|Hear No Evil:
Mobile phones and health effects:
Good Weekend in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald
16 December, 2000.
Mobile phones - these days, we couldn't live without them. But is it safe to live with them? Withs cientists at each other's throats and spin doctors going into overdrive, Garry Linnell investigates whether the risk of radiation damage is all in our heads.
The howling began four years ago. It started with a whisper, something so soft it could have been a gentle kiss. But it wasn't long before it turned into a fierce scream, a torrent of noise that filled his days and nights with a constant, excruciating howl. It felt as if he had a river roaring through his head. He did. A river of blood.
For two years, Jon Somers* lived with the howling. Doctors probed and tested him but couldn't work out what was wrong. Somers offered his own diagnosis, but no-one seemed willing to listen. The only clue came when he found he could escape the noise at night by holding a hand against his jugular vein. For some reason, that quietened the roar.
Eventually, they found it: a fibrous web had grown inside the skull behind his right ear, where the blood delivered to the brain is drained away again by the sigmoid sinus. The roar he had lived with for two years was his own blood, attempting to force its way through the tangled web of tissue back to the body.
It was a rare condition. Somers' doctors had never seen its like before, and they consulted with specialists in Chicago and New York, then operated by sending a balloon upt hrough the vein. That tore the web apart. It also shattered several key cranial nerves. In the next six months, Somers' right shoulder wasted away. "Il ooked like someone out of a concentration camp." He lost his voice for a month. Even now, a couple of years later, he can still hear the howling, although it is half its previous volume.
Financially and psychologically, Somers' condition has had a profound impact. But the stress he still experiences has as much to do with the lack of answers. Why him? Why this rare condition? Somers has a strong suspicion. That fibrous web behind his ear sat directly where the antenna of his mobile phone used to sit. Directly. It was an uncanny coincidence. Unless he had some extraordinarily rare flaw written into his genetic code, the web, he was convinced, had to have been caused by his mobile. Over the years, his phone had been a constant companion. In 1990, Somers began running a business that required him to be in two places at once, on the road and on the phone.
The mobile phone had made it possible. His monthly bill was always more than $1,000, but it was worthi t.
That was until the howling started. By 1996, Somers, a middle-aged businessman, was watchinge verything disintegrate - his professional and personal life, his health and his ability to handle stress. He was sure his phone was linked to his illness: "I'm not one to believe in coincidence that much," he says. But every doctor and specialist he spoke to was guarded and sceptical. There was nothing in the scientific literature that suggested mobile phones were a health hazard.
Even now, as he makes a painfully slow recovery, Somers remains frustrated. He is not the only one. The debate over whether mobile phones have an effect on health is one of the most bitterly contested in science. It's a debate some maintain is not even worth having. "It's not much of a story, is it?" asked one industry official.
Yet others strongly disagree that the issue is insignificant. There are now more than 8.5 million mobiles in use in this country; almost one in two Australians owns one. Within five years, the industry estimates it will have 110 per cent penetration - that is, almost every Australian will have at least one mobile, and some will have more. In little more than a decade, they have changed the way we live and how we communicate with one another. And phone companies are now suggesting we should provide our teenage children with phones. In the lead-up to Christmas, giant toy chain Toys 'R' Us has again joined with Optus to sell pre-paid phones to young teenagers - despite recommendations,i ncluding one from an expert British committee earlier this year, cautioning against their use by children until further research confirms that they are safe for young people.
The telecommunications industry remains adamant that mobiles have no negative impact on health. But there are increasing claims that mobile radiation is having some sort of biological effect on the human body - that, if it does not cause cancer, it is at least having an effect on brain function.
The debate has become so heated in recent years that it has spawned claims of conflict of interest,c onspiracies and cover-ups. Good Weekend has learned that a leading specialist in the area is threatening legal action against a government agency for allegedly defaming him, and one of the highest-profile law firms in the country, Maurice Blackburn Cashman, is planning Australia's first test case alleging a link between health effects and mobile phone use.
It is also a debate where scientists have strayed from scientific impartiality to heap personal ridicule on one another, and where spin control has become just as important as laboratory results, as everyone battles for a stake in a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Jon Somers sighed one afternoon on the phone, his voice tinged with weariness and a fair dose ofc ynicism. You won't find any concrete answers out there, he warned. "It's a very grey area. You'll find that the medical community just doesn't want to know about it." It was easy to understand his frustration. But then, Somers had not met Bruce Hocking.
