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Mobile phones are safe, but let’s panic anyway

The experts' schizophrenic message about mobiles captures society's curious love/dread relationship with new technologies.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

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What is it with the mobile phone scare?

Study after study has failed to find any evidence that using a mobile phone causes brain cancer (or ‘fries our brains’ as the tabloids like to put it). And yet the authors of all the studies still warn us to be super-careful when it comes to mobiles: to avoid using them too often, and to think twice about giving handsets to our children. You know, just in case these little electronic bundles of bleeps and radiation might cause some unknown harm now or in the future. Like something out of a dimestore horror novel, the scientists’ and politicians’ message to society seems to be: ‘Mobile phones are safe…or are they?’ (Indeed, Stephen King, the master of horror-writing, depicted the mobile as an evil machine that turns people into flesh-eating zombies and telekinetic psychos in his novel Cell, brilliantly capturing contemporary society’s curious love/dread relationship with new technologies.)

Now, just as spiked has launched a new debate on the ‘mobile footprint’ in conjunction with the mobile service provider O2, another study finds, yet again, that mobile phone-use is safe – and it warns, yet again, that we should err on the side of caution anyway. The continuing failure to uncover evidence that mobiles are bad for our health, coupled with the continuous warnings that mobiles might be bad for our health, shows that the mobile phone panic has little to do with science. This is not an ‘evidence-based’ scare, to use the buzzphrase of the moment. Instead, the mobile has become a metaphor for a generalised free-floating feeling of fear, and for today’s widespread sentiment that everything should be treated as dangerous unless it has been shown beyond a shadow of a doubt to be 100 per cent impeccably safe.

The latest study, published yesterday by the UK Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, is the work of 28 teams of experts. With a budget of £8.8million, they spent the past six years exploring possible health impacts of mobile phone-use. Their conclusion? That there’s no evidence that mobiles cause cancer. The experts said their findings were ‘reassuring’, showing no association between mobile phone-use and brain cancer and ‘no evidence’ of immediate or short-term harms to health from mobile phones. The six-year study also ‘failed to substantiate’ any of the wild claims that have been made about mobile phone masts causing increased cancer rates amongst the communities in which they are erected. As Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats’ science spokesman, said: ‘This report is good news for the public, phone users and the industry. There is no basis on health grounds for any further tightening of regulations or advice on mobile phone masts or the use of handsets.’

Phew. Except…the authors of the study decided to flag up what they don’t know as well as what they do. Professor Lawrie Challis, chairman of the research programme, said: ‘We cannot rule out the possibility that cancer could appear in a few years’ time, both because the epidemiological evidence we have is not strong enough to rule it out and, secondly, because most cancers cannot be detected until 10 years after whatever caused them.’ So while the report was ‘reassuring’ on the safety of mobile phone-use now, ‘we can’t reassure people about the long-term use’, said Challis. Some of the researchers even pointed out that it took 10 years for anyone to realise there was a link between smoking and cancer. It is true, of course, that it’s impossible to rule out some potential future harm from mobile phone-use; it is impossible to prove a negative: that mobiles will never pose any risk at all. But should we really worry that chatting to our mates on a mobile might be doing to our brain what sucking in smoke does to the lungs? Surely health advice should focus on warning people of proven dangers, rather than pushing us to fantasise about hypothetical worst-case scenarios?

As well as talking up future unknowns, the research coordinators threw into the debate what we might call ‘present unlikelies’. They said there was a ‘very slight hint’ of increased incidences of brain tumours among long-term users of mobiles, which is at ‘the borderline of statistical significance’. That sounds to my admittedly unscientific mind like a roundabout way of saying there is possibly a statistically insignificant risk of harm to some users.

Consequently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, a study which found no association between mobile phone-use and cancer, and which was welcomed by sensible scientists as a green light for us to continue chatting and texting to our heart’s content, has been transformed in some quarters into a document which foretells mankind’s diseased doom. ‘Mobile phones could cause cancer to long-term users’, said the London Evening Standard. ‘Mobile phones: they could cause major cancer explosion in years to come’, bellowed an online alternative health magazine. It is a sad sign of the times when even a seemingly airtight scientific study which found no evidence that mobiles are bad for our health can generate handwringing headlines claiming that mobiles are…bad for our health!

A headline in The Times (London) captured the schizophrenic message sent out by this latest research project: ‘Mobile phones don’t cause cancer in the short-term. Long-term, who knows?’ This is not the first time that a study has found no evidence of harm yet posited the possibility of harm. ‘Who knows?’ just about sums up officialdom’s attitude to new mobile communications and their possible impact on our heads. In 2000, the report Mobile Phones and Health, generally known as the Stewart Report after Sir William Stewart, who chaired the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones that produced it, 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 said 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’. So it 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’.

In January 2005, Sir William Stewart launched a report by the National Radiological Protection Board, the government’s advisory board on radiological issues. That report simply restated existing knowledge on mobile phone-use (that there is no evidence of harm to human health), yet Stewart chose the occasion of the report’s launch to ‘speak from the heart’. He said: ‘I don’t think we can put our hands on our hearts and say that mobile phones are totally safe.’ Therefore we shouldn’t give them to children under eight, he advised. Needless to say, Stewart’s heartfelt but non-scientific feeling that mobiles might be bad for little’uns – his elevation of the heart over the mind, one might say – stole headlines away from the fact that, yet again, a report had failed to uncover evidence of mobiles damaging health. Also in 2005, a study published in the British Journal of Cancer, which surveyed data from five European countries and the health of 4,000 people, found that using a mobile for up to 10 years poses no increased risk of acoustic neuroma (a rare tumour of the nerve connecting the ear to the brain). How did the Health Protection Agency in Britain respond to this study? By saying: ‘This is good news…but we still need to be a bit cautious.’

From Stewart in 2000 to the big new study this week, this is the precautionary principle in action. The fear of mobile communications demonstrates the extent to which super-precaution – the idea that everything should be treated as dangerous until it has been proven safe beyond all doubt – dominates public discussion today. The evidence to date suggests there is nothing inherently dangerous about mobile phones or masts – and yet, precisely because they are so commonplace and now so central to our everyday lives, they have become the focus of general fears about new technologies, invisible signals, radiation, environmental destruction, bullying and just about everything else. This has led to a schism: on one hand, studies suggest mobile phone-use is safe, and sales figures show that people find them extremely useful for both work and play; on the other hand, there is ongoing political and public trepidation about the spread of mobiles and masts and what impact they might have on The Future. Consequently, even as millions of people enjoy the liberating aspect of always being communicado, there is also a lurking sense of unease that contributes to a general anxiety about everyday life, and especially its impacts on our children.

The mobile is the ideal metaphor for today’s culture of fear. Society’s discomfort with breaking technological boundaries, because of the impact it might have on the environment or human health, is projected on to the mobile and mobile phone masts. So is officialdom’s fear of potentially ‘toxic’ human contact. Some seem uncomfortable with the idea of millions of people talking and texting anywhere and anytime they please; witness the numerous shock stories about mobiles being used to bully people, or even to lure them into being kidnapped. This fear of mobiles is likely to be doing more damage than mobiles themselves, certainly in the here and now. While we can be fairly sure that mobile phones are not damaging our health, the precautionary principle is harming society: it is slowing down new technological developments, stunting investment in newer and improved forms of communication, and spreading fear and queasiness amongst the population.

What do you think? Switch off your mobile for five minutes and contribute to the spiked/O2 debate on whether mobile phones are a threat to the natural environment. Click here.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

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

Topics Science & Tech

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