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Health effects of mobile phones: still highly uncertain and controversial

Hussein, Rim A.

The Journal Of The Egyptian Public Health Association: December 2011 - Volume 86 - Issue 5 and 6 - p 77–78
doi: 10.1097/01.EPX.0000407771.44586.0b

Environmental Health Department, High Institute of Public Health, Alexandria University

Address of corresponding author: High Institute of Public Health,165 ElHorreya Avenue, Alexandria, Egypt Tel: 002 03 4285575 Fax: 002 03 3834164

Currently, there is growing concern about the health risks that may be caused from using mobile phones or living nearby a mobile base station. While making or receiving a call, radiation is transmitted from the mobile phone to the base station and vice-versa by high-frequency electromagnetic fields. A number of studies have investigated the effects of such fields on human health. To date, no consistent evidence of adverse health effects has been established 1. However, in-vitro studies have indicated that low-level radio-frequency (RF) fields can penetrate the cell membrane and cause some changes in the cytoplasmic structure and function, which might lead to physiological changes in the living cells 2. Nevertheless, concerning the public fear about the relationship between the use of mobile phones and the risk of brain tumors, the balance of evidence, from both in-vitro and in-vivo experiments, indicates that neither acute nor chronic exposure to RF fields increases mutation or chromosomal aberration frequencies when temperatures are maintained within physiological limits 3. However, this could be attributed to the fact that many cancers are not detectable until many years after the interactions that led to the tumor took place, and as mobile phones were not widely used until the early 1990s, epidemiological studies at present can only assess those cancers that become evident within shorter time periods 4.

In view of such a level of uncertainty, systematic reviews and meta-analysis studies are being increasingly undertaken to provide clear evidence on the health effects of using mobile phones. Seventeen reviews were published between 2000 and 2011. The majority of these reviews focused on the psychomotor effects, the driving performance, and brain tumors 5–10. The evidence presented in these publications did not provide a consistent pattern that exposure to mobile phones is detrimental to health. Only studies associating mobile phone use during driving with road traffic accidents, and those investigating electromagnetic interference with personal or hospital medical electronic devices, showed consistent results. For those interested in comprehensive information on all the effects, a literature review that collects and assesses all relevant studies would be a good idea, as a systematic review cannot capture all the health effects. In the literature review published in this issue, the author collected more than 70 studies of all types including epidemiologic, experimental, cellular, and animal studies and 17 systemic or meta-analysis review studies. The author analyzed the findings and gave an explanation for the inconsistency observed in these results. Until further methodologically coherent experimental and epidemiologic studies are undertaken to yield definitive answers to the potential health effects of mobile phones, precautionary measures are best adopted by all concerned parties, namely governments, mobile phone companies, and the public.

For the time being, one has to try to minimize the intensity of RF fields one is exposed to. The intensity of radiation exposure during a call depends on various factors including the connection quality and the specific absorption rate [(SAR), expressed in W/kg] of the mobile phone: less radiation is emitted when the connection quality is good, and the lower the SAR of the device, the lower the radiation absorbed by the body 1. Hence, to minimize exposure, when buying a mobile phone, one has to make sure that the mobile has a low SAR (2 W/kg exposure limit is recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection) 11 besides keeping calls short, sending text messages instead, and using the mobile phone only when the signal quality is good. Finally, the most important point is to never use the mobile phone while driving. There is evidence that such use increases the risk of fatal or nonfatal accidents significantly 12. The use of currently available hands-free devices does not seem to reduce the risk 13.

As for mobile base stations, they should offer good signal coverage and be accessible for maintenance. Although RF field levels around the stations are not considered a health risk, setting decisions should take into account the aesthetics and public sensibilities. For example, setting base stations near kindergartens, schools, and playgrounds may need special consideration 14.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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© 2011 Egyptian Public Health Association