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Mobile Phones - Proceed with Precaution

by Simon Best(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 56 - September 2000

The ongoing debate over the possible hazards from mobile phone use was given its strongest warning of caution in the recent Report of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart FRS . . . Perhaps the most significant among its many recommendations was its support of a 'precautionary approach' to the use of mobile phones.

September is the month by which the new research programme on mobile phones, funded by the Department of Health and prompted by the recent Stewart Report, should swing into action. Whether this happens on time and what research is prioritized will certainly be interesting to see.

The ongoing debate over the possible hazards from mobile phone use was given its strongest warning of caution in the recent Report of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart FRS, Chairman of Tayside University Hospitals NHS Trust, Dundee, entitled Mobile Phones and Health.[1]

Perhaps the most significant among its many recommendations was its support of a 'precautionary approach' to the use of mobile phones. It particularly focused on the use by children, saying that 'Widespread use of mobile phones by children should be discouraged', and '… that the mobile phone industry should refrain from promoting the use of mobile phones by children.'

It recommended sending a leaflet to every household explaining the health issues, which should also be available at the point of sale. Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) information on every phone at the point of sale, a major well-funded research program, full planning permission for all new masts, a review of the evidence in three years (or before if warranted), and criticisms of the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), the UK's regulatory body, are among its other recommendations.

In its response, the Department of Health, which initiated the Report in May 1999, has accepted most of the recommendations regarding phones; how quickly they put it all into action remains to be seen. Regarding research, it has promised a budget of a 'several millions of pounds' – which (at, say, £3m) represents about 0.75 percent (!) of the £22bn the Government received from the auctions of third generation mobile phone licenses earlier this year (their full response is available at:

The NRPB, however, are finding it a little more difficult to come to terms with the main recommendation concerning themselves: that their current guidance covering exposure to microwave frequencies should be replaced by that of the International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP), currently some five times lower regarding mobile phone frequencies (for more details, see below). At the time of writing – some six weeks after the Stewart Report was published – they had not been able to formulate a response, which, I am told, may take some months.

Of the criticisms of the Report itself, perhaps the most challenging is why it left out certain major pieces of research in drawing its conclusions about the evidence for RF hazards. This has been assessed in detail elsewhere[2] but certainly many would disagree with its main conclusion that 'the balance of evidence suggests that exposures to RF radiation below NRPB… guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population.' (1.17) Quite what this balance refers to – 60 vs 40, 51 vs 49 percent – is not indicated, but its assessment cannot be accepted as comprehensive if specific, relevant pieces of research have been left out.

Besides the symptoms reported by users that range from heating sensation and skin irritation, headaches, eye and sleep problems, to short-term memory loss, disorientation and brain tumour, there is a growing body of research that cannot be dismissed. The industry, however, has continued to insist that there is insufficient evidence, that the phones are 'safe' and that the radiation they emit falls well within the guidance laid down by the NRPB, which currently refuses to acknowledge any such need and has stuck rigidly to its position of only taking account of heating effects in its guidance (the case with all international guidance), despite growing evidence and criticism.

Thermal versus non-thermal effects

The whole of the debate over mobile phones – and indeed over other sources of non-ionizing radiation such as VDUs, power lines, etc – centres on the evidence for and against thermal versus non-thermal biological effects. A thermal or heating effect on tissue is the currently accepted way that most orthodox scientists in this area consider that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) can pose a significant hazard to the body and thus all guidance, both national and international, continues to be based on this assumption. Even the Stewart Report has not basically challenged this view.

However, a growing body of evidence and opinion over the last decade indicates that effects can occur at levels well below that at which tissue begins to heat up and that these non-thermal effects can pose significant risk. But to assess this research, it is important to understand basically how a mobile phone works.

How a mobile phone works

Digital (as opposed to the older analogue) mobile phones use a frequency of approximately 900 MegaHertz (MHz) for the GSM (Global System Mobile) system used by Vodafone and Cellnet, and 1800 MHz for the PCN (Personal Communication Network) system used by Orange and One2One). Both fall in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum (see box) but phones for one system cannot be used with the other.

