From time to time stories appear that suggest that mobile telephones or mobile phone masts cause cancer or other diseases. This chapter will examine the evidence around such allegations for mobile phones, mobile phone masts and wi-fi.
It contains the following sections:
- Types of Radiation
- Sources of Radiation
- Dangers of Ionising Radiation
- Magnetic Fields
- Mobile Phones and Masts
- Alleged Dangers of the 5G Network
- Further Resources
- Site Index
Types of Radiation
Electromagnetic waves come in many forms and their properties depend upon the strength and wavelength or frequency. A very small section is visible light. Just beyond the visible spectrum at each end are ultraviolet and infrared. Other wavelengths include radio waves, microwaves, radar, mobile phone signals, x-rays and gamma rays. Before man started to harness electricity for communication there were plenty of these waves around. Most, like visible light, come from the sun. Some result from radioactive decay of naturally occurring elements. By and large, gamma rays are a shorter wavelength than x-rays and more penetrating, but x-rays can be more powerful. The difference is that x-rays originate from the electron orbit of atoms whilst gamma rays come from the nucleus. Sound waves are different from the electromagnetic radiation. They are waves in the air or whatever medium transmits them. Ultrasound is high frequency sound waves.
Being “natural” does not mean safe. Excessive exposure to sunlight increases the risk of all three types of skin cancer. The first people to experiment with x-rays and radioactivity had no idea of the hidden dangers and many suffered short or long term consequences. Marie Curie died from a radiation induced disease. Nowadays people who work with radioactive material or x-rays are very much more careful and attempts are made to keep radiation doses to both patients and staff to a minimum. Sometimes the emissions from radioactive decay or x-rays are known as ionising radiation. This property is important in the ability to cause damage to tissues and to cause malignancy.
Most other forms of radiation do not damage chromosomes, at least not at the power usually used. Thus, we can be as confident as possible that repeated ultrasound examinations in pregnancy do not harm the fetus. Epidemiological studies confirm this. Radiation from mobile phones does not damage chromosomes either; at least not at the power that is used. This will be examined later.
Sources of Radiation
When looking for evidence about radiation of various sorts and its potential dangers, I turned first to the Health Protection Agency that hosted the National Radiological Protection Board. It is now under the auspices of Public Health England. Its website covers many topics including.1Health Protection. Radiation A-Z
- Depleted uranium (DU): general information and toxicology
- Electromagnetic fields
- Ionising radiation: dose comparisons
- Laser radiation: introduction and safety advice
- Medical radiation: uses, dose measurements and safety advice
- Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA): epidemiology research
- Nuclear weapons test participants: epidemiological study
- Radiation incidents: public health preparedness and response
- Radiation: risks from low levels of ionising radiation
- Recovery, remediation and environmental decontamination
- Space weather and radiation
- Ultrasound and infrasound: health effects
- Ultraviolet radiation (UVR)
Hence, there is extensive coverage of topics related to radiation, and with the authority we would expect from such a source.
They had an excellent paper called “Burden of disease from radiation exposure”. The paper is well referenced. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) divided radiation into ionising radiation including x-rays and radioactivity, and non-ionising radiation such as from magnetic fields and mobile phones. By and large it is the ionising radiation that can damage chromosomes and cause cancer. The non-ionising radiation can disrupt chromosomes, but it needs to be very powerful to do so.
More than half the radiation that we receive in an average year comes from natural background radiation. This means naturally occurring radioactive materials. Of the 55% that is background radiation, about 50% comes from the gas radon. The amount of radon in the atmosphere varies considerably around the country and in some areas the concentration is much higher than in others. It depends upon geological features such as rock structure. It is possible to reduce the amount of radon in the home in high risk areas. The HPA said that in Northamptonshire, programmes to reduce radon in the home have the potential to prevent around 14 lung cancers per year. Medical radiation, such as x-ray examinations, accounts for a little more than a tenth of the total exposure. Most people do not have any x-rays in a year whilst some may have several examinations. Screening and CT give a higher dose. Modern equipment and new techniques usually reduce the dose of x-rays to the patient and the cumulative dose to staff who work there. The HPA webpage has been updated since it was first accessed but the following chart is based on the original data.
|Source of Radiation||% of Total|
|Natural Background Radiation||55|
|Radiation inside the Body||11|
|Rocks and Soils||8|
You may notice that the sum of all those figures comes to slightly more than 100%. That is because all are to the nearest integer, except for the nuclear industry, where the figure is too low. The nuclear industry accounts for around 1/2000th of the total dose (0.05%) of radiation that we receive. Studies looking for an excessive number of radiation-linked cancers around nuclear facilities have usually been negative but where positive they have tended to be small risks and the results have not been consistent from one study to another. Even around sites such as the nuclear reprocessing plants at Sellafield in Cumbria and Dounreay in northern Scotland, natural radiation still forms the major component of the average radiation exposure. The following bar chart repeats the table above to make the point about relative doses more obvious.
Dangers of Ionising Radiation
The relationship between ionising radiation and cancer is well established, especially for certain types of malignancy. Follow up after the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 and the Chernobyl disaster have shown this. It is also apparent from people who used to work with ionising radiation without adequate protection. Even quite low doses of radiation produce an increased risk of cancer. This is especially true when there are other risk factors. For example, most lung cancer attributed to radon occurs in smokers. Radiation during pregnancy has a higher risk to the baby as it is growing fast. Passing on risk to future generations as a result of radiation has been demonstrated in animals but not in humans.
