying. Oh, and some research into WiFi and DECT as well.