Besides the general evidence for the potential hazards of microwave radiation (which is used as a weapon system by both the Russians and the West), there is a further reason for concern: the mobile phone signal is 'pulsed'. This means that the main frequency 'carries' another signal – in this case at 217 Hz – which generates a regular, low-frequency pulsing effect into the brain. In fact, there are further subtle, harmonic pulses and fields to which the user is exposed. It is these, as well as other parameters of the signal, that are causing concern and which are not properly taken into account in current guidance advice.

The proposed new TETRA system (Truncated Terrestrial Radio), to be used mainly for the emergency services, some corporate networks and the London Underground, is especially alarming in this respect since it uses not only a 420 MHz signal (producing a waveform that maximizes radiation absorption for 3-6 year-olds!) but also a pulse at 17 Hz, right in the brain's beta rhythm!! This, despite a complete lack of research on possible health effects! BT has awarded a £2.5bn contract to Motorola to roll out the system across the UK, which will require in the order of 25,000 new masts. It is also promoted by Dolphin Telecom, which is owned by the Canada-based giant TIW, one of the winners of the licenses' auction.

Table 1. Adjusted Odds Ratios (p<0.05) for calling time using GSM phone with reference to reported symptom. Reference category is calling time less than 2 minutes a day. (K-H Mild et al, 1998)

Warmth behind ear
Warmth on ear
Burning skin
Warmth behind ear
Warmth on ear
Burning skin

2-15 min/d


>60 min/d



Recent research findings

It is impossible to go into great detail about recent research findings, which are covered in depth in issues of Electromagnetic Hazard & Therapy, but some recent studies are significant.

In 1998 Dr Kjell-Hansson Mild at the National Institute of Working Life in Umea, Sweden, reported a study of 11,000 users in Norway and Sweden comparing symptoms according to duration of use of both analogue and GSM phones.[3] Concentrating on the latter (since they represent 95% of phones sold in the UK), he found a significant dose-response relationship between reported symptoms (fatigue, headache, warmth behind or on ear, burning skin sensation) and duration of use, covering less than 2 minutes, 2-15 minutes, 15-60 minutes and over 1 hour. For example, those Swedes using a phone for more than an hour were 22 times more likely to report an increase in warmth behind the ear than those using them for less than 2 minutes; the equivalent figure for Norwegians was 16-fold (see Table 1). These results clearly show that a heating effect does occur, although how far it penetrates into the brain and whether this effect itself is responsible for all the reported symptoms, is still unclear.

Phantom head from laboratory of Dr Camelia Gabriel. The head has a special shape for
SAR testing and can be turned round for testing at either ear. The robot which scans the probe inside the liquid filled head
is specially made with no metallic components in the moveable arm.


Other research, also in Sweden by Professor Leif Salford at Lund University, has shown that radiation at mobile phone frequency can change the blood-brain barrier that normally allows certain chemicals to cross and keeps others out. He observed that after only 2 minutes' exposure to mobile phone intensities, rats displayed changes in the permeability of the blood-brain barrier.[4] This is clearly a worrying finding that suggests a non-thermal effect. Work by Prof. Ross Adey in the US, a world leader in research with over 35 years' experience, has shown that calcium efflux in brain cells can occur when exposed to low-level microwave radiation near mobile phone frequencies.

Another American researcher, Professor Henry Lai, at the University of Washington in Seattle, has reported increased strand breaks in DNA in rats' brains,[5] although some are claiming not to be able to replicate the effect.

Back in the UK Dr Alan Preece at Bristol University reported in April 1999 that he had observed an effect of mobile phone radiation on human cognition – specifically the speeding up of a choice reaction test.[6] However, given that he used 15 different tests on only two groups of 18 subjects exposed for two sessions of 30 minutes, the finding may easily have been a chance result. Also the signal used did not exactly match that produced by a GSM phone, a deficit not helped by the derisory grant from the Department of Health of a mere £3,000!

By contrast, Dr John Tattersall, based at Porton Down Chemical and Biological Defence base in Wiltshire, funded to the tune of £113,000 by the DoH, recently reported effects of RF radiation of rats' hippocampal brain sections at non-thermal levels well below current NRPB guidelines.[7] He observed changes in the electrically evoked potentials and in long-term potentiation that were not due to heating.

Aside from his results one has to ask why the DoH choose to give such a sum to Porton Down rather than awarding it on the open university market place where one can be reasonably assured that all results will be fully published.

