Since Ernie Wise made the UK's first call in 1985, the use of mobile phones has risen exponentially. Now 50 million of us own them, and to meet that demand 35,000 masts have so far been erected across the country, with three times that number needed. But at what cost to our health? Rachel Shabi reports
Saturday April 10, 2004
Source: The Guardian
To be honest, I don't want to hear that my mobile phone, or anything to do with what powers it, might not be safe. This is partly because I am sick of being told that everything is bad for me, but mostly it's just because I like my phone.
I don't remember - OK, with the exception of overseas texting - being significantly more sociable or employable in the days before the phone, and I'm not exactly glued to it. Still, I don't want to consider having to give it up. And I'm not alone in this sentiment.
In a report chirpily titled People Just Can't Live, If Living Is Without Their Mobiles, Vodafone says that seven out of 10 phone users aged 16-34 feel exactly as this title suggests. We might think this a silly, puffy piece of melodrama; we might think that a more sober analysis would declare mobiles to be little more than a consumer culture-driven frivolity, but - well, the buts are obvious: those phones are handy, convenient and fun. They are also habit-forming. A bit like smoking.
It's smoking the mobile phone worry-mongers most refer to when they set this scene. The health risks associated with mobile phones and the network-providing masts are, they say, potentially so grave that, in the words of one campaigner, "they make passive smoking look like air-freshener".
The analogy is intended to impress on us that the health risks are not immediately known and often denied by the industry peddling the potentially risky thing. A glance at our recent history of health scares confirms this: there's thalidomide, asbestos, BSE and, of course, smoking.
But this tobacco reference always gets dredged up to make a doom-laden, time bomb analogy, doesn't it? And, given our desire to hang on to our phones, we tend to sideline the worriers and instead go with what the government tells us. Which is that mobile phones and masts are safe. Well within safety limits, as a plethora of reviews and an independent report published in January have confirmed.
But the trouble is that too many people are getting sick. They live next to mobile phone masts - also known as base stations - and claim that it's the masts that cause the illnesses, which range from sleep disruption and rashes to motor neurone disease and cancer. A swell of experts around the world say that anyone who properly followed the science would begin to doubt the official verdict on phones.
And even in official circles, there is now a hint of concern, albeit low-key. Meanwhile, the scale of the problem may not yet be immediately apparent, according to Alasdair Philips at Powerwatch, a mobile phone and mast lobby group: "That will take 50 years to come out in the health of the general population," he says. "All we get now is symptoms in the canaries, the people who are sensitive."
What does emerge now is something that looks like a textbook case of innocent public versus scary business: an industry that presents one version of the truth; a body of campaigners that argues another. And in the middle sit the rest of us, confused, still clutching our phones, and wondering: should we be paying heed?
Mobile phones really took off in the 1990s, although the first UK mobile phone call, made by the late comedian Ernie Wise, took place in 1985. At first, phones were an irritatingly ostentatious display of yuppie money, risible and rude. Then the tech got slick and the phones got small. The lifestyle marketing rolled out, the prices rolled down and everyone rolled on to the mobile phone bandwagon. We were hooked. In 1997, 9.1m of us had phones; by 2000 it was 30.5m. By May 2003, there were, according to Ofcom (the regulator for the UK's communications industries), in excess of 50m mobile phones in the UK - owned by 75% of the adult population.
There were, from the start, rumblings about the health risks: would holding so close to your head an object that emits microwave radiation fry your brain in the same way that a microwave oven cooks your dinner? But they were routinely dismissed as unfounded.
We were reminded that we also thought TVs might be dangerous when they came out, and look at the unmitigated nonsense that turned out to be. However, by the mid-1990s those whose ears were already glued to their phones were encouraged to put a headset between the two - and, interestingly, some operators had already patented low-radiation mobile phones during the late 1980s.
But more interesting still was the heady realisation that mobile phones could be used for so much more than calling. And so along came the smart new phones: the picture messaging, video conferencing, information services and internet access.
Many of the phones we buy today can already do all these things, if slowly. To get them going really fast, we need to upgrade from the second-generation network, 2G, to the brighter, sleeker 3G. It's the difference, say the enthusiasts, between dial-up and broadband, between using a trunk road and a motorway.
And that's why the low rumblings about mobile phones and health have recently grown much louder. Because our spiralling use of mobile phones and the 3G roll-out have resulted in many more masts going up across the UK. (The 3G network is long on strength - to power all those flashy new facilities - but very short on reach, so it relies on greater mast density.)
