Report by Dr Elizabeth Cullen to the Joint Oireachtas Committee, Dail Eireann, Feb 2005

Dear Chairman, On behalf of Irish Doctors’ Environmental Association, I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to present to you today our concerns in relation to possible health impacts of electromagnetic radiation.
We have two concerns: firstly that the current ‘safe’ levels of electromagnetic radiation are too high and secondly that there appears to be a small sub-group of the population who are unduly sensitive to this type of radiation and who require special attention.
I have divided this presentation into four sections:

1. What are the documented effects of electromagnetic radiation on general populations?

2. What are the documented effects of electromagnetic radiation on people who appear to be sensitive to this type of radiation?

3. Are the safe levels safe?

4. What needs to be done?

1. What are the documented effects of electromagnetic radiation on general populations?

The possible risks of microwaves for the human body have attracted interest since the 1960s before the advent of mobile phones, when radar and microwave ovens posed a possible health problem.
The possible risks of radio-frequency electromagnetic fields for the human body are a growing concern for our society. In this regard, I would like to begin with the words of Sir William Stewart, chairman of the UK Independent Expert Review Group that investigated the health impact of mobile phones and reported in 2000.

“In relation to radiation it often takes a long time for things to become obvious,”

Recent statistical evidences has been found to show that long term users of mobile phones may suffer from headache, extreme irritation, increase in the carelessness, forgetfulness, decreased reflexes and clicking sounds in the ears (Baliksi et al 2005). There is statistical evidence of a significant differences in alpha and beta EEG (brain) waves on exposure to mobile phone electromagnetic field emissions positioned behind the head (D’Costa 2003). Changes have been reported (Huber et al 2003) in non REM sleep in people exposed to radiation from mobile phones.
It has clearly been shown (Naarala et al 2004) that environmental influences, such as ultraviolet light interact with electromagnetic radiation in the frequencies used by the mobile phone and electronic industry on biochemical processes such as cellular ornithine decarboxylase activity, cell cycle kinetics, cell proliferation, and cell death. Recent data (Lonn et al 2004) suggests an increased risk of acoustic neuroma associated with mobile phone use of at least 10 years’ duration.

The question is ‘are these reports of significance?

The answer is ‘We do not know’.

A major review undertaken in 2003 (Roosli et al 2003), of studies on the health impact of these studies concluded that ‘the existing scientific knowledge base is too limited to draw final conclusions on the health risk from exposure in the low-dose range’. The report noted that only a few studies have investigated the effect of long-term exposure on the general population in the normal environment. Various studies observed an increased risk for tumours in the hematopoietic and lymphatic tissue of people living in the proximity of TV and radio broadcast transmitters. However, methodological limitations to these studies were identified and their findings are controversial. In studies of a possible association between brain tumours and mobile phone use, the average period mobile phones use was short compared to the known latency period of brain tumours. Although these studies did not establish an overall increased risk of brain tumours associated with mobile phone use, there were some indications of an association. Immediate effects associated with mobile phone use have been observed in human experimental studies that cannot be explained by conventional thermal mechanisms. The observed effects are within the normal physiological range and are therefore hard to interpret with respect to an increased risk to health. However, it can be concluded that mechanisms other than the established thermal mechanisms exist. Because of the present fragmentary scientific database, the report concluded that a precautionary approach should be adopted when dealing with radio and microwave frequency radiation for the individual and the general population.

The recent EU REFLEX report, which involved 12 European institutes over a 4 year period, found that cells, exposed to electromagnetic radiation showed a significant increase in DNA damage which could not always be repaired by the cell – this damage was also seen in future generations of cells. This effect seemed to be more pronounced in older subjects. There was also evidence of damage to chromosomes, alterations in gene activity and an increased rate of cell division. The report concluded that more research was needed on animals and human volunteers.
Sir William stated that he is “more concerned” by this evidence than in his original report. (Brettingham 2005).

2. What are the documented effects of electromagnetic radiation on people who appear to be sensitive to this type of radiation?

There is a growing and consistent body of literature which demonstrates that a subgroup of the population appear to suffer distressing symptoms when exposed to this type of radiation (Koivisto M et al 2001). A recent survey (Bortkiewicz A et al 2004) found that people living in the vicinity of base stations reported various complaints mostly of the circulatory system, but also of sleep disturbances, irritability, depression, blurred vision, concentration difficulties, nausea, lack of appetite, headache and vertigo. This association was observed in both groups of persons who linked their complaints with the presence of the base station and those who did not.
The report of the UK Independent Expert Review Group found that ‘there can be indirect adverse effects on their (people living near mobile phone masts) well-being in some cases’.

The French National Institute of Research and Safety reported that ‘there exists indisputably an individual sensitivity to the effects of radiofrquencies. Undergoing he same exposure, certain individuals can present with clinical disturbances and others do not’(Santini 2002).

3. Are the safe levels safe?

Given the immense numbers of users of mobile phones, even small adverse effects on health could have major public health implications WHO 2000. The voluntary exposure of the brain to microwaves from hand-held mobile phones by one-fourth of the world’s population has been called the largest human biologic experiment ever undertaken (Salford et al. 2001). We know that microwave radiation has a heating effect, however we have already seen that there are effects which have been documented that clearly are not caused by heating. The Stewart report states this quite clearly “There is now scientific evidence, however, which suggests that there may be biological effects occurring at exposures below these guidelines”.
Yet the WHO clearly states
‘All established health effects of RF exposure are clearly related to heating’ WHO 2005.
This may not be true.
The present safety standards of the International Commission of Non-ionizing radiation Protection do not recognize the biological effects caused by non-ionizing radiation. These standards should now be reviewed.