Meanwhile at Nottingham University Dr David de Pomerai has exposed nematode worms to microwaves from a Nokia 2110 phone and found that their cells produce high levels of 'heat shock proteins' (HSPs), at levels that did not produce a measurable temperature rise.[8] HSPs are so-named because they were first observed to be produced in response to a considerable rise in temperature (at least 2°C) but in fact are produced whenever cells start to experience any damage to the protein structure in DNA and RNA.

It is research such as the above that is causing a growing number of researchers and others to be concerned over non-thermal effects and to question the real safety of any guidance based solely on limiting thermal increases.

NRPB guidance based on SAR

Current NRPB and international guidance is based on the SAR, which is a measure on how much radiation is absorbed per gram of tissue over a given time. The NRPB focuses purely on preventing temperature rises exceeding 1°C and bases its guidance on keeping any heating to less than 10 watts per kilogram (10 W/kg) in any 10 grams of tissue averaged over 6 minutes. By contrast, the International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP) uses 2 W/kg – five times lower (the US uses 1.6 W/kg but in 1 gram of tissue). The Stewart Report recommended that the UK fall in line with Europe and adopt the ICNIRP levels in place of current NRPB guidelines, which is at least a step in the right direction but an embarrassment to the NRPB – particularly as this was also recommended in September 1999 by a House of Commons Select Committee Report,[9] but rejected at the time.

However, the whole basis of using SAR as a reliable measure of exposure, given the complexities of the signal, has been questioned. At a special seminar held at the House of Commons in June 1999, with speakers from overseas (including Prof. Lai from the US) and the NRPB (including Professor Richard Doll) and attended by MPs and pressure groups, Professor Michael Kundi, of the Institute of Environmental Health at the University of Vienna, presented five basic assumptions in using an SAR for mobile phones that can be scientifically challenged.[10] As Kundi pointed out, the use of an SAR is only valid if a continuous wave applies (as in a microwave oven), but where the signal is modulated – as with the pulsed mobile phone signal – this measure is not appropriate because of the stronger effect such a signal has been shown to have on biological membranes.

Although SARs may enable a useful, crude comparison of phones' emissions, many argue that their actual value as indicators of relative safety may be misleading. The Stewart report recommended that new research should aim to elucidate this issue. In the meantime one can take measures to reduce exposure from both types of radiation.

Protective devices – beware the scare Which? project!

The Stewart Report recommended that an independent assessment be made of the efficacy of protective devices on the market. According to the DTI, they have already commissioned independent tests of hands-free kits and will publish the results shortly.

Although the NRPB tends to dismiss the need for or efficacy of protective devices, the BMA, in its evidence to the above House of Commons Committee, called for 'prudent avoidance' and recommended that consumers should have access to protective devices to reduce radiation. One of the possible ways of achieving the latter is to use a remote, hands-free earpiece that significantly reduces radiation into the head.

However, this year's April issue of Which? published a report (pp. 11-17) claiming that research it had carried out showed that hands-free headsets tripled EMF exposure ( However, the claimed results have been strongly criticized and Which? has been less than forthcoming in releasing its data and methodology. The research was actually carried out by ERA Technology in Leatherhead, Surrey, which tested only two phones but refuse to discuss their findings. They did not do a full SAR test but instead took a single set of readings of the electric and magnetic fields 4 cm inside a simulated skull. This was criticized by Dr Alan Preece at Bristol University who said they should have done at least three measurements.

Having finally been pressured into releasing the full report, it transpires that what the Which? test actually found was that the electric field was three times higher if the phone was connected to the earpiece compared to when placed next to the model head – but only when the phone was vertically below the head (as when strapped to the user's belt). When placed horizontally, the field was unchanged. In either situation the magnetic field was also unchanged.

By contrast, tests carried out for Vodafone by Dr Camelia Gabriel, of Microwave Consultants in London and a director of SARTest, which specializes in developing 'phantom' heads to test SARs (see photo), have found no such increased exposure. Indeed, even in a worst-case situation, SAR reductions of more than 80% were measured (for full results, see Her results strongly challenge the validity of Which?'s results and methodology, which in turn casts some doubt over other tests they have performed.

Previous tests by others, such as Alasdair Philips of the consumer information group Powerwatch, have found only a 15-30% increase into the ear in a worse case scenario. Thus, these devices are useful for keeping the phone away from the body and only emphasize advice to keep calls as short as possible.

