- LONDON (Reuters) - British scientists are demanding that mobile telephones, an
indispensable tool for millions, carry a health warning. Amid an explosive
growth of mobile communications, concerns are mounting about cellular telephones'
potential links to health problems ranging from headaches to brain tumors.
``In my opinion, and in the opinion of many scientists, anyone who uses
a mobile telephone for more than 20 minutes at a time needs to have their
brain tested,'' bio-electromagnetics scientist Roger Coghill said. Coghill,
who runs an independent research laboratory in Wales, plans to launch private
criminal proceedings against a local cellular distributor in a test case
seeking to establish a breach of consumer protection laws. Scientists say
electromagnetic radiation from cellphones warms brain tissue and that some
strains of mice developed cancer in tests in Australia and Finland while
others became disoriented. But, despite research around the world, it is
still unproven that cellular phones pose a human health risk. ``We can't
categorically prove they will not harm you but that is not the same as
saying they will harm you,'' a spokesman for Britain's biggest mobile phone
company, Vodafone, said. ``There is no evidence anywhere in the world that
suggests there is any cause for concern.'' Coghill demands what he calls
a ``responsible'' attitude from industry and, as with health warnings on
cigarette packs, calls a warning label on cellphone handsets a ``reasonable,
precautionary step.'' ``Mobile telephones are arguably the most radiative
appliance we have ever invented apart from the microwave oven and people
are putting them by their heads -- arguably the most sensitive part of
the body,'' he told a news conference.
- HEALTH HAZARD OR HYSTERIA? The electromagnetic
energy that fuels a cellphone is microwave radiation pulsing from its antenna.
Human brains may absorb up to 60 percent of that energy, and although some
researchers say those levels are far from hazardous, they are near the
top end of international safety recommendations. Cellphone users have reported
physical symptoms ranging from lack of concentration, headaches, numb skin
and memory loss to brain tumors, which they said might be linked to prolonged
use of mobile telephones. A telecommunications engineer in his late 30s,
who requested anonymity, said he suffered a severe loss of short-term memory.
Within months of using a digital mobile telephone up to six hours per day
in 1995, he said, he started suffering from twitching eyes and numbness
on the side of his head. He has since been diagnosed with brain damage.
``I have been off work for 18 months but it only seems like three or four
weeks,'' he said slowly. ``Tomorrow I won't remember what happened today.''
New Zealand biophysicist Neil Cherry says artificial electromagnetic radiation
(EMR) can pose a health risk. ``There is a growing body of scientific research
which shows that very low, non-thermal levels of radio frequency and microwave
radiation alters the basic biochemistry of cells, which have a potential
to cause altered brain function, carcinogenesis and impaired immune system
functioning,'' he said.
- WEIGHING THE RISKS The approved level
of cellphone radiation is set by international bodies. In Britain, the
National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) -- an independent, statutory
group -- sets the standards. Recommended radiation limits are measured
in ``specific absorption rates'' -- the amount of radiation absorbed averaged
over one gram of tissue.
- The NRPB, which says the vast majority
of studies have shown radiation levels from cellphones are too low to harm
humans, recommends a limit of 10 milliwatts per gram. Proposed European
guidelines are five times more stringent.
- Despite industry denials of any risks,
public concern has prompted manufacturers to develop low-radiation phones
and protective covers to shield users from much of the radiation. Some
companies, such as London-based luxury gift store Asprey, already try to
ensure mobile telephones used by its employees carry protective shields
that cut down radiation levels.
- Some scientists say drivers who hang
on their phones are among those at highest risk -- and not just because
they could crash. A car acts like a metal cage and kick-starts cellphones'
power levels so they can blast their signals to the nearest base station.
- Some car manufacturers warn in their
instruction manuals against using hand-held mobile phones without a separate
external aerial fitted to the vehicle. Most are more concerned that the
electromagnetic emissions from cellphones not designed or fitted to comply
specifically with cars might interfere with the vehicle's delicate electronics.
Others report they are also working on adding a direct health warning.
- THE ``LOW-TAR CIGARETTE'' OPTION
- But as cellphones come out of yuppie
ghettos onto the mass market, some users are becoming increasingly addicted.
Robby Walford, a 34-year-old flooring and carpets specialist, used a mobile
phone up to four hours a day before being diagnosed as suffering from acoustic
neuroma, a benign brain tumor.
- That was four years ago. But he still
uses a cellphone now -- albeit with a radiation shield. ``My business relies
on it,'' he said.
- London-based Microshield Industries Plc
is among those to have developed a cellphone shield. It has a polyester-nickel
layer, slips over the phone and the company says it filters out most emissions.
- But having been threatened with legal
action by a cellphone manufacturer over allegations in its sales brochure,
the firm says it is having trouble breaking into stores and can only sell
its product via mail order and in some drug stores.
- Seeking to placate the cellphone industry,
a spokesman said: ``People won't stop using mobile telephones. We're offering
people, in effect, a low-tar cigarette.'' ^REUTERS@