The wrong signals

A major new study rejects the notion that mobile phones cause cancer. That the health authorities tell us to worry anyway shows that there's more to this debate than the science.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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‘This is good news but we still need to be a bit cautious.’ So Dr Michael Clark from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) commented upon a major new study that finds no evidence of a link between mobile use and brain cancer (1).

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, includes data from five European countries and 4,000 people, and found that using a mobile phone for up to 10 years seems to pose no increased risk of acoustic neuroma, a rare tumour of the nerve connecting the ear and the brain. Good news indeed, for the billion-plus users of mobile phones worldwide. ‘But we still need to be a bit cautious’? Why?

This is the precautionary principle in practice. The orthodoxy that, until something can be proven safe, it should be treated as potentially dangerous, has dictated the terms of the mobile phones and health debate in Britain for the past five years, and shows no sign of loosening its grip – however many good news studies are published, and however many more handsets are sold. Given that it is impossible to prove a negative – that mobile phones will never pose any risk at all – under the terms of the precautionary principle, it must always be assumed that they could potentially pose some risk. Is this situation doing us any good?

The HPA’s response to this new study, the largest to date, reveals the tension within the UK’s ‘precautionary approach’ to mobile phones, laid down by the report of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart, on Mobile Phones and Health – commonly known as the Stewart Report. This report, published in 2000, found that ‘The balance of evidence to date suggests that exposures to RF radiation below [official] guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population’. However, the report also argued that ‘it is not possible at present to say that exposure to RF radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects’. The report therefore recommended that ‘a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available’ (2).

As Adam Burgess has argued on spiked, the Stewart Report was essentially two reports in one: the first of which was an exemplary scientific review of knowledge in this particular field, and the second of which was about self-consciously acknowledging public anxieties (3). Consequently, despite the fact that the Stewart Committee found no scientific evidence that mobile phones or base stations harmed our health, its political advice was to adopt a ‘precautionary approach’ – which involved setting in motion an ongoing programme of research designed into the potential risks of mobile phones and masts, tighter regulations upon the mobile phone industry, particularly in relation to the siting of masts and the promotion of mobile phones to children, and a sheaf of public health information indicating that while mobile phones had not been proven dangerous, consumers should take care not to use them too much – and children should not really be using them except for ‘essential calls’.

This led to a highly confusing public health message – that the evidence suggests that phones and masts are safe, but we should worry about them anyway. Five years on, this schism between the science and the politics of the UK’s precautionary approach to mobile phones has become wider.

In January 2005, Sir William Stewart launched a new report by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), the government’s advisory board on radiological issues. There was little new in the report, which is simply a restatement of the existing knowledge that there is no evidence of human harm from mobiles. But what the press picked up was Stewart’s decision to ‘speak from the heart’ about why we should be careful with our phones nonetheless. ‘I don’t think we can put our hands on our hearts and say that mobile phones are totally safe’, he said, and therefore argued that children under the age of eight should not be allowed to have them at all (4).

The upshot of this is a paradox. Mobile phones are proving relentlessly popular: in the UK, there are now more mobile phones than people, and the telephone consultants Mobile Youth predict that by the end of this year 750,000 5-9 year olds, and 3.69million 10-14 year olds, will have mobile phones (5). In the UK, over 200million mobile phone calls are made every day. However concerned the health authorities are to promote caution in our usage of mobile phones, the British public shows little sign of taking the message on board in their everyday lives. Good for the British public, who have shown themselves well capable of weighing the obvious and proven social benefits of mobile phones against garbled and unhelpful official advice – and throwing precaution to the wind.

But only up to a point. Mobile usage is tempered by a grinding anxiety that we may be doing ourselves some damage. Hefty media coverage is given to some dodgy studies that hint at some health danger or another, while even the reassuring ‘no risk’ stories carry the caveat that we can’t be too careful – ‘MOBILES DO NOT GIVE YOU CANCER…but that’s only for first 10 years you use them’, states one headline in the Mirror (6). Parents, in particular, find themselves caught between two (equally overblown) panics – do you give your child a phone and risk harming their brain, or do you refuse to give them a phone and put them at risk of abduction by paedophiles? While there are many reasons why a parent would not want a child under eight to have his own mobile (the phone bill, for one thing), such decisions are clouded by health advice that many people do not find convincing enough to follow, yet they feel guilty when they choose to ignore it.

