by Martin Röösli and Harry Rudin

As we become more and more keen on cell phones there remains the open question of what effect these cell phones have on our health and well being. Some recent work in Switzerland sheds some light on these issues.

Our dependence on and investment in cell phones rise steadily. The annual sale of cell phones is approaching 1 billion units. Is the result of all the accompanying electromagnetic radiation going to have an effect on our health? Almost everyone has heard some 'anecdotal evidence' where there have been some undesirable effects on people: headache, concentration problems, irritability, insomnia, etc. But, can anything be said on a scientific basis? Some recent research from Switzerland has shed some light on the subject. More light is needed and some is coming.

The topic is difficult in itself and made more difficult by the enormous financial interests involved. Ideally, in a cold, scientific experiment, one should find a group of humans, some of whom would be subjected to the electromagnetic radiation produced by cell phones and their base stations for several years and some of whom in the group would not be exposed. All of them would be blind to exposure and they would not differ in terms of other factors influencing their health. One could carefully measure their health status and their well being, distinguishing between those exposed and those not exposed. Obviously this has not been done nor will it be done in the future.

While much material has been published with the objective of shedding light on the problem, many of the published studies have serious methodological limitations - leading to doubts concerning their validity. Reference [1] summarizes studies on mobile phone radiation and health-related quality of life, concluding, "The results are contradictory and the greater part of these studies is not able to address the issue of causality between exposure and outcome."

One of the first studies dealing with radio frequency electromagnetic field exposure was about the shutdown of the Swiss Schwarzenburg short-wave radio transmitter. While this took place back in 1998, a recently published paper [2] reports of measurements in the change in the melatonin produced by 54 volunteers living in the vicinity. The measurements showed that in the week after the shutdown, sleep quality improved and melatonin excretion increased by 15 percent, on average. (Melatonin plays an important role in regulating sleep-wake cycles because its production is inhibited by light and permitted by darkness. Melatonin is sometimes prescribed when suffering from jetlag.) However, the shut down date was known to the study participants. Thus, the authors state that "blinding of exposure was not possible in this observational study and this may have affected the outcome measurements in a direct or indirect (psychological) way."

In September, 2003, the Dutch TNO Physics and Electronic Laboratory announced the results of a study. They wrote: "The present study contributes to the research on finding a relation between electromagnetic fields and brain functions." Further, "Exposure to GSM-900 or GSM-1800 electromagnetic fields had no effect on well-being in either experimental group. However, exposure to a UMTS-like signal resulted in a small, but statistically significant impairment of well-being. Interestingly this effect was not only observed in individuals with self-reported health complaints attributed to daily life EMF exposures but also in a reference group without such complaints. This effect was found after only about half an hour’s exposure to what, by everyday standards, was a relatively high environmental field strength (1 V/m). In practice, while individuals in the vicinity of operational UMTS antennas will be subject to continuous exposure, the field strengths in question will be lower." Thus, the transferability of the 'TNO'-results to normal day-to-day environmental exposure is questionable. [3]

There was considerable criticism of the circumstances of this study including that by its authors themselves. These authors and others recognized the need to make a more careful repeat of the study. However, one result of the TNO study was a temporary and partial moratorium on the construction of new base stations in Switzerland, pending a more thorough study.

A Swiss scientific consortium was formed to carry out such a more thorough study. It was performed by a group of scientists from the University of Zurich, the University of Bern, and from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Several methodological improvements were implemented, including investigating a larger sample size and applying two different UMTS exposure levels, all yielding more robust results. The results were published on June 6, 2006. [4]

The effect of UMTS radiation found in the TNO study was not confirmed in the new Swiss study. It should be noted that the experiment had to do only with 45-minute UMTS-radiation exposure intervals (four of them separated by a period of one week) and radiation absorption in brain tissue was considerably smaller than during the use of a mobile phone. Thus, the authors concluded, "No conclusions can be drawn regarding short-term effects of cell phone exposure or the effects of long-term, base-station-like exposure on human health."[4] Nevertheless, several of the temporary and partial moratoria for the construction of new UMTS base stations in Switzerland were withdrawn, even though the question of long-term effects of UMTS radiation on humans remains open.

