"The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm
but because of those who look at it without doing anything."
- Albert Einstein
Few would dispute that telecommunications has been the most revolutionary agent of change around the world in the last 25 years. First it was the Internet and its amazing capacity to broaden our horizons and overcome barriers of distance and time. And in the past decade, the most powerful symbol of connection has become the omnipresent mobile phone.
If anything, the pace of change is accelerating further as we enter the age of portable wireless technology, and the smaller the better. The latest 3G and 4G "smart phones" are now capable - and expected - of web browsing, emailing, music, games, news and weather reports, social networking, texting and, of course, conversing at any time and almost any place.
Again, almost no one would dispute the benefits the mobile phone revolution has brought to mankind; it oils the wheels of business, connects families and friends, children and anxious parents, provides shortcuts in all sorts of ways as we go about our busy lives where time is of the essence. An Australian Bureau of Statistics report in 2009 stated: "The mobile phone in Australia is now regarded as a commodity rather than a luxury." And, for the young, it's the "must have" accessory without which one risks social death.
Certainly, it's a trend that's driven largely by young adults. A report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in 2010 found that when young adults(those aged 18-24) leave home, one in three choose not to connect a landline, relying solely on their mobiles. And mobile usage among the age group 24-35 is almost universal at 95%.
And it's not just Australia. It's now estimated there are five billion mobile phone users around the globe, with China leading the way with more than one billion and India not far behind. Brazil has another one hundred million users. The International Telecommunications Union reports that in Africa there was a tenfold increase in mobile phones in the first five years of this 21st century, from 15.6 to 135 million. The mobile phone revolution is unstoppable - which makes it all the more imperative we pay heed to the increasingly urgent calls for their dangers to be acknowledged and safety standards to be enforced.
In March 2008, The Independent newspaper in the UK quoted leading neurosurgeon and cancer authority Professor Vini Khurana as predicting that mobile phones would kill more people than either smoking or asbestos. At that stage, three billion people used mobile phones, three times the number who smoked. And smoking, said Professor Khurana, kills five million worldwide each year.
Basing his conclusions on 100 studies of the effects of mobile phone radiation, he made a dire prediction that the link between mobile phone usage and certain brain tumours would be "definitively proven in the next decade". He continued: "We are currently experiencing a reactively unchecked and dangerous situation. It is anticipated that the incidence of malignant brain tumours will rise globally within the decade with far broader public health ramifications than asbestos or smoking." In a response that has characterised the mobile phone industry, the findings by the author of three dozen scientific papers were dismissed as "selective discussion... by one individual."(1)
But the calls are getting louder and stronger with one of the most powerful in recent months the release of the book Disconnect by respected epidemiologist and founding director of the United States National Academy of Sciences, Dr Devra Davis. It's the combination of her decades of contacts in science and the telecomunications industry, her wide research including many interviews with brain tumour sufferers and families of those who have died before their time, and, critically, her innate sense that all is not well with this industry that has driven her to write this book. She says, simply, "I want to keep my grandchildren safe."
Published in March this year, Disconnect has drawn critical acclaim from people in a position to judge including Dr Carlos Santos-Burgoa, past president of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology who suggests it, "will change the way the world thinks about cell phones and the potential public health disaster they represent."
It has certainly changed my own guarded but still complacent attitude towards how I use my phone and I will never go back to holding one against my head.
Dr Davis's greatest concern in all her research is to protect the health of children and the young. Her starting point was the premise that, "Everyone knows mobile phones are safe. If they weren't we'd already know about it, right?"
Nothing, as she discovered, could be further from the truth; it is, she charges, "perhaps the greatest disconnect of our age".
Even faced with such health threats as brain cancer, memory loss, neurological diseases including Alzheimer's, lower sperm counts and possibly autism, it is the increased risk to young, rapidly growing brains inside thin, soft skulls - those of toddlers and young children - that fills her with the greatest alarm. As she drily observes, "The faster that any cells are growing, the greater the chance they can make mistakes and endlessly repeat them. The thinner and pliant skulls of children help them survive (falls), as evolution designed, but the lack of 3G cell phones on the African savannah millions of years ago has left children susceptible to the radiation these phones now emit."
Let's not fool ourselves that young children aren't being exposed to any great extent. Of course, one would be too many but in South Australia in April 2009, 31%, or 60,000, of that state's cohort of children aged 5-14 owned a mobile phone, mostly for contacting family members. This was the same as the national proportion.(2) Smart phones have become even cooler since then. Australian usage may well now mirror the US experience where 50% of all eight year olds have a cell phone, rising to 75% among 12 year olds.
Dr Davis informs us that children's brains continue to grow into adolescence, and it's not only brain cells(neurons) that increase in number but also the ways in which they are connected to each other. The myelin coating around neurons provides strength and resilience - and, it seems, judgement, wisdom and impulse control, the attributes of increasing maturity.
We get a sense of the terrible vulnerability of a child's brain when we meet SAM, Standard Anthropomorphic Man, devised by American scientists in 1996 to set standard limits for mobile (cell) phone radiation. The thing is SAM is no ordinary guy. Dr Davis describes him as "ranked in size and mass at the top 10% of all military recruits in 1989, weighing more than 200 pounds (91kg), with an 11 pound (5kg) head, and standing about six feet two inches (1.8 metres) tall. SAM was also a man of few words, assumed to use his phone for no more than six minutes at a time.