Of other devices on the market, the two with the most research and testing are the Microshield and Tecno AO Antenna. The former is a barrier shield that tests show does reduce radiation into head significantly, depending on what level of power the power is using. The Tecno device aims to boost the body's ability to cope with the radiation and aims to reduce the effects of the 217Hz pulse, which tests show it does mitigate. Both provide research to back up their claims.

Given the evidence that already exists, the research yet to be done, and the considerable uncertainty over the validity of current guidance, some sort of protection, especially for young people, is wise, as well as keeping calls as short as possible. Considering the organs involved I would strongly suggest it is worth erring on the side of caution: you are talking about cumulative, pulsed RF radiation into your head, eyes and other organs possibly every day for the rest of your life! For children, especially, that will – hopefully – be a very long time.


1. Mobile Phones and Health. IEGMP (Chair: Sir William Stewart), 2000. Full report at website: . Also available from the NRPB, price £20; ring (01235) 831600.
2. R. Coghill. Mobile Phones and Health: why the missing evidence? Electromagnetic Hazard & Therapy (1).11. 2000.
3. Comparison of analogue and digital mobile phone users and symptoms. A Swedish-Norwegian epidemiological study. Kjell-Hansson Mild et al, National Inst. of Working Life, Umea, Sweden, Arbetslivsrapport 23. 1998. Email: for details and cost.
4. Salford L et al. Permeability of the blood-brain barrier by 915 MHz electromagnetic radiation, continuous wave and modulated at 8, 16, 50, 200 Hz. Microsc. Res Tech. 27:535-42. 1994.
5. Lai H & Singh N. Single- and double-strand DNA breaks in rat brain cells after acute exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. Intern J Radiat Biol. 69:513-21. 1996.
6. Preece A et al. Effect of a 915MHz simulated mobile phone signal on cognitive functioning man. Intern J Radiat Biol. 75(4):447-56. 1999.
7. Tattersall J et al. The effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in the electrophysiology of rat brain slices in vitro. IEE Science meeting, 28 June 1999, London, ref: 99043. CBD Porton Down.
8. Daniells C, de Pomerai D et al. Transgenic nematodes as bio-markers of microwave-induced stress. Mutation Research 399:55-64. 1998.
9. Mobile Phones and Public Health, Select Committee report, House of Commons (no 489). Either ring 0345 023474 (credit card) or write to: Stationery office, Box 276, Publications Centre, London SW8 5TD. In two volumes, approx. £20. Also website: – go to Science and Technology Committee.
10. Report in Electromagnetic Hazard & Therapy 1-2:3. 1999.

Further Information

For details and back issue contents, send an s.a.e. to: Electromagnetic Hazard & Therapy, Box 2039, Shoreham, W. Sussex BN43 5JD. Premium rate Information Line available (£1.50/min): 0906 4010237. email: ; website:

Basic definitions
  The electromagnetic spectrum is basically divided into ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. The former has sufficient energy in its frequency to strip electrons from nuclei, i.e. to ‘ionize’ them, the latter does not. It is this distinction that has caused many orthodox scientists to believe and give the impression that, implicitly, non-ionizing radiation poses little hazard, except in its capacity to heat tissue. Research over the last 30 years has shown that is not the case. Both RF and MW radiation fall within the non-ionizing spectrum.
   1 Hertz (Hz) = one cycle per second; 1 kiloHertz (kHz) = 1,000 Hz; 1 MegaHertz (MHz) = 1,000,000 Hz; 1 GigaHertz (GHz) = 1,000,000,000 Hz.
   Radiofrequency (RF) spans approximately 100 kHz to 300 MHz; microwave (MW) 300 MHz to about 30 GHz.



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About Simon Best

Simon Best MA is the editor of Electromagnetic Hazard & Therapy News Report. Simon Best has a background in psychology and is co-author, with biophysicist Dr Cyril Smith of Salford University, of Electro-magnetic Man: health and hazard in the electrical environment (Dent, 1989), which won the Journal of Alternative & Comple-mentary Medicine Book of the Year award in 1990. Although currently out of print in English (available in libraries and via the authors) it is published in French and Italian. Since the book, he has edited and published for 10 years the quarterly news report Electromagnetic Hazard & Therapy which covers all aspects of electromagnetic pollution as well as the positive uses of electromagnetism in various therapies.

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