Dr Charlie Teo isn’t a kook. He is the best brain surgeon in the country. He knows the inside of your head like you know the back of your hand. He’s seen the rise in a certain type of brain cancer.
And he’s worried.
Here’s what some of what he wrote on The Punch yesterday:
“There are three undisputed facts about the link between mobile phones and brain tumours. Firstly, the jury is still out. Secondly, the number of mobile phone users is increasing rapidly and currently stands at over five billion worldwide. Thirdly, IF there is a causal link between exposure to non-ionising radiation and brain tumours, then the social and financial consequences would be devastating and on a scale never before witnessed in history.
With over twenty one million mobile phones in use in Australia, why are we not spending the resources on finding the answer? Perhaps the answer is one that all of us would rather not imagine. Could those with a vested interest be misguiding us?
The other, less divisive explanation is that epidemiologists and scientists truly believe that the jury is no longer out and that there is absolutely no link.
But allow me to be blunt for a moment. One of the strongest criticisms of studies that show a link is that they have required the users to rely on their memory and recollect their usage times from years before. How many of us could accurately remember their phone usage? This criticism would be addressed definitively if the telcos would give access to phone usage records – but no telcos have allowed scientists access to their records for these large studies.
I see 10 to 20 new patients each week and at least one third of those patients’ tumours are in the area of the brain around the ear. As a neurosurgeon I cannot ignore this fact and while I may personally believe there is a link between brain tumours and EMR exposure, I need evidence to support it and evidence takes careful planning and funds.”
It’s easy enough to swat away concerns like these as unbridled paranoia from the tinfoil hat brigade. And for a while, that’s what many of us did. And then earlier this year the World Health Organisation did something it had never done before.
It admitted mobile phones were ‘possibly carcinogenic’. That’s an admission that would put mobile phones in the same category as lead, the pesticide DDT and car exhausts. And most of us use one every day.
Last year, Mamamia spoke to international health campaigner Dr Devra Davis about the mobile phone debate. She’s a veteran of Big Tobacco campaigns from an era when tobacco was still cool and definitely not ‘unhealthy’.
Here’s what Dr Davis had to say then:
“Frankly, the risks of not acting on what we know today about mobile phone use are horrifying,” she says. “We know enough to take precautions and we should.”
“To my mind, we are watching an epidemic in slow motion.”
But where’s the evidence that something is amiss?
Dr Davis sets the scene first.
“Let me paint you a picture. When I was having these discussions with scientists and the tobacco companies regarding smoking, all the skeptics demanded of me to ‘show them the bodies’ but of course, we couldn’t. Well, we couldn’t directly and with 100 per cent certainty link them to smoking. We still can’t most of the time, but we now know we were silly to ignore the warnings,” Dr Davis says.
“This is not a simple conspiracy; it is far more complicated.
“Scientists study and love picking arguments with other scientists so that on any given issue there will always, always be legitimate uncertainty as some take different sides.
“But the mobile phone companies are very quick to exploit this and yell ‘the science is uncertain, therefore mobile phones are safe’. If we had acted in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when we first knew about the hints of problems with tobacco, the incidence of lung cancer and other illnesses in the following decades would have been dramatically lower.
“The same will be said of mobile phone use. We, as a civilised world, didn’t even start using phones en masse until 1998, which means the lag time for cancers and tumours will be 10 to 20 years at least.
“Do you really think we can afford to wait? If we wait 40 years, we are treating our grandchildren as experiments.”
The problem, of course, that there is no link in the evidence. As Dr Teo notes, all the studies that show there might be one were conducted independent of telecommunications companies. All those that show things are fine were wholly or partly funded by the telcos.
Here’s some of the more interesting data:
- Of studies of people who have been heavy cellphone users (defined as someone who has made a half-hour call a day for 10 years), there is a 50 percent increase in brain cancer overall. And among the heaviest users there’s a two- to fourfold increased risk.
- An Australian researcher Dr John Aitken has performed experiments on sperm (replicated by peers around the world) that show sperm live three times longer when not kept near mobile phone radiation.
- Children are more at risk as their brains are not yet encased in myelin, says Dr Davis, which is a fatty barrier that coats neurons and helps dim the impacts of radiation. Their skulls are also thinner.
- Warnings in mobile phone brochures are at odds with the public message that these phones are safe. The iPhone 4 warning, for example, says the phone should be kept at least 15mm from the body at all times. Does anybody?
So, if any of that makes you think twice there’s a few simple things you can do. Keep the phone 5cm away from your body as often as possible, avoid using your phone when the signal is weak or when driving at high speed (as the phone tries harder to pick up a signal), keep switching sides when using the phone and purchase handsets with the lowest SAR ratings.
SAR stands for ‘Specific Absorption Rate’ and is a measure what your body may absorb from an electromagnetic field.
So, are you concerned? How often do you use a mobile phone. What about your children?