Health Issues

Wireless phones have greatly improved our ability to communicate with each other. Concerns have been expressed, however, about possible health risks associated with their use.

Wireless phones transmit and receive electromagnetic waves in the radiofrequency (RF) part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The frequency of these waves lies in the approximate range 800 million Hertz (800 MegaHertz) to 2 billion Hertz (2 GigaHertz). The antennae of base stations radiate the waves. The power output of the antennae is 100 Watts or less.

Biological effects of radio wave radiation are very different from those seen with radiation in the so-called ionising part of the electromagnetic spectrum ­ for example, x-rays ­ in that they are not thought to disrupt chemical bonds or have direct effects on DNA. Radiowaves can cause motion of electrical charges and convert energy into heat. As discussed above, this well-established "thermal biological effect" is the basis for the guidelines that have been put in place to ensure the safety of those exposed to radiowaves, both in everyday life and in the workplace.

Wireless phones have only recently been in widespread use. As a result, there is a limited amount of research examining their direct impact on human health. A larger number of studies have been done on cells in the laboratory (in vitro studies) and in animals (in vivo). Several authoritative scientific organizations have independently reviewed the available studies, and all have stated that there is no evidence that wireless phones or their base stations have any adverse effects on human health. All are agreed that additional research and continued surveillance are needed.

Major international studies are planned, including several which will examine possible associations with cancer. Particularly noteworthy is the World Health Organisation International EMF Project which started in 1996. These studies are discussed in greater detail under "Reseach Programs ".


Public Health Issues


Traditionally, public health policy has employed quantitative assessment of risk. In the case of exposure to RF radiation, this might involve the identification of incidence or mortality trends in diseases that could be associated with the exposure. By 1965, the use of electromagnetic frequencies for radio, television and electrical power was very common in Canada and most parts of the world. If RF exposure is associated with the development of a certain cancer, one might expect a general increase in the number of persons diagnosed with, or dying from, that cancer. One example is brain cancer. A trend to an increase in the incidence of brain cancer could be anticipated as a result of improved medical diagnostic techniques such as the CT scan and MRI technology. In fact, it has been shown that brain cancers can be diagnosed as an incidental finding with these investigations (Katzman, 1999). In the USA improved diagnosis is the likely explanation for the increase in brain cancer rates between 1975 and 1995 in people aged 65 or over (Legler, 1999). This is the only age group in which an increase was seen. More recent data from the USA shows that incidence rates of cancer of the central nervous system have stabilized in all age groups since 1991 (Gurney, 2001). Similar results were found in the four Nordic counties (Lonn 2004). An increased incidence of brain tumour was found in the late 1970s and early 1980s and coinciding with the introduction of improved diagnostic methods. The increase was largely confined to the oldest age group. After 1983 the incidence had remained relatively stable. In Switzerland, Roosli et al (2007), in a review of brain tumour mortality rates from 1969 to 2002, concluded that, after the introduction of cell phones, rates remained stable in all age groups.

The Table shows that the incidence and mortality rates of brain cancer and leukaemia (another cancer that has been claimed by some to be associated with RF radiation) have not risen in tandem with the proliferation of a wide range of EMF exposures in Canadian society. Compared to other cancers, the rates for leukaemia and brain cancer are relatively low in the Canadian population. In 1995, the age-standardized incidence rate for lung cancer among men was 84/100,000 and among women was 40/100,000, and the respective mortality rates were 73/100,000 and 31/100,000 (National Cancer Institute of Canada, 2000). Among men, the incidence rate of prostate cancer was 110/100,000 and the mortality rate was 33/100,000. Among women, the incidence rate of breast cancer was 98/100,000 and the mortality rate was 28/100,000. Breast, lung, and prostate cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease and injuries, significantly contribute to the total burden of disease in Canadian society.

Trend of Incidences and mortality in brain
cancers and leukaemia per 100,000 persons (Canada).

 
1965a
1973a
1985b
2000c
 
ASMR
ASMR
ASIR
ASMR
ASIR
ASMR
Leukaemia            
Males
7.2
7.1
11.6
7.4
13
8
Females
4.7
4.8
7.5
5.4
8
4
Brain
    Cancer

Males
4.2
4.8
6.5
4.7
8
6
Females
2.8
3.3
5.4
3.5
6
4
 


ASIR = age-standardized incidence rates for the stated year.
ASMR = age-standardized mortality rates for the stated year.
a 1965 and 1973 rates: age-standardized to 1971 world population
   (Health and Welfare    Canada, 1975)
b 1985 rates: age-standardized to 1971 Census population of Canada
   (Statistics Canada,    1991)
c 2000 rates: estimated (National Cancer Institute of Canada, 2000)

These examples illustrate the quantitative assessment of a possible public health hazard. A health hazard/benefit assessment must include estimations of the potential impact to the general public as a whole, as well as to relevant population groups. As Valberg (1997) stated: "undue anxiety can be averted by emphasizing that our current knowledge indicates that lifestyle, diet, genetic factors, and improved healthcare have a far more significant effect overall on human health than hypothetical risks such as RFR."

Others have argued that the emerging technology of wireless communications demands the invocation of the precautionary principle. This asserts that "the burden of proof for potentially harmful actions by industry or government rests on the assurance of safety and that when there are threats of serious damage, scientific uncertainty must be resolved in favour of prevention" (Goldstein, 2001). The Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones in the UK (2000) recommended that "a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available".

Most scientific bodies have recommended continued surveillance of disease trends as part of a responsible public health program, since personal wireless telecommunications were introduced to the general public relatively recently. There is a need for further well designed studies (Jauchem, 1998), and, as mentioned earlier, a large number of studies are underway at this time.

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