Currently, there are around 35,000 masts in the UK, but telecoms analysts Ovum roughly estimate that Britain's 3G operators will need at least 100,000 new masts. Add to that figure the tens of thousands of Terrestrial Trunked Radio (Tetra) masts being erected nationwide for a new police radio system. Hundreds of masts are going up each week.
And now they aren't just in remote fields, they are in your street, next to your bedroom, on top of your block, on the roof of your child's school. They are hiding in some Shell forecourt signs, church spires and McDonald's arches.
They're masquerading as burglar alarms along Oxford Street and as small, wall-mounted dishes in shopping centres. But across the country, it's the people who live directly next to or beneath a mast - exposed to its beam 24/7 - who are reporting the illnesses.
"I get a buzzing in my ears, nosebleeds, nausea and I can't get to sleep," says Alan Brooks, a retired printer who lives 20 metres from a mobile phone mast in Kensworth village, Bedfordshire. Brooks says he has felt this way since the mast went up, two years ago. If he spends a few nights elsewhere, away from a mast, he can sleep and his headaches stop.
Faisal Khawaja, 24, used to live in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where a mast went up 50 m from his house in 2002. "I immediately started to get symptoms such as dizziness, loss of concentration, loss of memory, and I got this clicking and high-pitched whining in my ears," he says.
He complained of constant headaches, but two doctors gave him a clean bill of health. Khawaja says he first became "sensitised" to radio waves when he started using a mobile phone three years ago. "I would only have to be on it for five seconds for the symptoms to flare up, and I'd get an intense, physical shock to the head." He has now moved, to get away from the mast.
Geraldine Attridge, 37, from Yew Tree, West Bromwich, was "certain from the word go" that her tinnitus-like symptoms had something to do with the phone masts on the roof of her high-rise block of flats. She was told, by both the local council and by Orange, which owned the mast, that this was impossible.
But, still concerned, Attridge put together a questionnaire and delivered it to 800 flats on the top floors of similar blocks in the area. She received 600 replies. "I was staggered by how many people sent the surveys back, wrote me letters and called round to see me," she says. "There may be a few cranks and hypochondriacs thrown in there, but I do feel that a lot of them are genuine."
Attridge's respondents were complaining of ringing ears, headaches and difficulty sleeping - which, along with dizziness, nosebleeds, rashes, nausea and loss of concentration, are typical of the problems reported across the country. The diversity of ailments, all of which could point to anything, are at the same time all possible symptoms of one thing: radiation sickness.
Dr Gerard Hyland, a theoretical physicist at the International Institute of Biophysics in Neuss, Germany, says, "They are all consistent with the kinds of effects we know radiation has. Nobody is reporting warts." There is no reason why anyone suffering any of these symptoms would suspect the phone masts, and there have been no surveys to establish any sort of link. Lisa Oldham, at the campaign group Mast Sanity, believes that if there were, we would be shocked: "You don't have to search very hard to find an ill-health cluster next to a mast," she says. "It is clear that there is a huge problem out there, waiting to be exposed."
At a local level, such exposures occur when neighbours start talking to each other. This was the case in Wishaw, near Sutton Coldfield, when Eileen O'Connor, 40, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and started bumping into neighbours at the hospital.
Like Attridge in Yew Tree, she started sending out letters to the houses next to the phone mast. "Neighbours started coming forward, saying I've got breast cancer, I've got skin rashes, I've got this, I've got that." Of the 50 people living in Wishaw, 25 have reported medical problems in the past two years. As well as cancers and skin rashes, the complaints include headaches, dizziness and sleep disturbances.
A T-Mobile mast was installed in 1994. After the failure of attempts by the village campaign group to negotiate a mast relocation, an environmental health officer, Gavin Tringham of Birmingham council, surveyed the area to see what might be causing this rate of illness. "We looked at air quality, noise, possible contaminated land, food and water suppliers," he says. "We could not identify anything in that area likely to be causing those illnesses." The area's primary health trust is now evaluating whether or not the illnesses can be attributed to the mast.
Meanwhile, the fears over masts and ill health are spreading. Sue Webster, a nutritionist and anti-mast campaigner in Totnes, Devon, has travelled across the country looking at trouble spots. "The illnesses reported are all the same," she says. "Even people in clusters don't quite believe it because the conventional view is that the masts are fine. You think it means nothing, but then you see the wider picture."
