Technology Changes Hinder Phone Cancer Research
Total Telecom
Journalist: Jeremy Scott-Joynt
January 19, 1998

LONDON — Constant changes in the design of mobile telephone handsets are hindering research into possible health risks of mobile technology, according to a senior World Health Organization scientist.

Researchers in recent years have shown that exposure to radio-frequency radiation — such as that emitted by mobile phones — can cause damage to cells in laboratory conditions.

Although no conclusive scientific evidence has yet been published to show that humans are seriously at risk of cancer or tumors from using mobile phones, lawsuits have already been launched in the U.S. by people who claim to have become ill through using mobile phones.

But handset manufacturers are changing the designs of their products so frequently that research into long-term effects of the technology will be made difficult, according to Elisabeth Cardis, who heads a multinational World Health Organization study into whether the radiation from mobile phones is carcinogenic.

Handset makers are already concerned about possible cancer risks “even before we can find evidence to prove a connection” between radio frequency radiation and cancer, Cardis said. “The design keeps changing. The new phones have shielding, and the antennae are tilted backwards. Even two centimeters can make a lot of difference to the amount of radio frequency radiation absorbed.”

The constant changes to handset design are “actually going to make our study a bit more difficult. With the phones changing so fast, it will be hard to build in controls to the study,” Cardis said.

Bruce Hockings, a scientist in Melbourne, Australia, urged cellular phone service companies two years ago not to target young people with advertising, because he said the possible long-term ill effects of the technology were not known.

According to the World Health Organization, there is little evidence yet to suggest a connection. But the organization is nevertheless looking at the possible connection between mobile phones and cancer under its EMF research project, which looks at the health implications of radio emissions.

A spokesman for Ericsson, the Swedish mobile telephone developer, said his company had long taken perceptions of possible risks to health into account when designing handsets. This was “not because they are proven, but because it’s important to the customer, so naturally it’s important to us,” he said.

So far seven countries, including Australia, France, the U.K., Israel, Italy, Sweden and Canada, have agreed to conduct broad case studies of people with head and neck tumours to see whether there are any patterns which might be linked with mobile phone use.

The studies which exist already have a number of limitations “because they were lab tests rather than studies of a wide population, and because they could not be repeated,” Cardis said. “If there is no risk, then that’s fine. If there is a slight risk, then we need to know,” she added.