When it comes to mobile phone radiation, everyone thinks they're an expert. Recently, however, GQ talked to the real experts, and though there's no consensus, one thing's clear: the rest of the world is worried. The US is not.
Last week I posted a link to a study of the 20 mobile phones that emitted the most radiation. In the comments, readers were quick to debunk the notion of cellular radiation altogether, explaining that the radiation was non-ionising and thus definitionally unharmful.
GQ's report traces the mobile phone radiation story back to Allan Frey, a researcher who worked for GE in 1960, whose research proved that waves from the non-ionising part of the electromagnetic spectrum could, in fact, be damaging. After 15 years of studies, the Pentagon abruptly gave him an ultimatum: conceal his findings or risk losing his contract.
From there the story is a familiar one. Megacorporations exerting their influence to selectively promote their own studies and discredit those of others. It smacks of conspiracy, but then again, it doesn't really at all.
Louis Slesin, the founder of Microwave News, explains, "[t] he committees setting the EM safety levels at the [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]historically have been dominated by representatives from the military, companies like Raytheon and GE, the telecom companies, and now the cell-phone industry. It is basically a Trojan horse for the private sector to dictate public policy."
Even if Slesin is not the most unbiased commenter, having even the vaguest sense of what goes on behind the scenes in the US's biggest industries - GQ reminds its reader, in passing, of Big Tobacco, asbestos and Agent Orange - it's hard to say outright that he's bonkers. It's harder still when you get some perspective on what the rest of the world thinks.
The article references myriad international studies in which cell phone use was variously connected with "brain damage, early-onset Alzheimer's, senility, DNA damage and even sperm die-offs", as well as being found to increase the likelihood of tumours up to 40 per cent in adults.
One recent account, even acknowledging that the findings are preliminary, is particularly disturbing:
In a study by researchers associated with the venerable Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, which hands out the Nobel Prize for medicine, the massive expansion of digital PCS in Sweden during 1997 was found to have coincided with a marked but subtle decline in the overall health of the population. Might it be, the Karolinska researchers asked, that Swedes fell victim to the march of the first big microwave PCS systems? The number of Swedish workers on sick leave, after declining for years, began to rise abruptly in late 1997, according to the study, doubling during the next five years. Sales of antidepressant drugs doubles during the same period. The number of deaths from Alzheimer's disease rose sharply in 1999 and had nearly doubled by 2001. The authors of the study-Olle Johansson, a neuroscientist, and Örjan Hallberg, a former environmental manager for Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications company-"found that for all individual counties in Sweden there was a similar precise time" when health worsened. It occured, they said, almost simultaneously with the rollout of the new digital service. Correlation does not mean causation, but epidemiologists I spoke with say the data are strongly suggestive and need to be followed up.
Of course, it's not only mobile phone waves that we should be worried about:
In the summer of 2006, a super-Wi-Fi system known as WiMAX was tested in rural Sweden. Bombarded with signals, the residents of the village of Götene-who had no knowledge that the transmitter had come online-were overcome by headaches, difficulty breathing, and blurred vision, according to a Swedish news report. Two residents reported to the hospital with heart arrhythmias...This happened only hours after the system was turned on, and as soon as it was powered down, the symptoms disappeared.
I'm sure there are plenty of objections to be raised here, and I'm sure that they will be raised in the comments. And it's true, the verdict is still out, in many ways, on the science itself. But if nothing else, it's revealing just to see how aggressively other countries are pursuing that verdict, how closely they're looking at the issue. I'm glad, at least, that somebody is. [GQ]