It certainly means enough to some people, who are taking what they feel are protective measures. When Khawaja was living next to a base station, he "spent thousands of pounds trying to shield my home with the stuff that they use to shield RAF, CIA and FBI buildings", he says. Such material might be used to safeguard communication equipment, for instance, and protects an area from electromagnetic radio waves.
In common with many people who choose to "protect" themselves from radiation from base stations, Khawaja slept under a metal net. The same material can also be used to make "headnets" to shield against excess microwave exposure. "Many people find that wearing the headnet at night improves their quality of sleep dramatically, " says Philips at Powerwatch. Khawaja, meanwhile, took matters a step further and made a metal-wire cube for himself so that he could work outdoors without being bombarded by microwaves.
So far, so anecdotal. And that's precisely the problem, because science does not rate anecdotes very highly. "Evidence for scientists is epidemiological - ie, looking at people and their habits and finding out what makes them ill," says Dr Mike Clark, scientific spokesman for the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), which advises the government - and is partly funded by the mobile phone industry.
After epidemiological studies, he adds, come animal experiments, then experiments in Petri dishes, and then the anecdote. "That is how we rank them. But with the media it is the other way around: the anecdote is king." The NRPB, along with the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a body that sets microwave emission safety levels, says there is no evidence to date to suggest that radiation at the levels coming from either masts or phones is a health risk.
Guidelines on mobile phone radiation rely on the "thermal effects" - they assess whether radiation from phones or masts is strong enough to heat human cells and cause damage. It isn't - indeed, it falls below safety levels by a factor of thousands. But some scientists suggest that the potential health risks are nothing to do with heat. "The guidelines protect us against something that isn't a problem," according to Hyland. He argues that, as well as heat, mobile phone and mast microwaves emit a kind of pulsing white noise that interferes with our bodies in the same way that phones interfere with aeroplane or hospital equipment. "The alive human body is an electromagnetic instrument, not just a bag of chemicals," he says. "Information is transported electrically, the body chemistry is controlled by electrical signals."
According to this theory, pulsing microwave radiation from masts and phones causes "interference" in the body, which impairs body function and could lead to illness. As Philips at Powerwatch puts it, "The body has gone from being in a whispering room to living in a singing, shouting football crowd. It can't get on with what it wants to do because of all the noise and rollicking around it."
Philips says this kind of electromagnetic noise has increased a million-fold in the past 20 years - mobile phones, cordless phones, Bluetooth and radio frequency ID technology all sit on a band of the spectrum that simply wasn't used before. He adds that you can measure this type of noise using an Acousti-COM, his own invention, which converts pulsing microwaves into audible noise. "If you took one down Oxford Street, the noise [from the Acousti-COM] would be deafening."
Unlike mobile phones, which get a much higher radiation dose over with in one short burst, masts transmit this lower beam of interfering, pulsing microwaves nonstop. This non-thermal theory accounts for why the masts do not adversely affect everyone. "The most important thing here is subjective vulnerability," says Hyland. "This is not relevant with heating effects, since anyone who put their hand in a fire would get burnt." Hyland likens this to varying susceptibilities to viral infections.
Clark at the NRPB says of this hypothesis, "The scientific consensus is that there is no evidence we are affected in that way. The only biological effect for which there is clear scientific evidence is the heating effect."
But others dispute such a view and point to a barrage of science suggesting the opposite. Dr Henry Lai, professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, Seattle, has been researching the effects of this type of radiation for 24 years. "I have seen a lot of effects," he says. "One is DNA damage, which is a concern because it can lead to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, and DNA mutation is a cause of cancer."
Lai adds that experiments showed memory and learning problems, and changes in brain chemistry in animals exposed to this type of radiation. "I hope I am wrong and that all these biological effects do not cause any harm, but I have a suspicion that this is not true." Other scientists across the world have found other biological links: cancer in lab rats, protein damage in worms, and dead brain cells in rats.
Concern is mounting. In October 2002, 59 doctors signed the Freiburger Appeal in Germany, asserting that mobile phone transmissions were linked to a "dramatic rise in severe and chronic diseases", including learning, concentration and behavioural disorders, brain-degenerative diseases and cancer.
Since then, 1,000 doctors in Germany have endorsed the appeal. In June 2000, scientists from 10 countries put together the Salzburg Resolution, recommending that mobile phone mast emissions should be 9,000 times lower than the ICNIRP guidelines. Back in the UK, 30 doctors last year signed a petition in Liverpool over a mast located in a residential area: "On the basis of currently available information, the long-term biological effects of mast emissions are unknown," the statement reads, concluding that the mast should be removed.
