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New study a wake-up call for mobile phone users

The New Straits Times, January 13, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

THE next phone call you receive is mostly likely to be from a mobile phone user, given the rapidly increasing number of mobile phones being sold over the years, Asia in particular. And more and more people seem to be talking to themselves as the device gets smaller.

Ironically though, the smaller the device, the louder is the ensuing conversation, resulting in a new kind of "noise pollution".

But this lack of decorum is not the only problem with mobile phones. Towards the end of last year concern was expressed over its safety among Malaysians.

Lately, claims have been made that mobile phones are safe, apparently quoting the World Health Organisation that "mobile phone emissions are safe" after all (Oct 10, 2001).

But WHO says this is a "distortion" of its position. Indeed, according to its fact sheet (revised in June 2000): "None of the recent reviews have concluded that exposure to the radio frequency fields from mobile phones of their base stations causes any adverse health." While this seems to be the current position, a recent (2001) book, Cell Phone: Invisible hazards in the wireless age, seems to question this stand. The authors provide "an insider's alarming discoveries about cancer and genetic damage" attributed to mobile phones.

The insider is author Dr George Carlo who served as chief scientist of "the world's largest research effort into wireless society".

The wireless industry decided to hire Dr Carlo in the early 1990s to study issues relating to mobile phone safety.

The device had not been subjected to pre-market testing, lending credence to the allegation that consumers had been made into guinea pigs for new technologies of unknown effects, especially in the long-term.

This continues to be the case today as there is no conclusive evidence about the safety of the device, though negative reports are beginning to come in. Still, no health warning are being issued to users.

Given the aggressive nature of advertising, even if the health risk of using such devices is small, "it will impact millions of people" wrote Dr Carlo in Network World Fusion Forums (www.nwfusion.com) recently.

He made a compelling argument by comparing the urgency given to diseases like AIDS, "triggered by less than 20,000 cases in the mid 1980's. Yet for wireless phones, no government agency has taken a regulatory step" to ensure safety, at least among children.

Dr Carlo said children were at far greater risk. A five-year-old child was open to as much as eight times more damage than an adult to the same amount of radiation.

It was in the early 1990s that public concern about the safety issue, especially in relation to brain tumours after using the device, was brought to the fore. Industry officials claimed "thousands of studies" had demonstrated the safety of mobile phones, and Dr Carlos was hired to track all of them and compile evidence from such studies.

However, his search led to the contrary, that is, little research had been done to arrive at any form of consensus.

After more than five years of intensive work and peer review (including by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis) he revealed that radiation from a mobile phone's antenna can be shown to cause the formation of micronuclei in human blood cells, a type of genetic damage "known to be a diagnostic marker for cancer." In 1999, the industry ceased funding Dr Carlo. And when he blew the whistle on the industry, he was personally discredited and harassed in private life.

Undeterred, he fought his case through this no-holds-barred book, a primer into the workings of the mobile phone industry. The facts were laid bare in eight chapters with the same title, "Follow-the-Science", which traced the collision between science and ethics, and eventually between him and the industry.

He says cellular radiation can cause genetic damage to blood cells that might prevent them from repairing broken DNA. Others include breakdown in the body's natural defence systems, and the blood-brain barrier (which prevents invasions of the brain by poisons). Mobile phones can also interfere with pacemakers.

USA Today (July 31) quoted Dr Carlo as saying, "There is enough (evidence) to raise some serious questions about the safety of cell phones." Even if there is no proof that such phones cause cancer, there is no proof that they are absolutely safe either. This leads one to ask if the wireless market needs to be regulated before the verdict from long-term studies is out.

In the pharmaceutical industry the ground rules are quite stringent; for as long as there are unsubstantiated toxic effects, especially associated with carcinogenicity the product is kept out of the market. Why should the rules differ for others? The story of Dr Carlo and his co-writer, syndicated columnist and author of five books, Martin Schram, is reminiscent of another cancer-causing industry, tobacco. For decades, the public was shut out of scientific findings, especially on how hazardous the products were.

Despite clear scientific evidence, the industry continued to deny that tobacco is directly linked to cancer, until it was forced to face the music through multimillion dollar lawsuits.

It is true that we are still far from understanding the magnitude of the mobile phone problem, but let us err on the side of caution rather than convenience. We must learn from our bitter experience with the tobacco industry.

For now, at least there must be more mandatory objective information on precautions and safe use, if not etiquette (http://phoneybusiness.com/etiquette.html).

Recommended website: http://www.global-change.com/radiation.htm

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