UK: ONE-MINUTE BRIEFS - How long do you hold your head in the microwave?

UK: ONE-MINUTE BRIEFS - How long do you hold your head in the microwave? - A small but growing band, which includes some scientists and people the likes of entrepreneur Richard Branson, fear that mobile phones have brought us to the brink of a health sca

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A small but growing band, which includes some scientists and people the likes of entrepreneur Richard Branson, fear that mobile phones have brought us to the brink of a health scandal to rival tobacco. They are worried that the microwave radiation which transmits mobile phone signals may be harmful. The alleged effects of close and lengthy exposure to the head range from headaches to cancer. Pregnant women have been said to incur raised blood pressure and long calls have been blamed for memory loss and tiredness.

So far, phone manufacturers and service providers insist there is no reason to worry or even take precautions. 'We are very confident from the research we have done over 10 years that mobile phones are safe,' Jorma Ollila, Nokia's chief executive, has stated. The critics argue, however, that this is exactly what the tobacco companies said for years - until it became widely accepted that smoking could cause serious damage to health, that is.

The evidence remains patchy but it has been enough to send scientists scurrying to their laboratories, and for organisations such as the European Commission and the United Nations' World Health Organisation (WHO) to commission serious research into possible harmful effects on humans. The environment committee of the European Parliament has recently completed a report on the issue.

Medical research into the effects of microwaves has been going on for 45 years but, until recently, there have been no calls to study the effects of lengthy and close exposure of the head to the waves. The first serious epidemiological studies are not expected for at least a year, but it seems that while the risk from holding a mobile phone next to your head is way behind sticking your head in a microwave oven (the energy level is about one six-hundredth), the principle is the same. To a tiny extent, a mobile phone heats the tissues in the head and the radiation, which is 'non-ionising', may affect the brain. Further, the brain is believed to produce its own microwave activity and some scientists, such as Gerard Hyland of Warwick University, believe the problem could lie with the interaction between that and the microwaves from a handset.

The National Radiological Protection Board, the Government's watchdog on radiation matters, says eminent scientists have concluded that 'there is no firm evidence that electromagnetic fields cause cancer ...' and 'effects on memory and other brain functions in people using mobile phones, under normal conditions of use, are not expected'. The WHO is similarly reassuring: 'Current scientific evidence indicates that exposure to low levels of radio frequency (RF) fields is unlikely to induce or promote cancers ... Scientific evidence does not indicate any need for RF-absorbing covers around mobile telephone handsets.'

But if all this sounds alarming, no one seems to agree on what the preventative solution is. Many are focusing on RF-absorbing shields to protect the head, and on the use of headsets which hold the unit further away from the body - on the basis that because the intensity of the field decreases dramatically as you move away from the source, any ill effects would be reduced. Biologist Roger Coghill says the only protection is to limit the length of calls. He believes that calls lasting less than five minutes are harmless, but no one should keep their phone clamped to their ear for more than 20 minutes at a time.

The lawyers will have to wait for any field day, however. As Martyn Day of Leigh, Day & Co has told 25 potential litigants, it is too early Until there is convincing evidence of the harmful effects of mobile phones, they will have little chance of success.

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