By the end of 1994, Dr Bruce Hocking had been chief medical officer at Telstra for 18 years. He had immersed himself in the science of electromagnetic radiation and was well-versed in the literature: there was nothing to suggest that the relatively low levels of radiation emitted by mobile phones had any impact on the health of the user. Still, as 1994 came to a close, something seemed to be happening. Hocking had taken enough calls from members of the public, and assessed several Telstras taff similarly complaining about headaches and tingling sensations on the same side of the head as they held their mobiles, that he believed a pattern wase merging.
In January 1995, Hocking met with Telstra's human relations manager, who agreed that four company staff members complaining of headaches (all frequent mobile users) should be referred to a neurologist for examination. A few weeks later, Hocking discovered that Telstra's lawyers had contacted the neurologist's office and cancelled thea ppointments. He was outraged. As the company's most senior medical official, surely such a sensitive decision as cancelling referrals to a specialist required consultation with him or his department. Moreover, this was a medical issue, not the province of lawyers.
On February 10, 1995, just weeks after the company lawyers had intervened, Hocking was told that his position with Telstra was being abolished on the grounds "that my activities were not relevant to core business".
Two weeks after learning he had lost his job, while still with the company, Hocking wrote to Telstra's legal department saying that he sensed "a strong conflict of interest in these matters between our duties to the shareholder, the employees and ourc ustomers. I believe this is an appropriate matter to refer to the TelstraE thics Committee.
"I have spoken to about four customers with similar complaints and have been impressed at their sincerity and cohesive history. I am persuaded there may be an effect whichw arrants investigation. I disagree that headaches are 'nebulous' symptoms.W hilst they are common, good history taking can reveal diagnostic patterns.
"The four staff have produced written statements which give rise for concern and in my view should be taken seriously ... any protocol for managing complaints should be employee/customer centred, not phone centred, as the best way of managing risk for the individual and the company."
According to Telstra, Hocking's position was abolished when a decision was taken to outsource hisf unctions to a private company, and had nothing to do with his investigations into mobile phones. The company's legal directorate had intervened during the referrals of staff members to a neurologist because normal occupational andh ealth procedures had not been followed.
"The normal process is to look at all the ergonomics and occupational health issues, not just mobile phones," a spokesperson told me. "In this instance, the view at the time was that not all avenues had been investigated, that Hocking had gone off and made these appointments having spoken to HR, but hadn't looked at all the other things it could be, that he was making assessments without investigating all the other avenues."
Hocking has contested this view, saying the "normal" procedure was not introduced by Telstra until after the incident with the four employees. Telstra acknowledges that a "formal" process was not in place at the time, but says that, at any rate, "the records indicate that none of the individuals progressed with the need for medical examination".
Out on his own, Hocking pursued the issue. After accepting a redundancy package, he set up as a consultant in occupational medicine and began a study of 40 mobile phone users who were complaining of uncomfortable symptoms from mobile use, ranging from blurred vision to nausea.
One man particularly interested him. Suffering headaches on the right side of his head where hea lways used his mobile phone, the man had been seeing neurologists for more than a year. But no tumours or any other explanation could be found. Hocking and a clinical neurophysiologist conducted detailed studies on the man's individual nerve fibres and their sensitivity to electrical currents. They found significant differences between the nerves on the side where the patient had always used his mobile, and those on the other side of his head.
Hocking is a quietly spoken man, extremely nervous about the prospect of attracting publicity in a field where you can be shot down almost immediately. In September this year, though, he addressed a Senate inquiry into the issue of electromagnetic emissions, and told it about the differences in the man's nerve sensitivity: "This is the first time that I am aware of that there has been a cleard emonstration of a health effect in humans attributable to a mobile phone," he said. "There is considerable likelihood that mobile phones, at the low levels of radio-frequency which they operate on, are causing disturbances of neural function."
Other studies, too, have suggested that brain patterns may be affected by mobile phone use. The problem is that no-one seems to know how, or what the consequences may be. At Bristol University, two groups of 18 students were given a variety of memory and reaction-time tests.