Meanwhile, the REFLEX study under Professor F. Adlkofer, was making measurements on isolated cells to see if these were effected by a high or low-frequency (power-line frequency) EMF (electro-magnetic field). Quoting from the report: "The main goal of the REFLEX project was to investigate the effects of EMF on single cells in vitro at the molecular level below the energy density reflected by the present safety levels."[5] The study showed that in certain human cell types there was indeed a significant increase in the number of single- and double-strand breaks in the DNA as a result of high [6] and extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields [5].

These results fascinated Professor Primo Schaer at the Center for Biomedicine at the University of Basel. In a talk at a meeting on June 29 of this year, organized by the Swiss Research Foundation for Mobile Communication, Professor Schaer gave a preliminary report on his own experiments which confirm the work in Vienna, showing that intermittent extremely low frequency fields can result in damage to DNA. At this point in time these research results are unpublished; but, when published, we will report on them here in ERCIM News. Professor Schaer emphasized that some DNA damages are repaired by the DNA repair mechanism. Thus, the observed genotoxic effects do not necessarily mean that EMF is carcinogenic for the human.
In conclusion, we now know that EMF does have some effects on humans and human cells. Since we still do not know what the effect is on our health and well-being, some degree of caution would seem to be called for.

References:

[1] Seitz H., Stinner D., Eikmann T., Herr C., Röösli M.; Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS) and Subjective Health Complaints Associated with Electromagnetic Fields of Mobile Phone Communication: A literature review [of papers] published between 2000 and 2004.
Science of the Total Environment, 2005; 349 (1-3): 45-55.

[2] Altpeter, E.-S, Martin Röösli, M., Battaglia, M., Pfluger, D., Minder, C. and Abelin, T.;
Effect of Short-Wave (6-22 MHz) Magnetic Fields on Sleep Quality and Melatonin Cycle in Humans: The Schwarzenburg Shut-Down Study, Bioelectromagnetics,
Vo. 27, pp 142-150, 2006.

[3] Zwamborn, A.P.M., Vossen, S.H.J.A., van Leersum, B.J.A.M., Ouwens, M.A., Makel, W.N.; Effects of Global Communication System Radio-Frequency Fields on Well Being and Cognitive Functions of Human Subjects with and without Subjective Complaints. Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO).
FEL-03-C148, 2003.

[4] Regel S.J., Negovetic S., Röösli M., Berdiñas V., Schuderer J., Huss A., Lott U., Kuster N., Achermann P. ; UMTS Base Station Like Exposure, Well Being and Cognitive Performance. Environmental Health Perspectives 2006, 114 (8): 1270-1275 (http://www.ehponline.org/members/2006/8934/8934.html)

[5] Winker, R, Ivancsits, S., Pilger, A., Adlkofer, F. and Rudiger, H. W.
Chromosomal Damage in Human Diploid Fibroblasts by Intermittent Exposure to Extremely Low-Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, Mutation Research, Vol. 585, Issues 1-2, pp. 43-49, 1 August 2005, http://www.verum-foundation.de/cgi-bin/content.cgi?id=euprojekte01

[6] Diem E., Schwarz C., Adlkofer F., Jahn O., Rüdiger H.; Non-Thermal DNA Breakage by Mobile Phone Radiation (1800 MHz) in Human Fibroblasts and in Transformed GFSH-R17 Rat Granulosa Cells in Bitro. Mutation Research, Vol. 583, (2), pp. 178-183, 2005.

Links:
TNO follow up study: http://www.mobile-research.ethz.ch/projekte.htm#18
EMF projects at the University of Bern: http://www.ispm.ch/index.php?id=814
Primos research group at the University of Basel: http://pages.unibas.ch/dbmw/biochemie/

Please contact:
Martin Röösli, University of Bern, Switzerland
E-mail: roeoesli@ispm.unibe.ch

Harry Rudin, Consultant, Switzerland
E-mail: hrudin@smile.ch

Next issue: October 2019
Special theme:
Smart Things Everywhere
Call for the next issue
Get the latest issue to your desktop
RSS Feed