The matter of ionising radiation will not be considered further as the verdict is clear. Ionising radiation is dangerous. Now we can examine the question of non-ionising radiation from magnetic fields and from mobile phones or Wi-Fi.
There have been many studies over the years examining the effect of various types of non-ionising radiation but often there have been problems of getting adequate evidence of dose received. Just because clusters occur, that does not mean that there is statistical significance. If you take a handful of pebbles and throw them in the sand, they will land at random. They will not be evenly spaced. There will be clusters where there are more than average and areas with fewer than average. So too, if there are sometimes clusters of leukaemia cases around high voltage power lines that does not mean that there is cause and effect, especially when this finding is not reproduced around all power lines.
There is not a great deal of evidence about the effect of magnetic fields from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, what there is seems reassuring. In people who work with visual display units, there is some suggestion that in conditions of low humidity, static electric fields may aggravate existing skin conditions. There is no apparent risk of cancer. Despite the lack of evidence about danger, a Physical Agents Directive from the European Union threatened to prevent research using MRI in 2008. A campaign from Sense About Science, the Royal College of Radiologists, the Institute of Physics, the British Institute of Radiologists and the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine led to this directive being repealed.2Physical Agents Directive. Sense About Science
Electrical cables produce a magnetic field which is dependent upon the current that flows. The National Grid in the UK is alternating current (AC) that alternates positive and negative 50 times a second. It has a frequency of 50 hertz (Hz). There is some suggestion that exposure to fields of 0.4 microtelsa (µT) may increase the risk of childhood leukaemia by perhaps 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 10,000. This means that of about 500 cases of leukaemia a year nationally, perhaps 1 or 2 may be due to magnetic fields but as most children receive a much lower dose, there is no evidence that the National Grid contributes to any childhood leukaemia. There is no convincing evidence linking magnetic fields with other cancers such as brain tumours or lymphomas in children. There is no evidence to link them with cancer in adults. In addition, there is no plausible explanation to link such magnetic fields with cancer based on experiments with animals or cultures of cells.
Other studies examining such variables as neurological disease, depression and risk of suicide have been inconclusive. There may be other factors such as anxiety about living close to power lines and there may also be social class issues about who is likely to live in proximity to power lines. Social class has a significant effect on health and life expectancy.
The HPA divides electromagnetic fields into three groups. There are fixed magnetic fields, low frequency ones below 100Hz as with power lines and high frequency waves of 100 to 300Hz as with mobile telecommunications. There have been studies of people living near radio or television transmitters but the HPA says that the quality of such studies is very variable. Some have been too small with low statistical power. Some have lacked adequate measurement of exposure measurements and others have been subjected to bias.
Mobile Phones and Masts
Much publicity has been given to studies that have found a small risk of cancer associated with mobile phone use but, as usual, not to the ones that have not found such a risk. This is absolutely typical of the way that findings are reported in the media. Results are variable and inconsistent and the HPA conclude that the evidence is inadequate to make a firm decision either way about whether or not such waves may induce cancer.
It is important to consider not just the strength of the source but the distance from it, bearing in mind the inverse square law. This means that the strength of the radiation will fall off with the square of the distance. Hence when the distance from the source is doubled the strength falls fourfold and a tenfold increase in distance will reduce the strength one hundredfold. A mobile phone is held close to the ear. That is a few centimetres from the brain. A phone may be 10cm from the brain whilst the mast is perhaps 100 metres (10,000cm) away, which is 1,000 times the distance. Hence if the power from both was the same, the field would be 1,000,000 times lower from the mast. The power of a mobile phone mast is only about 50 times that of a phone but very much further away.3The Dangers of Radiation from Mobile Phone Masts On the other hand, the mast is active 24 hours a day whilst the use of a phone is for a short duration, although some people do seem to spend most of the day with their mobile phone attached to their ear or texting. One of the few studies that did find an increase in brain tumours from mobile phones found that it was more marked in the country than in the town. They suggested that as transmitters were more numerous in town than in the country, the phone had to produce more power to communicate with the nearest transmitter. This makes a case for having more masts, not fewer.
There is no evidence that such fields have any effect on pregnancy or miscarriage. Adverse effects that have been variably reported include dizziness, headache, and fatigue as well as loss of memory and concentration, skin rashes and diabetes. Much of this may be a nocebo effect although diabetes is more difficult to explain. Few studies have examined learning and behaviour in children. There is a possibility that some people are unusually susceptible to the effect of such radio waves, but there is no evidence to support this.
Animal studies have failed to show that electromagnetic fields, as used with phones, produce cancer in animals.4Carcinogenicity study of 217 Hz pulsed 900 MHz electromagnetic fields in Pim1 transgenic mice. Epidemiological studies have failed to demonstrate any clear risk to health from mobile phones, even in children.5Recent advances in research on radiofrequency fields and health: 2004-2007 Children may be more susceptible than older people and have more years of life ahead of them. In children the average radio frequency energy to the brain from a mobile phone is twice as high as in adults. In the bone marrow of the skull, it is up to 10 times as high. Reviews consistently conclude that either there is no evidence for adverse effects from this type of radiation or that more research is needed. There are recommendations that children should limit the use of mobile phones and that hands-free devices may reduce the dose of radiation to the brain. They are not suggesting that there is firm evidence of danger but if any danger exists it is an easy way to minimise it. These are sensible precautions. A more recent, very large study from Denmark has again failed to find any increase in tumours of the central nervous system in users of mobile phones.6Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study.