A control group was exposed to 25 minutes of radiation at mobile phone levels. The scientist conducting the study, Alan Preece, reported a 4 per cent improvement in reaction times - which the industry seized upon as proof that "mobiles are good for you". Another study, conducted by the sleep research unit at the University of Zurich, exposed test subjects to the electromagnetic fields emitted by mobile phones and found that they affect brain function.
In one of the tests, subjects were exposed to 15-minute periods of mobile phone radiation at am aximum of half the recommended international exposure limit. The study found that subjects' brainwaves were altered "in a specific frequency range ... these changes manifested rapidly and subsided in the course of the night."
At Lund University in Sweden, experiments with rats suggested that phone radiation can breach ab arrier that normally prevents blood toxins from entering the brain. The studies found that protein albumen, which can kill nerve cells and is thought to be a cause in Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, had crossed the barrier after the rats had been exposed to microwave radiation comparable to that emitted bym obiles.
While some other studies around the world have reached similar conclusions, others show no impact from mobile phone use. Even the Zurich research concluded that claims of "possible adverse effects on human health are premature because the underlying mechanisms are unknown".
The telecommunications industry has long maintained that mobile phones operate within world safetyg uidelines and, given that mobiles have been in use for more than a decade, any symptoms such as cancerous tumours or other side-effects should have beguns howing up by now.
According to the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA), an industry bodyr epresenting the main carriers, "the claim that the jury is still out in relation to radio-frequency energy and health is misleading. After repeatedr eviews of the large body of scientific literature in this field ... numerous experts have reached the same verdict: there is no substantiated scientifice vidence that using mobile phones can cause adverse health effects of anyk ind."
The industry holds up as its most authoritative voice an American scientist, Dr John Moulder, a professor of radiation oncology at the Wisconsin Medical School. AMTA paid Moulder tow rite a comprehensive assessment of the links between radio-frequency radiation and cancer. While noting there were no strong epidemiology (population) studies and very few strong animal studies, he concluded that evidence for a causal link was "weak to non-existent".
When Good Weekend initially contacted AMTA, its chief executive had just resigned, and the call was quickly returned instead by a representative of Burson Marsteller, thew orld's biggest public relations firm. While declining to speak on the record, the spokesman pointed to a long list of AMTA statements highlighting thatr epeated studies had found no evidence that mobile radiation was linked toc ancer.
For companies whose core business is communication, the telecom giants have sometimes proved reluctant to encourage the free flow of information, especially when it comes to studies that suggest health risks to their employees.
In 1984, the late Fred Hollows published a study in the prestigious journal The Lancet that foundT elstra employees exposed to microwaves were three times more likely to develop cataracts than linesmen not exposed to such radiation.
Telstra reportedly complained to the government and Hollows' university that the study had been published without its permission. When Hollows was unable to obtain furtherf unding for a follow-up study, some believed Telstra's protests had directly or indirectly put an end to the professor's plans for further research in thea rea.
In 1996, after rookie Democrat Senator Lyn Allison was given her party's telecommunications portfolio, she called for more research into the health effects of electromagnetic radiation. Following that call, she says, Telstra invited her to tour itsr esearch laboratories in Melbourne. According to her, what followed "was a big show. I was astounded to find how defensive they were and unwilling to countenance that there might be ap roblem. I would have thought scientists anywhere are true to their profession ... and interested in discovering the facts - whatever they might be."
Allison now chairs the Senate committee inquiring into electromagnetic emissions, which will report to Parliament early next year. She says the inquiry has been "an eye-opener" for some of her parliamentary colleagues and she sees a "distinct pattern emerging of funding not being made available to those doing certain research".
Certainly, after Bruce Hocking left Telstra, his request for funding for a second study of his into links between cancer and radiation from transmission towers was knocked back.
More recently, Adelaide scientist Dr Pamela Sykes released the results of a preliminary study into the effects of mobile phone radiation on mice. Believing her findings might have implications for the development of cancers, she wanted to investigate further, but the National Health and Medical Research Council denied her further funds. Arguing that this was simply policy, the NHMRC said Sykes would need to re-apply for a grant in its next round of funding. Meanwhile, an Australian Consumers Association spokesman noted that customer concern about mobile phones wasi ncreased by the perception "that a number of studies stop at a critical time".
