Another Tobacco in the making?

Fresh evidence of health risks from cell phone use highlight the urgent need for public health warnings. Yet while organisations globally call for action, governments and public health institutions remain quiet on the subject.

In the twentieth century, governments were slow to wake up to the risks posed by tobacco consumption in the face of enormous economic pressure.

Today, independent scientists and health officials have been calling for new safety standards for wireless technologies, especially to address the risk to children and young people.

The updated BioInitiative Report released this month reviewed over 1800 scientific studies. Written by 29 scientists, and public health experts, it outlined the health risks arising from wireless technologies and electromagnetic fields, indicating that since 2007, the risk of harm has accumulated significantly. The experts concluded that there is a consistent pattern of increased risk of malignant brain tumours following prolonged use of cell phones and cordless phones.

Pointing out the greater vulnerability of children, the report highlighted the need for new standards to be implemented to protect the young.

Believed to contribute to cancer – in particular brain tumours – there is evidence these exposures also damage DNA and increase the risk of dementias (including Alzheimer’s disease) and autism.

Studies also suggest that cell phones on standby and wireless laptops damage sperm quality and sperm motility. This in turn affects fertility and reproduction.

In 2011 the World Health Organisation’s scientific panel, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), classified cell phone radiation as a possible human carcinogen.

In October 2012, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that a businessman’s brain tumour was caused by his use of a cell phone for twelve years.

Globally, concern increases as to the exposure risks, with prolonged use of cell phones reportedly associated with health problems such as fatigue, headaches, dizziness, tension and sleep disturbances.

Last week, Australian health campaigner EMFacts Consultancy urged governments to insist on public health warnings. It recommends the public take steps to cut exposure from cell phones:


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UK’s Heath Protection Agency says keep calm and carry on connecting …but the devil’s in the detail

The UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) in April published its report into the safety of mobile phones. But if observers were finally hoping for some helpful answers, they have been left disappointed.

The report confused more than it clarified. Its conclusion – that there is “no convincing evidence” of harm from mobile radiation– is contradicted by the research findings presented in the body of the report. You get the impression that the conclusion was penned well before the ink on the detail was dry.

The detailed discussion presents a much more mixed picture, with some of the studies ringing alarm bells.

It is these details that newspapers have picked up on (‘Mobiles may cause cancer’ said the Daily Telegraph; ‘Restrict your child’s mobile use until risks known’ instructed the Times). The Independent and Express also highlighted the efforts, not just by the mobile industry but by the government, to play down the emerging evidence on risks. And they pointed to the mobile manufacturers’ own health warnings in phone instruction booklets. 

Unconvinced…or unconvincing?

So what does the HPA mean when it says the evidence isn’t ‘convincing’? Convincing to whom…and on what criteria? It doesn’t explain its conclusion, which is left sounding more like opinion than science.

And though some journalists picked up on the fact that the HPA isn’t giving wireless gadgets a clean bill of health, that is not apparent from a quick look at the HPA’s website, which encourages us to keep calm and carry on connecting.

It omitted to mention many important studies showing health effects or to discuss the World Health Organization’s landmark classification of mobile radiation as a possible carcinogen. Neither did it mention the Council of Europe’s resolution that preceded it. Perhaps more importantly, it ignored how both should be given practical effect.

Senior scientist and columnist Prof Dariusz Leszyzynski regarded this as an inexcusable omission.

We sent the Health Protection Agency a detailed list of criticisms.

Hidden warnings

Despite the report’s many thousands of words, it failed to propose any measures to publicise safety information. There is a brief reference to the HPA’s advice to limit the use of mobiles by under-16s, yet no recommendation of how to inform the public of that advice.

Meanwhile, those kids and teens go on blithely phoning, texting and downloading, oblivious to any potential health impact.

It is a feeble response at a time when we need bold policies, like those France, Israel, and San Francisco are delivering. 

Recent research suggests children absorb up to 10 times more radiation into some parts of their heads than adults.

So brushing the issue under the carpet with opaque language to justify the status quo is unhelpful, not to say irresponsible.