A systematic review on behalf of the World Health Organisation examined radiation effects from mobile phone base stations (MPBS).7Systematic review on the health effects of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from mobile phone base stations This means transmitter masts. Of the 17 articles that met their quality criteria there were five randomised human laboratory trials and 12 epidemiological studies. Self-reported non-specific symptoms of ill-health were examined in 14 papers. Most of the randomised trials did not detect any association between MPBS radiation and the development of acute symptoms during or shortly after exposure. There was no consistent pattern with regard to symptoms or types of exposure. They also found that the more sophisticated the assessment of exposure, the less likely it was that an effect would be reported. Studies on health effects other than non-specific symptoms and studies on MPBS exposure in children were scarce.
This suggests that the evidence of adverse effects is very poor. The best papers were more likely to be negative. The variability of the symptoms suggests that there is probably no direct link. For self-reported outcomes bias could occur when people know that they live close to a mast. The review shows no association between any health outcome and exposure from transmitter masts at levels typically encountered in everyday life. They say that the evidence of safety can be considered strong according to the GRADE approach8Grading quality of evidence and strength of recommendations. because it is based on randomised trials applying controlled exposure conditions in a laboratory. Very little information on effects in children and adolescents is available and the question of potential risk for these age groups remains unresolved.
Positron emission tomography (PET) is a fascinating development which can show changes in glucose metabolism in the brain. A study has shown that if a mobile phone is placed close to the brain for 50 minutes there is a significant increase in glucose metabolism in the local area but not in the brain as a whole.9 Effects of cell phone radiofrequency signal exposure on brain glucose metabolism This is interesting but as the authors state and an accompanying editorial insists, the clinical significance of this finding is unknown. I suspect that not many mobile phone calls are for 50 minutes of longer and we do not know if this effect is good or bad. It may even have therapeutic potential.
In short, there is really not enough evidence but what there is appears to be reassuring rather than a cause for concern. Where there are findings of adverse effects, they are inconsistent and tend to be in the studies of lower quality. Politicians are always wary of being accused by those with the benefit of hindsight. They do it themselves. That is why they may be excessively cautious in the absence of real evidence. Furthermore, politicians rarely understand science. A recommendation from a Council of Europe Committee in 2011 seems rather excessive in its zeal10Ban mobile phones and wireless networks in schools, say European leaders especially considering that it seemed to be based on absence rather than presence of evidence. However, the committee admit it was crucial to avoid repeating the mistakes made when public health officials were slow to recognise the dangers of asbestos, tobacco smoking and lead in petrol. I do not think that the trouble here was so much failure to recognise the dangers as failure to act when the evidence was compelling. This was especially true for tobacco. At present the evidence is inconclusive but pointing towards safety rather than danger.
In 2018 a publication from the USA claimed to show an increase in cancers in rats exposed to radiation, similar to that produced by mobile phones.11NTP Technical Report The paper is very long and complex, but a fairly simple summary is found several pages in. The NTP studies took more than 10 years to complete and cost $430 million. I found that the authors were rather enthusiastic about attributing definite evidence of carcinogenicity when the evidence was far from clear and extrapolating such studies to humans is dangerous. Rats have a short life and they must be exposed to high levels for long periods of the day to get any noticeable response. I noted that the risk for most cancers seemed to be rather greater in male than female rats with some cancers having a female preponderance. If there is no clear reason why there should be gender-related susceptibility, I wonder if this is subgroup analysis, seeking to find some small group where there is a positive association. As we have seen in earlier chapters, unless subgroup analysis is set out in the original plan for the research, it is invalid. It is not acceptable to look at more and more subgroups, hoping to find one where statistical significance appears. The paper claimed to have found:
Clear evidence of tumours in the hearts of male rats. The tumours were malignant schwannomas.
Some evidence of tumours in the brains of male rats. The tumours were malignant gliomas.
Some evidence of tumours in the adrenal glands of male rats. The tumours were benign, malignant, or complex combined pheochromocytoma.
These are all very rare tumours in humans and so even a doubling or ten-fold increase in incidence would have little effect on the actual risk to an individual. As these were animal experiments it was not possible to put figures on human risk.
There was also a good summary of the situation from Medscape, an American site for doctors that tends to be well balanced and it noted that the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disagreed. I have not given a reference as it requires a login. The FDA stated: “After reviewing the study, we disagree, however, with the conclusions of their final report regarding ‘clear evidence’ of carcinogenic activity in rodents exposed to radiofrequency energy. The totality of the available scientific evidence continues to not support adverse health effects in humans caused by exposures at or under the current radiofrequency energy exposure limits. We believe the existing safety limits for cell phones remain acceptable for protecting the public health”. They also noted that what was being assessed was the technology of 2G and 3G phones which have now been superseded.
A paper from 2018 is called 12Real-world cell phone radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposures. It noted that in 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF EMF) from cell phones as possibly carcinogenic to humans. This is actually a very low level of proof to be classified as such. It noted some of the animal studies that had suggested increased types of rare tumours. It noted that the radiation received from the use of mobile phones was greater when the strength of the signal was poorer. The results of this investigation of second-generation (2G) technology suggest that reduced use of cell phones when the signal is weak could reduce exposure to the radiation quite significantly. Bluetooth headset power density exposures were 10-400 times lower than those of the cell phones to which they were connected and dependent on the headset rather than the connected phone. Again, this is looking at 2G phones and the newer technology may be safer.