At least two other senators on the committee do not share Allison's view - Liberal John Tierney and Labor's Mark Bishop. "The bottom line," says Tierney about any claims of mobiles affecting health, "is that there's no science behind any oft his." Bishop also says he is unlikely to change his view because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that mobiles are safe.
But some say there is a reason the studies don't show any negative effects. According to Sarah Benson, a researcher in Senator Allison's office, "Some of our best witnesses are too afraid to appear before the committee because of intimidation. One man who has experienced fairly pronounced health problems as a result of his phone has not appeared, as he is afraid of losing his job with one of the carriers." Benson says independent scientists "continually struggle to maintain their public integrity" when confronted by campaigns to discredit them by other scientists employed by industry and government.
One scientist who says he has suffered this treatment is New Zealander Dr Neil Cherry, who is oftend isparaged for his origins as a meteorologist and has been labelled a "snake-oil merchant" and a "shameless charlatan" by theM inister for Communications, Senator Richard Alston. In turn, Cherry is highly critical of what he sees as a cover-up of the links between mobile phones and health: "How can you say there are no effects?
I know of 16 studies that show radio-frequency microwaves can damage chromosomes. The evidence is sos trong that [the telecommunication companies] lie about them. They constantly seek out the weak areas of a study and highlight those. When a very strong study comes along, they say it must be replicated." Cherry says he knows ofs everal labs in the US where scientists have been intimidated into hushing up negative results from mobile phone studies. He declines, however, to namet hem.
Among the scientists Cherry has clashed with is Dr Michael Repacholi, who now heads a criticalf ive-year study into the issue on behalf of the World Health Organisation.R epacholi, now based in Geneva, was the architect of one of the most significant experiments ever carried out on the effects of mobile phone radiation. For 18 months between 1993 and 1995, he led a team of scientists at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in a Telstra-funded experiment using transgenic mice predisposed to certain types of cancerous tumours. To Repacholi's surprise, and perhaps the dismay of the industry, the experiment found that the mice exposed to mobile phone radio frequencies experienced more than double the incidence of lymphoma than the control group.
The results, however, were not announced until 1997, two years later, and then at a press conference to which several key journalists in the field were not invited. One of them, a freelancer and researcher in the area, Stewart Fist, maintains it was a deliberate ploy by the industry to keep the experiment's results as low-key as possible. But Telstra says it did not see the results until the study had been accepted for publication, and that arrangements for the press conference were left up to the hospital. (Members of the experimental team have been quoted as saying the study's results were "too hot to handle" for some of the world's most renowned scientific journals, thus delaying its official publication.)
The results were quickly disparaged. Senator Alston quipped that the study proved only that mice predisposed to cancer should not use mobiles. Meant to be a dismissive one-liner, it was hardly original. A variation of the quote had been coined by Burson Marsteller when it helped write the Australian industry's response to the mouse study.
Some, like Cherry, wondered why Telstra would fund a study using mice if the results were irrelevant. Cherry also claims Michael Repacholi's credibility is damaged by his being too closely identified with the telecommunications industry. (Microwave News reported that Repacholi recently visited China accompanied by industryr epresentatives. Repacholi says his visit was a private one, and that he had no connection with any industry figures lobbying the Chinese government for business.)
Repacholi was reportedly stunned by the study's findings, saying at the time of its release: "I'm cast as a person who doesn't believe there are any biological effects at low levels [of radio-frequency energy] ... Well, I feel that, heavens, there could be something there that we really do need to look at." A new version of the mouse study is now being carried out at Royal Adelaide Hospital at a cost of $1.2 million.
Another figure involved in the original study was Dr Ken Joyner, a former scientist with Telstra, now employed by Motorola. Joyner is also a member of an expert committee on theN HMRC, which is responsible for doling out $4.5 million to studies on the mobile phone issue. While he does not have a vote, Joyner is there as an adviserb ecause of his expertise, and is considered an influential figure. But his role has raised claims before the Senate inquiry of a potential conflict of interest. When contacted to discuss these and other issues in the debate, he agreed there were "a lot of egos involved". He said he would consider the request and return the call. He then rang Burson Marsteller to advise them that he had been contacted by the media.