The Stewart report concludes:

We conclude therefore 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, and that the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach.

Mechanisms other than the established thermal mechanisms exist, and some of these include (Salford 2003), for example, at very low energy level (< 10 W/m2), capillaries permeability is seen to increase, allowing leakage of specific substances into the surrounding brain tissue. This finding prompted further research, which found ‘highly significant evidence for neuronal damage in the cortex, hippocampus, and basal ganglia in the brains of exposed rats’. Biologic and maturational processes are particularly vulnerable during the growth process giving rise to concern at intense use of mobile phones by young people. The researchers concluded that ‘In the long run, however, it may result in reduced brain reserve capacity that might be unveiled by other later neuronal disease or even the wear and tear of aging. We cannot exclude that after some decades of (often) daily use, a whole generation of users may suffer negative effects, perhaps as early as in middle age’(Salford 2003).

4. What needs to be done?

The introductory remarks to the WHO Air Quality Guidelines for Europe state ”To produce a guideline with a high probability of offering absolute safety, one would need

  • a detailed knowledge of dose–response relationships in individuals in relation to all sources of exposure,
  • the types of toxic effect elicited by specific pollutants or their mixtures,
  • the existence or nonexistence of ‘thresholds’ for specified toxic effects,
  • the significance of interactions, and
  • the variation in sensitivity and exposure levels within the human population.

Such comprehensive and conclusive data on the health impacts of electromagnetic radiation is not available.
At present chemical hazards are addressed more rigorously as compared to EMFs, and guidelines provide a much greater margin of safety for exposure to chemicals and particulates as for EMFs.

The report of the UK Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards considered evidence concerning exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs. In that report, epidemiological evidence was presented that exposure to benzoppyrene at airborne concentrations of 0.25 µg/m3 (250 ng/m3) led to increased risk of lung cancer. Accordingly, the Expert Panel recommends an exposure standard not exceeding 1000 times lower i.e. of 0.25 ng/m3. In the case of chronic exposure to magnetic fields , pooled analyses of epidemiological studies suggest a doubling of risk above 0.4 microtesla (µT), and yet the ICNIRP suggested limit for exposure is set 250 times higher at 100 µT.

The Stewart report stated that if there are currently unrecognised adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head and a longer lifetime of exposure. It therefore recommended that:

  • particular attention should be paid initially to the auditing of base stations near to schools and other sensitive sites.
  • In line with this precautionary approach, the widespread use of mobile phones by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged.
  • the mobile phone industry should refrain from promoting the use of mobile phones by children

Recommendations have also been made (Santini 2002)

  • That base stations should not be sited less than 300 metres from populated places. Antennae should be orientated so that the principal high frequency radiation is not directed towards schools, hospitals or other places where vulnerable people may reside.
  • In base station environments, those living in the vicinity should not be exposed to average annual power densities above 0.1uW/cm2.
  • Zones where residents exposure is higher than this should be clearly marked.
  • Medical follow up for workers in base stations is advised.

Because of the present fragmentary scientific database, a precautionary approach when dealing with radio and microwave frequency radiation is recommended for the individual and the general population (Roosli et al 2003).
Irish Doctors’ Environmental Association earnestly requests that a full assessment of health impacts of electromagnetic radiation be undertaken.

References:

Balikci K et al 2005 A survey study on some neurological symptoms and sensations experienced by long term users of mobile phones Pathol Biol 2005 Jan;53(1):30-4

Bortkiewicz A et al 2004 Subjective symptoms reported by people living in the vicinity of cellular phone base stations: a review of the studies Med Pr. 2004;55(4):345-51.

Brettingham M BMJ 2005;330:109 (15 January),

D’Costa H et al 2003 Human brain wave activity during exposure to radiofrequency field emissions from mobile phones Australas Phys Eng Sci 2003 Dec;26(4):162-7

Huber R,et al Radio frequency electromagnetic field exposure in humans: Estimation of SAR distribution in the brain, effects on sleep and heart rate Bioelectromagnetics 2003 May;24(4):262-76

Koivisto M et al 2001 GSM phone signal does not produce subjective symptoms. Bioelectromagnetics. 2001 Apr;22(3):212-5.

Kundi 2004 Electromagnetic fields and the precautionary principle

Lebedeva NN et al Investigation of brain potentials in sleeping humans exposed to the electromagnetic field of mobile phones Crit Rev Biomed Eng 2001;29(1) 125-33

Lonn S et al Mobile phone use and the risk of acoustic neuroma Epidemiology 2004 No; 15(6):653-9

Naarala J et al Cellular effects of electromagnetic fields Altern Lab Ani, 2004 Oct;32(4):355-60

Roosli M et al 2003 Radio and microwave frequency radiation and health–an analysis of the literature Gesundheitswesen 2003 Jun;(6):378-92

Salford LG, Persson B, Malmgren L, Brun A. 2001. Téléphonie mobile et barrière sang-cerveau. In: Téléphonie Mobile–Effets Potentiels sur la Santé des Ondes Électromagnétiques de Haute Fréquence (Pietteur Marco, ed). Embourg, Belgium:Collection Resurgence, 141-152.

Salford LG et al Nerve Cell Damage in Mammalian Brain after Exposure to Microwaves from GSM Mobile Phones Environmental Health Perspectives Vol 111 No 7 June 2003

Santini 2002 Parliamentary Office for Evaluation of scientific and technological alternatives

WHO 2005 Website accessed 21-1-05