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Phones may carry health warnings in Israel

The Israeli parliament is considering requiring all cell phones sold in Israel to carry a health-hazard warning label. The bill passed a preliminary reading last Wednesday and, if passed, will require phones to carry labels reading:

‘Warning – the Health Ministry cautions that heavy use and carrying the device next to the body may increase the risk of cancer, especially among children.’

All advertising targeting children would also be banned under the law.

Israeli member of parliament Dov Khenin said “The bill that passed today is a breakthrough in expanding public awareness of the possible risks in using cellular phones.”

In November 1998, UK campaigners tried to force retailers to put warning labels on mobile phones in a legal action but the evidence was not strong enough at that time:   Dr Christopher Busby, Visiting Professor in the Department of Bio-Molecular Sciences in the University of Ulster and expert witness in that case said today: “The proposed labelling of these devices by Israel’s government is a welcome development and I hope our government will follow suit.”

MobileWise is urging the UK government to adopt similar measures. Our director, Vicky Fobel said “The UK is falling behind other countries, many of which are taking steps to inform the public of the potential risks, and how they can protect themselves. Children in particular need to be informed of safety steps. The Department of Health has had a safety warning for 11 years but it is hidden away and children and families don’t know about it”

As well as the latest move in Israel, other initiatives abroad demonstrate a growing recognition of the mounting evidence:

  • In Canada, the country’s public health service has issued new guidelines over children’s mobile phone use which include practical advice for under-18s on how to reduce exposure to radiation

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Is the phone industry spinning while Rome burns?

Our report, released on Wednesday, was widely covered in the UK and international media. Some of the press called children’s mobile phone health risks a ticking “time bomb”. We think this sums up the situation presented in our report rather well.

Coverage of the report meant the media aired the long overdue debate over what should be done about phone health risks. Given that we won’t know for years whether phones are safe – and, as our report shows, the evidence is stacking up against them – shouldn’t we think about what we could be doing now, before it’s too late?

On Wednesday morning we were pleased to read in the Express that the head of the Mobile Operators Association (the UK phone industry body) thinks children should be discouraged from using mobiles too much. Great news!  We hoped the phone industry was going to get out there and tell kids not to keep putting phones to their heads and we could all go home and stop campaigning.

Predictably, they backtracked a few hours later in their official response which contained the usual defensive reassurance and certainly no mention of constructive action. Not a word about publicising government recommendations advising that children should limit their calls. Nothing about alerting the public to the industry’s own small print warnings suggesting customers hold the phone away from the head.

Instead, the Mobile Operators Association dismissed our report and the World Health Organization’s official panel’s judgement on the evidence with mealy-mouthed statements about the risk not having been established. Sure, the risk hasn’t been proven, but that doesn’t mean we should all sit on our hands.

This head-in-the-sand approach is reminiscent of the tobacco companies’ stance back in the 1950’s. Just watch an episode of Mad Men and spot the parallels. The risks from tobacco weren’t proven for about 30 years after cigarettes became widespread and the failure to act quickly resulted in millions of unnecessary deaths.

If only phone companies were as modern about their approach to health as they are in developing their products. It’s supposed to be the age of corporate responsibility, after all. We hope the phone industry will hurry up and join the 21st century, instead of acting as though they’re following a PR text book written in the 50s.

Read the report here

Read the media coverage about the report here.

Read more about the politics at

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Lies, damned lies and mobile phone studies

Regular visitors to our website will know that, in the world of mobile phone research, things are not always what they seem. A new study on brain cancer risk from mobiles released today proves the point again.

Published in the British Medical Journal, the study of several hundred thousand Danes concludes that mobile phone use does not raise the risk of getting a brain tumour.

But scientists have dismissed the study as seriously flawed and offering false reassurance.

Even the study’s own research team have admitted it’s flawed. The report itself states that “a limitation of the study is potential misclassification of exposure…Subscription holders who are not using their phone will erroneously be classified as exposed and people without a subscription but still using a mobile phone will erroneously be classified as unexposed.”