Medscape is American, although it covers European stories too. It was highly critical of lurid reporting in the Daily Mail.13Cell phones ARE linked to cancer, landmark study finds: Results show ‘clear evidence’ of tumor growth after repeated exposure to radiation That is unsurprising as lurid, sensationalist and often inaccurate reporting is what the Daily Mail does. However, they were really repeating claims made in the paper which were excessive for the strength of evidence available. The fact that they spelt “tumour” as the American “tumor” shows that it was a cut-and-paste job with no insight. To them, a “landmark” study is one that permits sensationalist reporting.
In Norfolk (England), a plan to use church towers to transmit Wi-Fi to boost local broadband speed was welcomed by the local community who stand to gain from much faster broadband. However, a complaint from outside Norfolk led to the Diocese of Norwich holding back on the plans until an inquiry led by a judge was completed.14Norfolk church wi-fi plans stalled The judge found that there was no case to answer and the project may proceed.15Judge agrees wi-fi scheme can proceed The outside organisation that raised the objection is referred to as a national anti-Wi-Fi charity. Their website states that, “Our aim is to provide unbiased and balanced information to help those who have become sensitive to mobile and cordless phones, their masts, Wi-Fi, and a multitude of common everyday electrical appliances.”16ElectroSensitivity website, home page Such unbiased help sounds most laudable although experience shows that in reality such claims are usually as flawed as claims from flagrantly anti-abortion groups who offer “unbiased counselling” to women with unwanted pregnancies. Describing themselves as an organisation that is dedicated to opposing electronic communication devices and domestic appliances may suggest that they are not so unbiased after all. How shall we assess if they are biased or fair? They may be judged on three criteria:
- Do they give both sides of the story or do they look only at evidence that supports their stance?
- Do they give a reasonable interpretation of the evidence, viewing all possibilities?
- Does their general attitude seem rational and balanced or are they showing signs of paranoia and “conspiracy theories”?
Alleged Dangers of the 5G Network
As technology progresses and the 5G (fifth generation) network gets rolled out, I had not realised that it had sparked a new wave of allegations about safety until I read an article in The Times in October 2019.17Councils block 5G as scare stories spread It seems that activists, not experts, had put pressure on several councils in Somerset to stop the introduction of 5G. Glastonbury, Frome and Shepton Mallett in Somerset and Totnes in Devon have succumbed. Lobbyists are targeting dozens more councils with meetings, spreading the claim that 5G radio waves can cause increases in cancer, dementia, depression, anxiety, suicide, infertility and autism. This range of conditions should immediately spark scepticism. The Times says that the bans are raising fears in Government that people are being persuaded to discount scientific evidence. They mentioned a 38 years old, full-time activist who believes that the waves will damage brains, leading to the collapse of society. How does he make a living if this is full-time? Does someone pay him to do this stuff? These are not local people, but they have come in from outside. One said, “I chose Glastonbury because it is synonymous with healing energy and ley lines.” I think this says a great deal about their understanding of science and the real world.
A cancer researcher at Oxford University, said that activists were cherry picking a few “low-quality” studies. He said: “Frightening stories are more widely shared than sober analysis… 5G is a great example of that.” I am afraid that this is true in all fields. A reader in radiation epidemiology and public health at the University of Bristol, said: “All the studies on humans show no or very small increased risk of cancer at the highest exposures, and even then it’s not entirely clear that it’s the radiation that is the cause in those cases.”
The activists threaten councillors, saying that if it transpires at a later date that this technology is dangerous, they will be held to account. This means that they are admitting that at present thre is no evidence of danger from the technology. Rather than submitting to these threats, councils should ask expert advice.
I turned to PubMed and searched for “5G radiation”. This produced 191 results, but it was clear from the titles that very many were not relevant to what I was seeking. I narrowed it to “reviews” and this produced just three results, although only one was relevant.
This is an Italian source.18Towards 5G communication systems: Are there health implications? Only the abstract is available without charge. He mentions oxidative stress from these waves and their link to cancer. Oxidative stress is discussed with antioxidants in the chapter on Diets and Nutrition for Health and Fitness. This seems to be important in vitro, in glass in the laboratory, but not in living animals and humans. Extensive studies relating to previous generations of mobile phone technology, have not produced any significant suggestions of carcinogenesis. I feel that this article is alarmist. The potential risks that he suggests are from in vitro (in glass) studies rather than in vivo (in life of animals or humans) and they arebased on dose and duration far in excess of what may be expected in normal life. I would have been interested to see the correspondence in that journal following the article.
Nowadays the Health Protection Authority is part of NHS England or the relevant other parts of the UK and the National Radiological Protection Board comes under their auspices. I turned to this for expert appraisal.195G technologies, radio waves and health
It said that over the decades there have been increasing numbers of smaller transmitters that individually provide services to smaller geographical areas and have reducing radiated powers. As we have seen, the way to reduce radiation is to have more transmitters, not fewer. The 5G radio waves are less powerful and travel shorter distances than previous technologies, so it requires more transmitter masts closer to the ground. Many measurements have been made and these continue to show that exposures of the general public to radio waves are well within the international health-related guideline levels that are used in the UK. These guidelines are from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and underpin health protection policies at UK and European levels.
