29 October 2004

Could your funky phone fry you?

Cellphones: They’re ubiquitous, useful and stylish. How did we ever get by without them? And why all the fuss about radiation?


Not much more than a decade ago, well-heeled folk spent a fortune on car phones - clunky, ungainly things that only worked in cars. Then came something that looked like an army field telephone, a small briefcase with a handset.

The early cellphones were like plastic bricks in weight and appearance. They doubled up as blunt weapons.

That’s all so 20th Century, of course. Cellphones are now fashion accessories. They play music, take pictures, store information – and of course they enable you to stay in touch with other people.

The downside is…
It seems there may be a downside, though; one that goes beyond just being contactable even when you want peace and quiet.

The notion that cellphones emit potentially harmful radio-frequency waves has been growing for some time. Some people have complained of headaches when using cellphones.

A number of studies have been done, some of which linked cellphone use to an increased incidence of cancer. One study, conducted by Sweden's Karolinska Institute, found that using a cellphone for 10 years or longer increased the risk of ear tumours by four times.

The study was conducted among 750 people and found the risk of acoustic neuroma on the side that the phone was used rose fourfold - 150 of them were found to have acoustic neuroma.

What is acoustic neuroma?
Acoustic neuroma is a tumour in the auditory nerve. While it's benign, it can result in brain and nerve damage. It usually affects about one in 100 000 people.

The study also found that there was no increase in the incidence of tumours on the side that the phone wasn't held.

The researchers said they wouldn't go as far as warning people against using cellphones, but suggested that hands-free kits may be the answer, as they put the cellphone antennae further away from the head.

Even more evidence
Another study by Finnish scientists found electromagnetic radiation, which is emitted from mobile phones, affected human brain tissue.

But another study, commissioned by the UK government in 2000 concluded there was no evidence of harm associated with using mobile phones, says the BBC. The report recommended a precautionary approach though, and advised that children should only use cellphones in emergencies.

The extent to which this will be practiced is uncertain, as kids are an enormous target market for cellphones. Many consumers have been reluctant to accept that their beloved, infinitely useful gizmos could harbour a darker side, or at least anything more sinister than a big account at the end of the month.

Perils of progress
Way back in 1977, an Australian scientist, JAG Holt, suggested that the doubling of the rates of melanoma in Queensland could be linked to the establishment of high-frequency communications facilities in the sprawling state.

In the book, The Perils of Progress, Holt is quoted as pointing out that malignant tissue is a better conductor than healthy tissue, so it will absorb more electromagnetic radiation.

That’s uncomfortable news for a lot of cellphone-toting consumers. It’s a little like dating a supermodel physicist who’s inherited a wine farm and can’t keep her hands off you, then discovering she’s actually a part-time axe-murderer (meaning she murders with axes, rather than murdering axes. Oh, never mind).

The solution for now may be to use a hands-free set wherever possible. More research may be needed to establish whether the wireless hands-free sets reduce the risk, or whether everyone should have those sets with the little dangly wires that snag on everything.

It’s unlikely that many people would throw their cellphones away unless new findings were especially dire. Most will probably be willing to accept the risk and treat their phones like a member of the family they just don’t know everything about. - (William Smook)



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