Dr Denis Henshaw, Emeritus Professor of Human Radiation Effects at the University of Bristol, calls its findings “worthless”. He says that “this seriously flawed study misleads the public and decision makers about the safety of mobile phone use.”

Epidemiologist Dr Devra Davis of the Environmental Health Trust in the US says the ‘new’ study is only an extension of one already published by the Danish team two years ago. Not only was it widely criticised at the time, but it was rejected by the World Health Organization as unreliable when they did a review of studies in May. The WHO panel decided almost unanimously to classify mobile radiation as ‘possibly carcinogenic’.

The study purported to analyse long term use of mobiles when in fact the minimum period of use was only one year. It also excluded business users from the users group, who were by far the heaviest users in the early days of mobile use and also excluded those who started their phone subscription after 1995, plausibly a very significant proportion. This created a potentially huge distortion in the results by inflating the apparent risk of non-users and reducing that of users.

Studies that don’t find a link generally get lots of media attention and we imagine this one will too, despite its own research team acknowledging it’s flawed.

You can read more details about the study on the Powerwatch site.



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Mobile phone safety – what is our Government waiting for?

As evidence mounts about the health risks of mobile phone radiation, some administrations are taking action. San Francisco’s government is obliging phone retailers to display posters and give customers safety leaflets telling them how to limit their radiation exposure.  In its leaflet, the five-point checklist for reducing personal exposure starts with an injunction to limit children’s use.

As well as the practical advice, the leaflet being given to all mobile phone customers also tells people about the World Health Organization’s classification of mobile phone radiation as a ‘possible carcinogen’. They recognise that  the word ‘possible’ isn’t a reason to delay action:The French government is also taking action. Its National Institute for Prevention and Health Education has launched a campaign to alert the public to mobile risks.

So why isn’t the British government getting this information into the public domain? It has had an unpublicised leaflet recommending children limit their use of mobiles hidden in an obscure part of their website for the best part of a decade. If the risks are as substantial as many studies suggest, the Government’s failure to inform the public is leaving a health time bomb to tick.

We’ve been talking to the Department of Health about publicising its warning. We’ll keep you posted.

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Children’s mobile risks – are we getting the full picture?

The latest industry-funded study on children and mobile phones is being presented as giving them the all-clear. But there are many reasons why it shouldn’t reassure us – not least because it studied children from 7 years old. There’s no way a child of that age could have used a phone for long enough for it to cause a brain tumour.

“Brain tumours can take more than 10 years to form, and young children certainly have not been heavy cell phone users for very long,” says Devra Davis, epidemiologist and author of “Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family.” She was not the only scientist to question the validity of the study – others have too.

Given this and other flaws in the study, it’s hardly surprising that it didn’t detect a higher risk of cancer related to children’s use of mobiles. This didn’t, however, stop the industry’s PR machine springing into action to pass on the ‘good news’ to the public via reassuring media headlines.

As is so often the case, these headlines ignored vital findings. The study in fact found that the cancer risk doubled for children who’d had phones for more than three years. Few media reports are pointing to that.

When research findings suit the mobile industry, it makes sure they get lots of air time. Last month the World Health Organization, after a comprehensive review of the evidence, classified mobile phone radiation as a possible carcinogen. The phone companies jumped on the opportunity to play down the risk, resulting in headlines that undermined the significance of the WHO’s decision.

The 140 or so studies that have found a link with cancer and other illnesses have received comparatively little coverage, so the media debate remains unbalanced. There’s no corporate PR department publicising them. Where commercial interests predominate, the facts can become a casualty. We need to ensure that our children don’t too.

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MobileWise Trustee writes to the British Medical Journal

Kevin O’Neil, consultant neurosurgeon at Charing Cross Hospital and trustee of MobileWise, has called on the medical profession to support safety measures for children. In a letter to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) he stresses the particular vulnerability of young people and the need to protect them, to help prevent a future increase in brain tumours.

Kevin O’Neill’s alert to fellow medics comes amid growing concern that children need to protect themselves from these emerging risks, as he explains in this short film:

For more information on the implications of phone use for children, see How Safe and Did You Know?.