With the increase in demand, more spectrum is being made available and the highest frequencies being discussed for future use by 5G are around 10 times higher than those used by current network technologies. Their use is not new, and they have been used for point-to-point microwave links and some other types of transmitters that have been present in the environment for many years. ICNIRP guidelines apply up to 300 GHz, well beyond the maximum (few tens of GHz) frequencies proposed for 5G.
They go on to say that a large amount of new scientific evidence has emerged since 2000 through dedicated national and international research programmes that have addressed concerns about rapidly proliferating wireless technologies. Few studies have been carried out at the higher frequencies but the biophysical mechanisms that govern the interaction between radio waves and body tissues are well understood at higher frequencies and are the basis of the present ICNIRP restrictions. The main change in using higher frequencies is that there is less penetration of radio waves into body tissues and absorption of the radio energy, and any consequent heating becomes more confined to the body surface. In summary they say that it is possible that there may be a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves when 5G is added to an existing network or in a new area. However, the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health. They will continue to monitor the evidence and they will revise their advice if it should become necessary.
With such absurd claims, how can anyone take these people seriously?
In the chapter COVID-19. What You Need to Know, there is a section called Myths and Fake News About COVID-19 A part deals with 5G conspiracy theory about spreading the disease and it is reproduced in the next paragraph.
Another very silly story concerned 5G, the latest technology for mobile phones. It has been the victim of conspiracy theories before the pandemic with allegations that it impairs the immune system.20Coronavirus: False Claims About 5G, Inhaling Steam and Skin Colour There have even been claims that the virus is spread via the network, which is a ridiculous and implausible idea. Telecoms engineers have been threatened. 5g masts have been attacked.21Twitter bans incitement to attack 5G towers If you are still unsure, try 225G is not accelerating the spread of the new coronavirus. Fullfact Ofcom says that theories linking Covid-19 and 5G theories are the most common misinformation
There are merchants who will scam the vulnerable. An article called from the BBC called 23Trading Standards squad targets anti-5G USB stick said that “Trading Standards officers are seeking to halt sales of a device that has been claimed to offer protection against the supposed dangers of 5G via use of quantum technology.” They took this stick to pieces and basically, it was a basic USB drive with a sticker inside. However, instead of selling for about £5, the price was £339. The article makes fascinating reading.
In May 2020, ther was a further article in The Times about Glastonbury Town Council.24Negative energy surrounds Glastonbury’s 5G committee It started by saying that, “Balance, rigour and the hierarchy of evidence are normally paramaount in a scientific study. When it is an investigation into the safety of 5G technology led by Glastonbury town council, however, spiritual healers, conspiracy theorists and flower essence practitioners also make an appearance.” Scientists resigned from the committee saying that it was hijacked by “pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and personal fantasies”. Members of the committee included a full-time activist who believes in a connection between Wuhan having 5G mobile phones and the coronavirus outbreak, a spiritual healer who dowses homes to cleanse them of negative energy, an administrator of the Facebook group “Glastonbury Stop 5g and Smart Meters” and a man who believes 5G is a tool for mind control.”
The people who have been selected to be on the committe are quite incredible. One committee member is registered with the National Federation of Spiritual Healers and his “particular expertise is the Earth’s energies and ley lines”. They called “expert witnesses” including a retired American professor who claims wireless networks and 5G could make all human beings sterile and collapse brain function if they are not switched off within the next couple of years, and a GP from Somerset who advocates the use of “flower essence” remedies, which involve placing cut flowers in water and brandy to create a healing solution. Despite that, the latter is presumably still on the medical register. There was obviously no attempt to get a balanced appraisal but simply a coalition of the absurd.
A great deal of unnecessary anxiety is being generated by uneducated people who peddle junk science and superstition. Local councillors have submitted because they do not know the subject well enough to stand up to them, or even how to get sound advice. Activists are not experts. Indeed, what I find most striking about these activists is their astounding level of ignorance.
France has also suffered from the propagation of ignorance. An article in The Times from July 202 was headed 25France’s ‘electro-sensibles’ tell Macron to pause 5G over health risks. The term “electro-sensibles” would be better replaced by “electro-idiots”. This seems to have been led by mayors from around the country who belong to the Green Party. The Green Party is an extreme left wing organisation that makes no attempt to understand science. Compared with much of Europe, we are fortunate in the UK to have so few of these people in public office. The article said that about 50 masts for 5G have been destroyed or damaged by suspected far-left activists and anarchists, two of whom were jailed that week. Some of the hostility is fed by conspiracy theories linking 5G and coronavirus, but serious opposition, or at least caution, is coming from a coalition of left Greens, health campaigners, and even members of the government. Éric Bothorel, an MP with La République en Marche, the president’s centrist party, said he despaired at the way France let itself become bogged down by conspiracy theories when the science was clear.