Also last year, research commissioned by three Dutch ministries found an adverse link between 3G masts and health: "From our research it appears that people have unpleasant sensations when they are exposed to fields generated by 3G base stations. The symptoms displayed vary from nausea and tingling sensations to dizziness," their press release concludes.
All in all, says Lai, "it is depressing that organisations such as the NRPB can come out with such statements on safety." He recently surveyed 280 papers relating to mobile phone technology and found that half reported some biological effects. "That figure is very alarming in my mind," he says.
The NRPB, however, states that independent bodies, such as the Stewart report of 2000 and the Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation in January this year, have assessed all the available research. "It is true that there is lots of biological evidence, but when others have tried to replicate it, they either can't or get a completely different result," says Clark.
"The independent groups have looked specifically at all the effects, but the results are so random that you could not develop a standard based on these effects. There is no evidence that they actually cause a health effect." Christine Jude, at the Mobile Operators Association, the trade group for the UK's five mobile phone companies (O2, Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange and 3), says, "Research has consistently concluded that the evidence does not suggest exposure to radio waves causes health problems. The balance of evidence shows there is no health risk to people living near base stations."
Meanwhile, other countries are taking a different approach. China has capped mobile phone radiation at less than half the levels allowed internationally. Maximum exposure levels in Australia, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium have been set well below ICNIRP guidelines and below the level at which non-thermal effects are thought to occur.
Russia has banned the use of mobile phones among under-16s. France, Austria, Spain, Italy and Australia have all extended the distance at which masts can be mounted in residential areas. In Sweden, meanwhile, electromagnetic sensitivity is recognised as a disability and legally treated as such.
Sensitive individuals react adversely when exposed to electromagnetic fields such as mobile phone microwaves - a kind of hi-tech peanut allergy. "It is estimated that around 3% of the population will display such a sensitivity, with maybe another 10-15% affected in some way," says Professor Olle Johansson at the department of neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm. Britain's Stewart report acknowledges such a possibility: "Populations as a whole are not genetically homogeneous and people can vary in their susceptibility to environmental hazards," it states.
The Stewart report's recommendations have, arguably, been heeded rather selectively. Sir William Stewart did in 2000 make a "no risk" assessment, but he also spoke of possible, as yet unknown effects. "It is not possible at present," his report concludes, "to say that exposure to RF radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects . . . the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach."
Responding to Stewart's call for further research, government and industry threw £7.4m into a pot designated for independent research. However, part of Stewart's precautionary approach relates to children: "If there are currently unrecognised adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head, and a longer lifetime of exposure."
Since the report, no new masts have been sited on school grounds - but there are still hundreds already in schools, dating back to the early 1990s, when schools would receive up to £10,000 to host a mobile phone mast. There is scant "precautionary" information disseminated to the public - Stewart has said that children should be discouraged from making non-essential calls and that his grandchildren would not be using mobile phones.
But how many parents know that? Judging by the number of kids babbling into their phones, not many. The Radiation Research Trust, a campaign group, recently found that government leaflets advising caution with children were offered in only one in five mobile phone shops. Jude at the Mobile Operators Association says, "Leaflets are available in the operators' stores, on their websites and on our own website." Meanwhile, though phone operators are not permitted to market to under-16s, the teen-hit ring tones and cuddly toy phone covers obviously do.
The Stewart report also recommended that phone masts should go through the same planning process as anything else - but that's debatable, too. According to Chris Maile, planning director at the campaign group Planning Sanity, about 50% of masts bypass planning regulations. "If the structure doesn't go above four metres and is on a roof, if it is on Network Rail property, if it is a small installation inside a lamp-post or church spire, or on a high street, it does not need planning permission," he says.
Also included in this 50% evasion figure are the masts that fall into the 56-day loophole - unique to mast applications, if a council does not inform operators of a planning decision within the 56-day time frame, it is automatically assumed that permission has been granted. "Refused" masts are going up across the country (though not in Scotland, where this loophole does not exist) because of late letters from councils.
In one typical scenario in Bardsey, Leeds, a mast went up in January despite being refused by the council 18 months earlier, following a vociferous local campaign. "We were shocked and outraged when we realised a planning refusal could become a planning approval overnight without any further consideration of the case ... It's basically just very unfair," says Chris Nunn, a part-time GP and one of the Bardsey campaigners.
This loophole may recently have been sealed by a court decision in Swindon, where seven householders were in May last year awarded a total of £117,000 from their local council for devaluation of property after a 20ft mast was erected in their neighbourhood. The mast was approved by default, because of the 56-day ruling - and it was this "maladministration causing injustice" that swung the case. Faced with such a precedent, Maile thinks that local authorities have become more diligent.