It’s easy for young people to cut the risks:

The Safe Mobile Code

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Is this an “everything gives you cancer” moment?”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classed mobile phone radiation as a “possible human carcinogen”.  It has just issued its full report in The Lancet Oncology Journal outlining the evidence for an association between mobile phone use and certain brain cancers. It states that the evidence for the link  is not conclusive but is possible. So what should we make of that?  

To paraphrase the conclusion of the WHO report: when people use phones over a long-ish period – if their estimates of their use can be trusted – they seem to get more brain tumours, especially on the side they usually hold their phone.

But we don’t know for sure whether one causes the other. There could be a confounding factor: maybe people who use phones a lot also lead unhealthier lives . More fast food? Less sleep? More X-rays?  Who knows?

So is this an “everything gives you cancer” moment, as some have suggested?  Is this a trifling risk, maybe like the coffee that appears in same  World Health Organization category listing“possible” carcinogens ? Or is it a major one like tobacco and asbestos?  

The body of evidence showing risk from mobile phone radiation has been growing rapidly. From a smattering of studies in the early Noughties showing up some disquieting results, recently we have seen study after study find a link between phone use and cancer (though interestingly that isn’t always what the press has reported).  Almost every one of the many studies published that has looked at people who have used a phone for at least 10 years has found an increase in brain tumours.

People  who liken phone health risks to those of drinking coffee (a parallel brought to journalists’ attention by the phone industry’s representative body,  the CTIA, immediately after the WHO ruling) ignore the fact that many of the other toxins in the WHO’s Class 2B have all been around for a very long time, such as  coffee, gasoline and bitumen. So we can get a handle on how serious a risk we are dealing with there.

 But when it comes to mobiles, the science is in its infancy. The longest period of use that’s been studied is 10 years. Yet brain tumours take around 20 years to develop, so the full effects would not yet be showing up in the research and we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.

This is critical. Ninety per cent of over 11’s  in the UK now have their own mobile phone and research shows children are muchmore vulnerable to the  radiation emitted by mobiles:  theyabsorb up to 60% more radiation because of their smaller heads and thinner sculls. By the time they are in their  thirties they will have used mobiles for as long as it takes a tumour to develop.

new review of studies concluding that there has been no ‘material increase’ in brain tumours in the past 10-15 years hascreated headlines . But we wouldn’t expect to see an increase yet given the latency lag. And in this review, unlike the World Health Organization one, key studies demonstrating statistically significant increases in certain brain tumours  were ignored.

Contradictory reports leave us all feeling disoriented. They alsopander  to our hope that mobile phone danger isn’t yet another problem to worry about. This does a disservice to the children growing up ill-informed and exposed to a potentially serious – and easily avoidable – risk.

In  1929 Fritz Lickint published the first paper linking tobacco to lung cancer. The evidence was the first warning bell following a mass explosion in smoking during and after the First World War.  But it wasn’t until the 1960s that governments started getting serious about discouraging smoking. The early signs were ignored, while the tobacco industry milked the scientific and regulatory uncertainties for all they were worth.

The explosion in mobile phone use means that we are in uncharted territories again. The science just doesn’t tell us enough about the profile of this risk. So we need to think intelligently about how we deal with it . The MobileWise Safe Mobile Code is one way – better safe than sorry.

The UK government recognised the unquantified risk for young people when it issued a recommendation in 2000 that under-16s limit their phone use.  But it  hasn’t publicised this warning to anyone who might have conveyed it to children – like their parents or teachers. The latest version of the Department of Health leaflet containing the warning  is not even being printed.

When we look back, will we be proud if we dismiss  the compelling (if not conclusive) evidence that mobile phones might be giving us brain tumours? Might we wish we’d taken the label ‘possible’ more seriously and not responded with that lazy cliche´ “everything gives you cancer”?

The Safe Mobile Code

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Video – Dr. Devra Davis on why she supports the MobileWise Safe Mobile Code

Dr. Devra Davis is a renowned epidemiologist and writer. In this video she explains the issues, and why she supports MobileWise as a scientific adviser.

You can download the Safe Mobile Code here.

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