I was drawn first to an article that was warning churches about electrosensitivity (ES). It is not a word I had heard of and it is not in the dictionary. The article claims that ES can cause “a whole range of unpleasant symptoms, including poor sleep, headaches, skin rashes, dizziness, nausea and many others in some people during or after exposure”. It claims that between 3 and 8% of the population is affected. It says, “You will almost certainly be told by the Government, the Health Protection Agency and the Mobile Phone Industry that the radiation is safe.” Do I detect a conspiracy theory? “There are thousands of peer reviewed scientific publications (to which they do not refer) that say that this is not true.” It seems that not only the Health Protection Agency, as we have seen, but also the systematic review from the World Health Organisation either failed to find these thousands of peer reviewed papers or they chose to ignore them. I have also failed to find them. Both the HPA and WHO have a very high reputation for competence and integrity. The authors’ qualifications suggest that they ought to know better, but this article was very short on valid evidence. It was certainly not a discussion of an area of genuine contention. It was much more a crusade.
Then I examined the section called “research studies into electrical sensitivities”. When I checked this, it gave a list of 40 papers (not thousands), most with links via PubMed. This may seem impressive but just being linked to PubMed is not a guarantee of quality for either the journal or the papers that it publishes. They are not necessarily reputable, properly peer reviewed journals. As seen earlier, the WHO systematic review had to discard most papers about mobile phone masts because of poor quality. Often poor quality is very difficult to discern from reading a paper and usually it is impossible from an abstract.
The general gist of the pressure group’s argument seemed to be that whilst most people have no problem with electromagnetic radiation, there is a small group who are idiosyncratic in having sensitivity. The papers that they mention are all of a specific type, purporting to show that it is possible for some people to detect such radiation under “blinded” conditions in the laboratory. As may be expected, this is a condition that attracts many sufferers in the USA. Many have moved to Green Bank in West Virginia as Wi-Fi and cell phones are banned because of possible interference with an enormous radio telescope.26‘Allergic’ to wi-fi and seeking refuge in West Virginia Sweden is the only country in the world that accepts this as a true condition. All other countries and the WHO do not.
A video clip from the BBC News about Green Bank was interesting in that the sufferer who was interviewed had obviously been very stressed in her work and home environment before but is now in a condition of enforced relaxation. The expert that they interviewed said that whilst such waves can have physical effects on the body, it really requires about a million times the power of waves encountered in everyday life to produce his effect.
Does the ES website provide unbiased and balanced information as they claim? The evidence that they present is very one-sided with no adequate discussion about possible shortcomings and there are many. The article for churches is threatening, hectoring and without foundation. Their assertion that the medical establishment is conspiring to ignore them because of pressure from governments and the communications industry is fanciful and paranoid. They have stood up to the tobacco, alcohol and food industries. There is no evidence that connivance has happened before. Whether they have misinterpreted the literature I cannot really say but they select only what suits them and avoid any discussion that may cast doubts on their position. For example, whilst they are eager to cite articles that suggest support for the concept of ES they ignore articles that do not, such as a double blind provocation study from 2010.27Do TETRA (Airwave) base station signals have a short-term impact on health and well-being? The claims from the website are misinterpretation as they fail to acknowledge uncertainties and it studiously ignores anything that may oppose its preconceived ideas. A systematic review from Psychosomatic Medicine in 2005 came to the conclusion that “The symptoms described by electromagnetic hypersensitivity sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF (electromagnetic fields) can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that electromagnetic hypersensitivity is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.”28Do people with idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields display physiological effects when exposed to electromagnetic fields?
A slightly later systematic review from 2008 was also of the opinion that this was probably a nocebo (opposite of placebo) effect rather than a genuine physical entity.29Radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposure and non-specific symptoms of ill health
My conclusion is that whilst those who claim to be suffering from ES are most certainly suffering, the aetiology in terms of cause and effect is not sustained. There is no evidence of a biological mechanism to cause changes in the human body by electromagnetic fields at the strength encountered in normal life to account for the alleged effect. The idea that there may be some people with greater sensitivity than most is also unacceptable in terms of proposed mechanism. Genetics would not account for this. The concept that some people are able to detect such radiation in a blind study with no cues from the technicians is inconsistent and may represent a mixture of poor methodology with inadequate blinding and pure chance. The usual symptoms that are given are lethargy, sleep disturbance and pain. This is entirely in keeping with a psychosomatic mechanism.
The pressure group’s website most certainly does not provide a balanced and even appraisal of the situation.
Still on the subject of communication technologies, but aside from radiation, I would like to make brief mention of Dr Susan Greenfield. As a former Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Fullerian Professor of Physiology and Honorary Fellow at Lincoln College Oxford, her research credentials should be impeccable. Her speciality is neurodegeneration. Therefore, when she makes claims in her book about the adverse effects of the Internet on young brains they are taken seriously.30(Greenfield S. Mind change: how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. Available on Amazon) She has speculated that online interaction might be a “trigger” for autism or “autistic-like traits” and that intense use of computer games could lead to impulsiveness, a shorter attention span, and aggression. However, she has been widely criticised including in an article in the BMJ as her assertions are not based on published evidence. The assertion about autism is implausible as it usually presents shortly after the first birthday and well before school age. This would suggest that children use social media before they can read and write. The BMJ authors state that her claims are not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence, often confuse correlation for causation, give undue weight to anecdote and studies of poor quality, and are misleading to parents and the public at large.31The debate over digital technology and young people I have given the reference as I think it is important although only the first part of the article is available without a subscription or payment.
The trouble is that the media loves what she says and “shock, horror, alarm”, especially from one with her background is most welcome. The absence of backing evidence is not a problem.