It is not the first time claims have been made about industry being too close to government and those who control research funding. When the Senate inquiry began earlier this year, the Federal Government's regulatory body, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), compiled a confidential analysis of the inquiry's submissions. In that analysis, obtained by Good Weekend, there is a paragraph that reads: "Nine submissions presented pseudo-scientific evidence. Contributors of such erroneous information were mainly lobby groups or 'crusader' scientists such as Peter French."
Dr Peter French is the principal scientific officer and manager for the Centre of Immunology at StV incent's Hospital in Sydney. Outraged by the comments from what he believes should be an impartial government body, French has consulted a lawyer and is considering suing ARPANSA for defaming him. "You get branded very easily in this business," says French. "They labelled me as a crusader. As a scientist, I find that highly offensive. I think there's quite a lot of evidence that there is a potential health risk, but I base that purely on the science and what I have seen."
Just recently, French bought himself a hands-free set for his mobile. He had waited a long time before doing this, he says, because he wanted concrete proof that mobile phones caused health problems. According to French, that proof confronted him in the tearoom of his department one afternoon a few weeks ago.
Here is one of the few facts in the mobile phone debate that is not in dispute: a small amount ofr adiation enters your head whenever you use your mobile, which usually leads to a rise in temperature of about 0.11° Celsius. This is too low for anyh eat-related problem to occur. Most scientists say heat-related problems - known as thermal heating - occur with temperature rises of one to two degrees. But earlier this year, a paper published in Nature described how a team of British researchers found that microwaves at a level equivalent to a rise in temperature of .001 (thousands of times weaker than mobile phone radiation) created a& quot;heat-shock" response in the subjects of their experiments, nematode worms.
The heat-shock response is a defensive mechanism of the body. A rise in temperature - which can occur through heat or the use of certain chemicals and drugs - can trigger the response. When the temperature rises, proteins in living cells can "unfold" or become damaged. The cell senses this "unfolding" and sends out teams of heat-shock proteins to "refold" the original proteins. The nematode worm study claimed that this mechanism was being triggered at low, non-thermal levels.
But French had his "Eureka!" moment when, while sipping a cup of tea in the staffroom, he was reading a paper in the latest issue of the American Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Two scientists who had reviewed the literature on heat-shock proteins concluded that evidence existed which proved that turning on ther esponse chronically or inappropriately could lead to cells becoming cancerous. The paper made no reference to mobile phones or radio frequency. But Frenchb elieves he is the first to see a connection. He is now writing a paper on the implications and planning to submit it to one of the world's most influential scientific journals.
"You can now make a link between mobile phones and cancer," says French. "It's the first time this link has been made. And what it means is, we don't need to wait 30 years to develop significant precautions."
When French briefed the Senate inquiry last month, one senator wondered aloud if a Nobel Prize might not be in the offing. French should be so lucky. Within a day of raising French's findings with AMTA, Good Weekend was told by an industry representative toc ontact Dr Joseph Roti Roti at Washington University in Missouri. According to AMTA, Roti Roti is an acknowledged world expert in heat-shock proteins.
Roti Roti wasn't aware of the latest US study, the one that had grabbed French's attention. He said he had been working in the area for five years (Motorola has funded his research into cell phones) and had not detected any evidence that radio frequency couldt rigger the heat-shock response. A few days later, he e-mailed back, saying he had come across the US paper, but that it was a review of other experiments and "as such, it contains no new experimental data".
So it goes. Claim meets counterclaim, one punch is met by another. Good science is supposed to work like this, but without the vitriol and dogmatism that bogs down this debate. Several lawsuits have been filed around the world over the past five years, but none has progressed because of lack of solid scientific evidence to support claims of health side-effects. Maurice Blackburn Cashman is considering launching Australia's first test case, saying that "from the research investigations which we have undertaken to date, it would appear that there is an increasing body of empirical data pointing to a link between use of mobile phones and the development of certain personal injuries".
But whether they get very far is another matter. Jon Somers was right. There were no solid answers. Just a great deal of howling. On a bad day, Somers still requires massive doses ofp ainkillers to keep his own howling at bay, but he hopes that some day in the future, he will be able to return to work.
He has kept his mobile phone. It's just that he no longer has a need to use it.