Friday 25 September 2009
Mobile phone risk clearer, EU agency says
Appraisal of evidence backs call for precaution, new regulations to guard against head tumours
European Environment Agency (EEA) officials believe scientific evidence is now more strongly in favour of a link between long-term use of mobile phones and brain cancer risk. The Agency first issued an “early warning” about the hazard in September 2007, spurred by the findings of the BioInitiative Report.
“The evidence for a head tumour risk from mobile phones, although still very limited, and much contested, is, unfortunately, stronger than two years ago when we first issued our early warning,” said Jacquie McGlade, EEA’s Executive Director, last week in a statement1 prepared for the Conference on Cell Phones and Health in Washington, DC, USA.
David Gee, member of the Steering Committee for the conference and Senior Advisor to McGlade, tells EHTF News the judgment is based on research reviewed in articles published online in a special issue of the journal Pathophysiology.
In one of the articles,2 Michael Kundi and Hans-Peter Hutter, of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, say the few studies available suggest that exposure to mobile phone base station signals may “reduce wellbeing” and could raise cancer risks. But no firm conclusions can be drawn as yet, they stress, calling for research into the long-term effects of this kind of exposure to be given a higher priority.
In the second article,3 Lennart Hardell and colleagues from the University Hospital in Örebro and Umeå University in Sweden review evidence of tumour risk related to mobile phone use. Research published by Hardell’s group has been part of the ongoing controversy over the risks of exposure to non-ionising radiation. The authors found “a consistent pattern of an increased risk for glioma and acoustic neuroma after >10 year mobile phone use”, and for brain tumours the risk appears to be higher among people who begin using a wireless phone before the age of 20.
Embracing the precautionary principle, which supports pre-emptive action before a hazard is fully understood, the EEA says evidence “is now strong enough” for governments, the mobile phone industry, and the public to take steps towards reducing risk from exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). This might include promoting hands-free devices, designing phones that emit less radiofrequency (RF) radiation, and labelling phones with warnings about the potential risk.
“Waiting for high levels of proof before taking action to prevent well known risks can lead to very high health and economic costs, as it did with asbestos, leaded petrol and smoking,” says McGlade.
Alongside precautionary measures, the EEA advocates action to improve and fund the science that could clear up the scientific debate.
In an article4 published in the same issue of the journal, Gee sheds some light to the Agency’s reasoning by pointing to similar controversies in the past. “Inconsistency [in research results] is to be expected,” he notes, “particularly in this relatively early stage in the complex biological and physical story of EMF.”
Gee explains that decades can go by before exposure-effect associations find support from biological evidence of an action mechanism, which is usually what it takes for widely accepted scientific opinions (“the prevailing paradigm”) to change. But the precautionary principle can help to get around this, he says.
“Reducing RF exposures in response to a mistaken early warning is preferable to not reducing exposures to a hazard that turns out to be real, and largely irreversible,” writes Gee. “Encouraging such reduction could help to stimulate technical innovation.”
Children, elderly people and those with weak immunity could be more vulnerable to the effects of EMFs, according to the EEA. The Agency says responsibility to protect these groups becomes greater in light of “ambitious plans” to advance the use of mobile phones to communicate about environmental issues with the public.
In her statement for last week’s conference, McGlade added that “early warning scientists” should be better protected against backlash, as presenting results which contradict accepted scientific opinion has in the past ended up in loss of research funds or personal attacks.
The EEA was established in the 1990s with a mandate to provide knowledge on environmental issues, including impacts of health, to institutions including the European Parliament and the European Commission. It also provides this expertise to support European countries in their efforts to build environmental considerations into economic policies, but has no regulatory powers itself.
References and links
1. Expert conference on cell phones and health: science and public policy questions. Environmental Health Trust, 2009
2. Kundi M, Hutter HP. Mobile phone base stations-effects on wellbeing and health. Pathophysiology 2009, 16:123-135. doi: 10.1016/j.pathophys.2009.01.008
3. Hardell L, Carlberg M, Mild KH. Epidemiological evidence for an association between use of wireless phones and tumor diseases. Pathophysiology 2009, 16:113-122. doi: 10.1016/j.pathophys.2009.01.003
4. Gee D. Late lessons from early warnings: towards realism and precaution with EMF? Pathophysiology 2009, 16:217-231. doi: 10.1016/j.pathophys.2009.01.004
European Commission information about electromagnetic fields
World Health Organization information about electromagnetic fields
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