An article from 2018 described what they called32A novel approach to testing sensitive individuals. However, like so many trials before them, the conclusion was “Belief of exposure strongly predicted symptom severity score for all participants. Despite accounting for several possible limitations, the present experiment failed to show a relationship between RF-EMF exposure and an IEI-EMF individual’s symptoms.” There really is no evidence that electrosenstitivity exists.
The Bad Science website with “The Plausibility Effect” I have included in Further Resources.33The Plausibility Effect It really takes some believing, just how bad some of what the media produces can be. There was an article in the Sunday Express with a story on its front page that an impressive government adviser called Dr Roger Coghill had performed a research study demonstrating that people in a spate of suicides in Bridgend all lived closer to a mobile phone mast than average. When Ben Goldacre contacted Roger Coghill, he said that he was not really a government adviser. He had previously claimed that AIDS was caused by power cables. He said the Express had made a mistake in calling him a doctor. He had lost the data, and he could not even explain what he meant by “average” (mean, median or mode).
Another story was that Panorama had tried to do a programme on wi-fi but the children in the school where they tried to film it spotted the problems with their methodology, and they were promptly booted out by a science teacher. If you want more, go to the bad science website.
If you are wondering if the absurdity will never cease, try this from the Daily Express front page, as quoted on the Bad Science website. “The idea that AIDS is caused by a virus is a well-protected fiction.” Is there another cause? “The possibility that immune deficits … can be acquired through over-exposure to non-ionising electromagnetic fields is, however, real, and proven in the laboratory.”34Roger Coghill and the AIDS test It is said that laughter is the best medicine, and the Daily Express provides plenty of that.
Finally, there must be a warning that mobile phones can lead to injury and death, especially if they are used when driving a car. In addition, people who walk along texting or talking on the phone may suffer serious consequences from walking into a lamppost to stepping out in front of a motor vehicle. People get totally pre-occupied and oblivious of their surroundings. When holding a phone to the ear, they may not be able to see to that side, they fail to turn their head to look, and they step off the pavement into the road. Mobile telephone use can be dangerous, but not due to radiation.
Ionising radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays damage tissues. This is the basis of radiotherapy for cancer. A high dose to the whole body can cause death by impeding cell replication and longer-term problems can include cancer. Some types of cancer are more associated with radiation exposure than others. This is not a contentious issue. The dangers of radiation have been apparent since the early days of working with x-rays or radioactive materials in the early 20th century.
Most of the radiation that we experience over a year is natural and we are unable to change it. There are strict controls over radiation exposure in medicine and industry. The nuclear power industry accounts for very little of the annual exposure, even in people who live near reactors or work in nuclear power plants.
Chromosome disruption is often used as a surrogate marker for potential to cause tissue damage and lead to cancer. Non-ionising radiation such as microwave radiation can do so but only at very high power. Ultrasound examination seems safe at the power that is used in medical procedures. It is used extensively in obstetrics but also more often in other diagnostic procedures such as looking for gallstones or kidney stones or measuring the size of blood vessels. Ultrasound is used in industry and the Health and Safety Executive have rules that should be obeyed if very high-powered sources are used.
The waves emitted from mobile telephones, masts and wi-fi are nowhere near powerful enough to disrupt chromosomes. If the use of mobile phones increases the risk of certain types of brain cancer, the risk is small. Children may be more susceptible than adults. Hands-free devices reduce radiation exposure and dose received. The mobile phone needs be more powerful when the signal is weak and so there is more radiation. This, along with the finding of one paper that the risk of cancer was greater in the country than in the towns, suggests that to reduce exposure we need more transmitters to give better coverage. They do not seem to pose any significant threat near schools.
The magnetic fields around high tension power lines of the national grid are a low risk and probably do not cause any cancers. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) produces a very powerful magnetic field but it does not seem to be associated with tissue damage or disease. MRI scanning produces pictures of incredible clarity for medical diagnosis or in research. In most cases, CT scanning is less satisfactory, and it gives a higher dose of x-rays than a normal straight x-ray. MRI does not use x-rays.
Electrosensitivity is a diagnosis that does not withstand scrutiny. Objective assessments show that even people who claim to be affected people are unaware if they are in a radio field such as wi-fi. The diagnosis should not be accepted.
The radiation from mobile phones and masts may not be a significant threat to life but those who spend hours every day on the phones should get a life. Try talking to people around you rather than fixating on the phone. People walk along the street looking at their phones or texting and they can walk into lampposts or simply step into traffic without looking as their minds are elsewhere. Those who are using their mobile phones to talk will have a hand by one ear and the arm blocks the view to that side. They may not turn their heads to that side before stepping off the kerb. In the UK it is illegal to use a mobile phone without hands-free when driving but some people even look down to text when driving a car. Anyone in the UK who is caught using a mobile phone at the wheel without hands-free, faces a £200 fine and 6 points on the licence. I get the impression from television and films that using a mobile phone when driving is not illegal in the USA. The radiation may not be a problem, but the injudicious use of mobile phones can cause serious injury or kill. Do not let them rule your lives.
- Mobiles not linked to child cancer. NHS News. 2010
Being from an NHS source it is reliable and well informed
- Mobile phone base stations: radio waves and health. Public Health England, 2013, updated 2019
Information on the different types of mobile phone base station, and how exposures are measured.
- The Plausibility Effect. Bad Science. Ben Goldacre. Guardian 12th July 2008.
