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Cell phones: precautionary approach needed

Though no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use, excessive use by children should be discouraged

In December 2010, Matt Parker, a British mathematician, tabulated the number of mobile phone masts in each county across the United Kingdom and then matched it with the number of live births in the same counties. He discovered that the correlation was so strong that in areas above normal numbers of mobile phones, he could predict how many more births above the national average occurred.

Parker concluded that for every additional mobile phone base station in an area, the number of births goes up by an average of 17.6 babies!

In reality, mobile phone masts have absolutely no bearing on the number of births. Masts do not make people more fertile. There is no causal link between the masts and the births despite the strong correlation.

The number of mobile phone transmitters and the number of live births are linked to a third factor, the local population size. As the population of an area goes up, so do both the number of mobile phone users and the number of people giving birth. Instinctively we tend to assume that correlation means that one factor causes the other!

Parker published a phoney press release highlighting his finding to see whether media outlets would jump to the incorrect conclusion that mobile phone radiation causes pregnancies. Main-stream media ignored the hoax release after checking out the facts. Some readers reacted differently.

“There were the expected people who clearly did not actually read what I wrote before seeing the headline and getting excited about this apparent scare story, but there were also seemingly endless comments from people who understood my correlation-causality project but could not help putting forward a possible causal link anyway” Parker said.

His headline to The Guardian article “Mobile phone radiation linked to people jumping to conclusions” was apt.

Over the years, there has been differing news on the risks of radiation from mobile phones. A WHO booklet published in May 2010, stated that no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use. Studies are ongoing to assess potential long-term effects. WHO noted that there is an increased risk of road traffic injuries when drivers use mobile phones (either handheld or "hands-free") while driving.

According to HPA (HPA, May 17,2010), there are thousands of published scientific papers covering research about the effects of various types of radio waves on cells, tissues, animals and people. HPA's views derived from them were identical to those of the WHO.

Widespread use

Given the uncertainties and the widespread use of mobile phone technology, HPA recommended a precautionary approach.

This included a recommendation that excessive use of mobile phones by children should be discouraged. Every country must enforce international guidelines on mobile phone technology.

Some possible effect

In 2009, members of the ICNIRP (International Commission on Non Ionizing Radiation Protection; most countries have accepted the Commission's guidelines) Standing Committee on Biology noted that there is some evidence of an effect of exposure to a Global System for Mobile Telecommunication (GSM)-type signal on the spontaneous electroencephalogram (EEG).

This may be of little functional significance since they did not observe significant effects on cognitive performance in adults. They noted that the effect is small and exposure seems to improve performance.

The authors noted that symptoms such as headaches and migraine had been attributed to various radiofrequency sources both at home and at work.

“However, in provocation studies a causal relation between EMF exposure and symptoms has never been demonstrated. Psychological factors such as the conscious expectation of effect may play an important role in this condition” (HPA, May 2010).

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