Information & Research

Physics and Biology of Mobile Telephony

originally appearing in The Lancet 2000; 356: 1833-36

(page 3 of 5)

Although the power density of the radiation used in these experiments is typical of that found at the head when a mobile handset is used, and thus much higher than that close to a base-station, the information content of the radiation emitted by base-stations is the same. Accordingly--apart from near/far field differences (ie, localised exposure to the near field during handset use and whole body exposure to the far field from a base-station)--these results are not irrelevant to any consideration of potential adverse health effects associated with chronic exposure to base-station radiation.

Non-thermal effects have proved controversial, and independent attempts to replicate them have not always been successful. Such difficulties are not unexpected, however, because these effects depend on the state of the organism when it is exposed, particularly in vivo. In in vitro studies, discrepant findings can sometimes be traced to differences in the conditions or design of the experiment. Examples of this are the unsuccessful attempts to replicate an earlier yeast-growth experiment,37,9 and the reported increased incidence of DNA strand breaks.38,28 The highly non-linear nature of living systems makes them hypersensitive (via deterministic chaos,39 as exemplified by the so-called "butterfly effect", for example) to the prevailing conditions, and thus militates against the realisation of the identical conditions necessary for exact replication.

Possible associated adverse health reactions

It is important to stress that the existence even of established non-thermal effects does not make adverse health consequences inevitable. Nonetheless GSM radiation does seem to affect non-thermally a variety of brain functions (including the neuroendocrine system), and health problems reported anecdotally do tend to be neurological, although formal confirmation of such reports, based on epidemiological studies, is still lacking. For example, reports of headache are consistent with the effect of the radiation on the dopamine-opiate system of the brain27 and the permeability of the blood-brain barrier,26 both of which have been connected to headache.40,41 Reports of sleep disruption are consistent with effects of the radiation on melatonin levels25 and on rapid-eye-movement sleep.32 Furthermore, since there is no reason to suppose that the seizure-inducing ability12 of a flashing visible light does not extend to microwave radiation (which can access the brain through the skull) flashing at a similarly low frequency, together with the fact that exposure to pulsed MWR can induce epileptic activity in rats,24 reports of epileptic activity in some children exposed to base-station radiation are perhaps not surprising. I have heard of one child whose seizures diminish when, unbeknown to her or her family, the mast is not functioning (or when she is away), only to increase again when the base-station is working again or when she returns home.

Finally, the significant increase (by a factor of between 2 and 3) in the incidence of neuroepithelial tumours (the laterality of which correlates with cell-phone use) found in a nationwide US study42 is consistent not only with the genotoxicity of GSM radiation, as indicated by increased DNA strand breaks28 and formation of chromosome aberrations and micronuclei but also with its promotional effect on tumour development.43 However, as Rothman's accompanying review shows,4 the overall epidemiological evidence for an association with cell-phone use is rather weak. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that non-thermal effects of the MWR used in mobile telephony do have the potential to induce adverse health reactions of the kind reported, and this possibility should not be ignored even if only a small minority of people are at risk. Whether a person is affected or not could depend, for example, on the level of stress before exposure; if it is high enough, the additional contribution from MWR exposure might be sufficient to trigger an abnormality that would otherwise have remained latent. It is often argued that anecdotal reports of health problems should be dismissed. However, given the paucity of systematic epidemiological studies of this new technology, such reports are an indispensable source of information, a point acknowledged in the 1999 report of the UK parliamentary committee.44

Preadolescent children can be expected to be more vulnerable to any adverse health effects than adults because absorption of GSM microwaves is greatest5 in an object about the size of a child's head, because of the "head resonance" effect and the greater ease with which the radiation can penetrate the thinner skull of an infant1. Also the multiframe repetition frequency of 834 Hz and the 2 Hz pulsing in the DTX mode of cellphones lie in the range of the alpha and delta brain-waves, respectively. In a child, alpha waves do not replace delta waves as a stable activity until the age of about 12 years. Furthermore, the immune system, whose efficacy is degraded19,25 by this kind of radiation, is less robust in children. This makes them less able to cope with any adverse health effect that might be provoked by chronic exposure, not only to the pulsed microwave radiation but also to the the more penetrating low-frequency magnetic fields associated with the current surges from the handset battery which can reach 40 T (peak) near the back of the case.45 Indications of the biological noxiousness of these magnetic fields (in animals) can be found in ref 25.

In the context of base-station radiation, reports relating to animals are of particular value since it cannot here be claimed that the effects are psychosomatic. Of particular interest is a publication on cattle,43 recording severely reduced milk yields, emaciation, spontaneous abortions, and stillbirths. When cattle are removed to pastures well away from the mast, their condition improves, but it deteriorates once they are brought back. The adverse effects appeared only after GSM microwave antennae were installed on a tower formerly used to transmit only non-pulsed television and radio signals.

Finally, in support of the reality of an adverse health impact of non-thermal influences of the kind of radiation used today in mobile telephony, we should recall that during the "cold war" the Soviet irradiation of western embassies with microwave radiation (of an intensity intermediate between that in the vicinity of a handset and a base-station), done with the express intention of inducing adverse health effects, was quite successful.47

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