Ben Goldacre writes for The Guardian and is the author of the excellent book Bad Science. This webpage is well worth a look. It exposes several articles about the supposed dangers of mobile phones and masts and just how atrocious the bad science is.
- Cell Phones and Cancer Risk. National Institute of Health.
Assessment from the American National Institute of Health
- Health Protection. Radiation A-Z
- Physical Agents Directive. Sense About Science
- The Dangers of Radiation from Mobile Phone Masts. Zyra org
- Oberto G, Rolfo K, Yu P, Carbonatto M, Peano S, Kuster N, Ebert S, Tofani S. Carcinogenicity study of 217 Hz pulsed 900 MHz electromagnetic fields in Pim1 transgenic mice. Radiat Res. 2007 Sep;168(3):316-26.
- Habash RW, Elwood JM, Krewski D, Lotz WG, McNamee JP, Prato FS. Recent advances in research on radiofrequency fields and health: 2004-2007. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2009 Apr;12(4):250-88. Review
- Frei P, Coulsen AH, Johansen C, Olsen JH, Stedding-Jessen M, Schuz J. Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study. BMJ 2011; 343:d6387. [full text]
- Röösli M, Frei P, Mohler E, Hug K. Systematic review on the health effects of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from mobile phone base stations. Bull World Health Organ. 2010 Dec 1;88(12):887-896F. [full text]
- Atkins D, Best D, Briss PA, Eccles M, Falck-Ytter Y, Flottorp S, et al. Grading quality of evidence and strength of recommendations. BMJ. 2004;328:1490. doi: 10.1136/bmj.328.7454.1490. [full text].
- Volkow ND, Tomasi D, Wang GJ, Vaska P, Fowler JS, Telang F et al. Effects of cell phone radiofrequency signal exposure on brain glucose metabolism. JAMA. 2011 Feb 23;305(8):808-13. [full text]
- Gray R. Ban mobile phones and wireless networks in schools, say European leaders. Daily Telegraph. 14th May 2011
- NTP Technical Report on the toxicology and carcinogenesis studies in Hsd:Spague Dawley Rats exposed to whole-body radio frequency radiation at a frequency of 900 MHz and modulations (GSM and CDMA) used by cell phones. National Toxicology program. November 2018.
- Wall S, Wang ZM, Kendig T, Dobraca D, Lipsett M. Real-world cell phone radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposures. Environ Res. 2019 Apr;171:581-592
- Daily Mail. Cell phones ARE linked to cancer, landmark study finds: Results show ‘clear evidence’ of tumor growth after repeated exposure to radiation
- Norfolk church towers wi-fi plans stalled. BBC News. 31st August 2011
- Eastern Daily Press. Judge agrees wi-fi scheme can proceed. 30th September 2011
- ElectroSensitivity website, home page
- Councils block 5G as scare stories spread. The Times 12 October 2019
- Di Ciaula A. Towards 5G communication systems: Are there health implications? Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2018 Apr;221(3):367-375.
- 5G technologies, radio waves and health. Public Health England 3 October 2019
- The News Explained. Coronavirus: False Claims About 5G, Inhaling Steam and Skin Colour. Reality Check’s Chris Morris tackles the latest false claims. BBC 3 minute video.
- Coronavirus: Twitter bans incitement to attack 5G towers. BBC News 23 April 2020
- 5G is not accelerating the spread of the new coronavirus. Fullfact 31 March 2020.
- Trading Standards squad targets anti-5G USB stick. BBC News 28 May 2020.
- Negative energy surrounds Glastonbury’s 5G committee. The Times 22 May 2020.
- France’s ‘electro-sensibles’ tell Macron to pause 5G over health risks. The Times 22 July 2020
- ‘Allergic’ to wi-fi and seeking refuge in West Virginia. BBC News 12th September 2011. Also contains a 4 minutes video clip.
- Wallace D, Eltiti S, Ridgewell A, Garner K, Russo R, Sepulveda F, Walker S, Quinlan T, Dudley S, Maung S, Deeble R, Fox E. Do TETRA (Airwave) base station signals have a short-term impact on health and well-being? A randomized double-blind provocation study. Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Jun;118(6):735-41 [full text]
- Rubin GJ, Hillert L, Nieto-Hernandez R, van Rongen E, Oftedal G. Do people with idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields display physiological effects when exposed to electromagnetic fields? A systematic review of provocation studies. Bioelectromagnetics. 2011 Dec;32(8):593-609. doi: 10.1002/bem.20690. Epub 2011 Jul 18.
- Röösli M. Radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposure and non-specific symptoms of ill health: a systematic review. Environ Res. 2008 Jun;107(2):277-87.
- Greenfield S. Mind change: how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. Rider, 2014. (book)
- Bell V, Bishop DVM, Przybylski J. The debate over digital technology and young people. BMJ 2015;351:h3064 (Only opening part available without subscript
- Verrender A, Loughran SP, Anderson V, Hillert L, Rubin GJ, Oftedal G, Croft RJ IEI-EMF provocation case studies: A novel approach to testing sensitive individuals. Bioelectromagnetics. 2018 Feb;39(2):132-143
- The Plausibility Effect. Bad Science. Ben Goldacre. Guardian 12th July 2008.
- Roger Coghill and the AIDS test. Bad Science. Ben Goldacre. The Guardian. 28th June 2008.
This website is now completed, although I shall continue to do updates. The following list shows the sections or chapters. Just click on the topic in blue to go to that part of the site.