But first a mast has to be refused - and scores of campaigners are finding that their objections to masts are overruled. "Councillors right across the country, right across the political spectrum, privately admit to their local residents that the council cannot refuse these applications because of fear of the cost of appeal by the operators," says Oldham at Mast Sanity.
Ninety per cent of mast cases do go to appeal; with other planning applications, that figure is closer to 40%. "A public inquiry [appeal] can cost £10,000, and if the inspector says it was unreasonable for the council to have refused application, they may have to pay £20,000 on top of that," says Maile. Of the 2,800 appeals relating to masts that have already taken place, 35% were lost by the councils. Maile says that, with this kind of pressure put on local authorities, it is a wonder that any mast applications are rejected in the first place.
There is also some confusion among local authorities over whether they can reject a mast application on the grounds of health concerns. Obliquely, government guidelines state both that they can and can't, and councils are reportedly opting for the latter.
But even planning officers are worried about mast applications. When Graham Jones, chief planning officer at Harrow council, surveyed 158 planning authorities, 86% of those officers thought there was a major problem with the mast planning application process, 95% thought it an important planning issue and 73% thought it an important health issue. "MPs across the county get more letters about this than about anything else," says Oldham, adding that most anti-mast campaigners are "people who have never objected to anything before".
These campaigns do not seem likely to fade; indeed, in eight recent instances across the UK, including at Wishaw in the Midlands, matters have moved into the realms of direct action and masts have mysteriously "fallen down".
Each time anyone makes a mobile phone call or sends or receives a text, it is registered so that companies can plan where to site extra masts. These base stations cost between £20,000 and £80,000. "The companies can only afford to put up more base stations because so many people are using their phones so much," says Philips at Powerwatch. Lured by the incentive of free minutes, we are using these phones as landlines - accelerating the drive for more masts in residential areas.
A financial illiteracy among the public, plus confusing mobile phone tariffs, may in part account for that. A recent Which? report concluded that mobile phone shops often give poor tariff advice, while 43% of contract customers surveyed didn't know what tariff they were on or couldn't estimate their monthly bill.
That's particularly true of young phone users, suggests Jessica Bridges Palmer at the New Economics Foundation thinktank: "They might move into a new home and decide they aren't going to have two forms of communication.They don't have a way of comparing costs and so it seems a better deal to have a mobile rather than spend on installing a landline."
Meanwhile, 3G is likely to be pushed to the public with some intensity. In 2000, the government sold the licences for the 3G spectrum to five phone operators for £22.5bn - 600% above the expected amount. "They must have been smoking something when they bid for those licences," says Jeremy Green of Ovum.
Indeed, the operators did try to get their money back, to which a government spokesman, according to the New Scientist, responded: "It's not like taking clothes back to Marks & Spencer ... The government is not in the business of giving refunds." But, as Green points out, those licences have shelf lives - 15 to 20 years - and the sooner the network is in place the better. (At the moment, the 3G signal reverts to the old network outside big cities.)
Commentators predict that, once the networks are up and the handsets up to speed, all that remains is for the public to be "educated and encouraged to buy", as Alan Hadden, of the Global Mobile Suppliers Association, puts it. But buying 3G necessitates more masts outside more homes - possibly yours. No mast campaigner is suggesting we all throw our mobile phones on to a collective scrapheap, but there are clearly issues surrounding our spiralling and increasingly gimmicky use of this technology.
It's tempting, given our obvious love affair with mobiles, to dismiss mast-related illness as a crackpot theory held by neurotics and nimbyists. But how does that square with so many accounts of illnesses all falling into the same pattern, and so many scientists suspecting a link? Are we to accept that these illnesses are pure bluff or psychosomatic? And why would we accept such a verdict when there appears to be disagreement even within official circles?
Now that the NRPB is chaired by Sir William Stewart, who also directs the government's Health Protection Agency, it looks as though there is someone in a position of power with grave reservations about phones and masts. In an NRPB press release issued last week, Stewart reiterates "a need for a precautionary approach when there are genuine uncertainties in our knowledge". Whether this will result in any reduction in the number of masts going up remains to be seen.
Even accepting the government's current verdict on the issue is to accept an element of the unknown. As Mark Cooper, a father of two living under a mast in Plymouth, puts it, "I don't know what it is doing to my little ones. But in 20 years' time I might find out."