And then there is the question of the masts. The massive usage of mobiles and the vociferous campaigns against the base stations needed to make them work is the most glaring contradiction in the debate about mobile phones and health, and speaks most clearly to our culture of fear. Lobby groups such as Mast Sanity (7) mount ongoing and often successful campaigns against new mobile phones masts, with support from some celebrities and policy-makers, and even those who do not actively support their cause tend to assume that it is a reasonable one. The preposterous character of many of these campaigns, in which the objections of one or two individuals are promoted as representative of the views of a whole community and the NIMBYism of the few means that many struggle to get reception on their phones, is rarely pointed out.

Nor is the science – which, as Burgess has argued, contradicts the commonsense assumption that the closer one is to a mast, the more one might be at risk. In fact: ‘[T]he further away from a mast, the ‘harder’ the mobile has to work, meaning the more powerful the radiofrequency radiation has to be.’ (8) So there is no evidence that base stations harm our health at all, and even if they did, it would be those living further away from the mast who would have more cause to worry. But from the health authorities downwards, the less-than-rational fear that there is something nasty about masts gets more purchase than the facts of the matter.

Personally, I have little sympathy with those individuals who stoke up overblown fears about the vague and unproven possibility that mobile phone masts might someday have some adverse impact upon their health, with the consequence that others are stopped from using their phones effectively. But even so, I find it hard to blame them, as the anti-mast lobby gets both its arguments and its clout directly from official sources. So again, the Stewart Report concluded on the mast question that: ‘[T]he balance of evidence indicates that there is no general risk to the health of people living near to base stations on the basis that exposures are expected to be small fractions of guidelines.’ Yet it added the caveat ‘However, there can be indirect adverse effects on their wellbeing in some cases’ – which seems to amount to the argument that if individuals don’t like living by a mast, this is grounds enough for objection (9).

The report went on to recommend that ‘particular attention should be paid’ to the issue of base stations near to schools ‘and other sensitive sites’, and issued instructions that when base stations were situated in or near school grounds, ‘the beam of greatest intensity should not fall on any part of the school grounds or buildings without agreement from the school and parents’. It is hard to see how any parent could conclude from this that there is no problem with having a mobile mast near their children, either at home or at school – and so it is hardly surprising that they mount objections. Hardly surprising, but highly problematic nonetheless.

Of course, it is impossible to rule out that mobile phones or masts could potentially have some adverse impact upon health at some time in the future. It is true to say that even a major study such as the latest one on phones and cancer can only study people for as long as mobile technology has been around, and therefore cannot conclusively point to ‘no risk’ after more than 10 years. We do worry about our children’s health more than we do our own, and even for aesthetic reasons, few people would actively want a mast in their back yard.

But the development of technology requires leadership, not Luddism. Health advice should be about warning people of proven dangers, not encouraging them to fantasise about hypothetical worst-case possibilities. And while it seems that mobile phones probably don’t harm our health, the precautionary principle does harm our society, through slowing down new developments and spreading suspicion and fear.

A new spiked/O2 debate on mobile phones and health will be launching in the Autumn. Watch this space.

(1) Mobile phone cancer link rejected, BBC News, 30 August 2005

(2) Summary and recommendations, Mobile Phones and Health, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, 11 May 2000

(3) Dial-a-scare, by Adam Burgess

(4) Expert spells it out: health fears mean young should not use mobile phones, David Adam, Guardian, 12 January 2005

(5) Five things you should know about…kids and mobiles , Lucy Atkins, Guardian, 11 January 2005

(6) MOBILES DO NOT GIVE YOU CANCER … but that’s only for first 10 years you use them, Lorraine Fisher, Mirror, 31 August 2005

(7) Mast Sanity website

(8) Dialling up an old panic, by Adam Burgess

(9) Summary and recommendations, Mobile Phones and Health, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, 11 May 2000

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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