Back in 1996 when testing of the effect on SAM's brain was being carried out - by pouring liquids of varying density into "an empty plastic head about the size of a ten pin bowling ball" to record how much radio frequency radiation reached specific parts of the skull (cell phones are essentially microwave radios receiving and sending millions of pulsed microwave signals), less than 5% of Americans used a cell phone. The SAM model also assumed the human brain to be of uniform consistency throughout when, in fact, it contains many different components including the hypothalamus, amygdala and bone marrow. As Dr Davis says, "SAM is a simpler fellow from simpler days when the idea that toddlers could be using cell phones was unimaginable." Women, teenagers and smaller adults didn't factor into the equation either.
It is now accepted that children's heads can absorb double or more the radio frequency energy of an adult head, simply because their skulls and bone marrow are thinner and much more absorptive.
Among the wealth of research detailed in Disconnect, a study currently underway in Russia - where children can be subjected to experimentation - is pointing the way to a disturbing future. For the past five years, scientists in Moscow have been following two groups of children aged five to 12, one using mobiles and the other not. Every year, the children are subjected to a full battery of psychological and physiological tests. Findings so far among the phone users include a reduced capacity to work, increased fatigue, poorer attention and semantic memory and a significant reduction in the ability to differentiate sounds. They are described as having a host of functional problems - difficulties with learning and behaviour. As Dr Davis summarises, "So far, their brains do not look to be different at all in terms of their structure, but the brains of those who are regular cell phone users just don't work as well." It can only be hoped the child guinea pigs of Russia pave the way for safer use of mobile phones for children everywhere!
It's a portent of a future forever compromised by childhood exposure that's echoed in other research conducted in Lund, Sweden into the blood-brain barrier and whether radio frequency can breach this supposedly impenetrable wall. For the past two decades, a team at the Rausing Laboratory for Experimental Neurosurgery and Radiation Physics has examined brain cells and whole animal behaviour in rodents exposed to mobile phone signals. Recently, the team has found that rats exposed to such signals for just two hours a day for a single week begin to leak microscopic fluid, albumin, from their brains into their blood. It is the breaching of the blood-brain barrier that allows anything circulating in our blood at the time - alcohol, drugs, toxic chemicals, cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust - to more easily enter the brain. Simply put, its defences are down.
But even while this microscopic leakage is occurring, the research shows the rodent brains look perfectly normal. But the way the brain works is not normal, showing evidence of forgetfulness, senility and loss of memory. Disconnect provides us with a recent warning from the Lund team: while noting that intense use of cell phones by children is unlikely to induce any obvious or immediate impacts on health, "it may, however, in the long run, result in reduced brain reserve capacity that might be unveiled by other later neuronal disease or even the wear and tear of aging. We cannot exclude that after some decades of (often) daily use, a whole generation of users may suffer negative effects, maybe already in their middle age."
Research into the blood-brain barrier is just one area where we become aware in reading this book of a concerted, relentless, deeply cynical campaign by the mobile phone industry to bury worrisome research findings beneath a welter of detail - and yet more research. A sizeable chunk of Disconnect is devoted to examining the machinations of the industry and exposing certain individuals who have sold out their principles and the strategies they have adopted in order to do it. We learn that the ability of radio frequency radiation to weaken the blood brain barrier was first demonstrated nearly four decades ago. But most studies since then have been sponsored directly by the industry with small, but critical, changes in the design so that it is predetermined that results cannot be replicated. Says Dr Davis, "The generation of negative studies in this area, as in many topics relating to the cell phone science, has been deliberate and effective until now. A tipping point arrives when the way things have appeared to work no longer makes sense. I believe that in the scientific world, we have arrived at that tipping point. "
It's telling that at a Congressional hearing in Washington in 2009 which attracted participants from 10 nations, all bar one of those testifying into mobile phone dangers indicated they used wired headsets or blue tooth devices to reduce direct exposure to their brains. The one exception is strongly identified in the book as an apologist for the mobile phone industry.
There is so much more in Disconnect to cause great concern - the prevalence of brain tumours among heavy phone users now showing up after one decade of widespread use, the warning from a Swedish medical researcher that those who begin using a mobile phone before the age of 20 run a five times greater risk of developing brain cancer, reduced sperm counts in men who keep their phones in their pockets, a three fold increase in tumours of the parotid gland in the cheek since 2003 among Israelis, among the highest users of cell phones in the world, the fact that mobile phones now carry health warnings, in small print of course, on the paperwork that comes with the package, the "tiny print and obfuscating language" yet another example, Dr Davis charges, of the profound "disconnect" between what the industry would have us believe and what is actually the case.
No one can deny that mobile phones are now an integral part of our society; the challenge for us all is to recognise and acknowledge their risks and impose standards that protect the most vulnerable, children, and take steps like requiring phones to be sold with earpieces and speakerphones - and then make a point of using them. As in so many areas of life, it is only through conscious and determined individual action, led, as in this case, by people of courage and dogged persistence that meaningful change can be achieved.
Dr Devra Davis