Electromagnetic fields emitted by mobile phones and their support infrastructure, look set to be a long-term thorn in the side of many risk managers and insurers. Jessica McCallin reports

The issue of whether or not EMFs pose a risk to human health hit the headlines again in early July when Cypriot residents, led by a member of parliament, stormed a British army camp on the island in protest against plans to install huge radio masts. Electromagnetism from these antennae, they say, could lead to an increase in illnesses such as childhood leukaemia and brain cancer.

The public should be used to such assertions. Since Florida-based David Reynard filed a suit back in 1993, claiming a cell phone had contributed to his late wife's brain cancer, EMFs have routinely made the news.

Cancer is their usual bedfellow, but claims that electromagnetic field exposure is linked to sterility, Alzheimer's, heart disease, miscarriages, cataracts, chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome and lupus are also common. And that is not the end of it. German engineer and ex-Siemens physicist Dr Wolfgang Volkrodt believes EMFs could be creating acid-rain type damage in trees.

Given the immense numbers of users of mobile phones, even small adverse effects on human health could have major public health implications. But the emphasis is on 'could'. What or who to believe is a completely different matter.

Opinion on the affect of EMFs on human health ranges from the good to the bad to the very, very ugly. At one end of the scale are groups such as Canada's EM Radiation Taskforce, a group of professional and lay people who have clubbed together to research and publicise the issue after concluding the government was not doing enough. The Taskforce, in no uncertain terms, thinks electromagnetism could alter life as we know it. It says that, in the weeks following activation of digital PCS cellular phone networks in 1996, 1997 and 1998, four major US cities reported increases in human deaths of between 15% and 30% - statistics it describes as too frightening to comprehend.

At the other end of the scale are the telecommunications companies who say there is nothing to worry about. Nokia's statement on the issue is echoed throughout the industry: 'Accepted scientific fact does not support the allegations of possible links to harmful health effects. In fact, a substantial amount of scientific research conducted all over the world over many years demonstrates that radio signals within established safety levels emitted from mobile telephones and their base stations present no adverse effects on human health.'

In between are a myriad of studies, research projects, findings and opinions which shed a lot of heat, but not much light, on the issue. Most people agree that EMFs have an effect on the body; the questions are when, where, why and how much. Some scientific background will show how confusion arises.

Mobile phone handsets and base stations present quite different exposure situations. Exposure to radio frequency (RF) by a mobile phone user is far higher than to a person living near a base station. However, apart from infrequent signals used to maintain links with base stations, the handset only transmits RF when a call is being made, whereas base stations transmit signals continuously. So which is worse, short but concentrated exposure or smaller but constant doses? It is too soon to say.

Similarly, there is disagreement over whether the new-style digital phones are worse than the older, analogue ones. Analogue phones operate at frequencies of around 800 to 900 MHz, whereas digital phones operate at either 900 or 1800 MHz.

In addition, research has, to date, focused purely on the thermal or heating effect of EMFs, for the simple reason that our scientific knowledge is not yet capable of examining the non-thermal effects. Add to this the possibility that EMFs are only indirectly responsible for any adverse health effects – in the sense that they may be enabling other substances or forces to affect us – and it is easy to see why confusion reins.

On top of all this lies the pure and simple fact that, as Michael Mendelawitz of Barlow, Lyde and Gilbert says, "Modern life is electromagnetic life. All sorts of appliances, from computers to hairdryers, emit EMFs. Even if a link is found to human health, mobile phones will not be the only culprits."

Such is the confusion that it is easy to see why a worried public is not comforted by the large number of research projects which conclude that there is no risk to human health. After all, governments and industry scientists also said smoking, thalidomide, asbestos, genetically modified food and breast implants were safe. The latter now ranks amongst the insurance industry's top five worries. And, if anyone needs reminding, asbestos claims nearly destroyed the Lloyd's insurance market.

For some underwriters, the risk is too great. Lloyd's underwriter John Fenn recently became the first risk carrier to refuse to insure phone manufacturers against the risk of damage to health, despite the fact that there have been no losses due to EMFs. And while most insurers still offer liability insurance to cellular phone companies, policy exclusions are becoming more common. Some are even excluding EMF liability from pollution liability policies – an argument which may not hold up in court, according to Mendelawitz, but which insurers are making all the same.

Of course, EMF-trash could end up being insurance industry treasure. A whole new line of insurance, EMF liability insurance, could soon develop, making some underwriters rich provided they quote the right premium. Such a development may take a few years, but the future almost certainly holds stranger things than EMF liability policies.

Before anything significant can happen, more evidence will have to be found. The publication of a World Health Organisation (WHO) study in 2003 is an event to keep in mind. The WHO's specialised agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is busy coordinating an epidemiological study in over ten countries to identify links between mobile phones and head and neck cancers.

Beware complacency
Until the study is published, phone companies, risk managers and insurers should let caution prevail. If they can, phone companies should put aside large legal reserves. They should also make sure any products or services they sell comply with the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection's guidelines. Taking simple protective measures such as erecting fences or barriers around masts and base stations would also be wise. And, while present scientific evidence says RF absorbing devices, such as covers on mobile phones, are not necessary, more research into the matter would not go amiss. There is even a body of opinion which says phone companies should promote the use of hands-free earpieces, because they keep the frequencies away from the head.

The WHO recommends consulting communities in which masts or base stations are placed. 'Siting base stations near kindergartens, schools and playgrounds may need special consideration,' it says. 'Discussion between mobile phone operators, local councils and the public during the planning stages for new antennae can help create public understanding and greater acceptance of the facility.'

The key is not to be complacent because scientific studies seem to be on your side. Alasdair Philips, technical director of the Powerwatch Network, a membership organisation which describes itself as the independent voice on EMF issues in the UK, uses the link between smoking and lung cancer to show how conclusive scientific evidence is not always needed to prove causation, or a very strong association, between an activity and human health.

"Smoking is accepted as a cause of lung cancer even though the biological process is not fully understood," he explains. "Part of the problem with EMFs is that it is still not clear what we should be measuring. It is possible, indeed likely, that any adverse health effects of EMFs will be much greater when combined with other factors."

So forget anything you learnt in school about scientific findings being fact: they can be as subjective as one's favourite colour, especially when based on epidemiological studies, as most EMF findings are. Epidemiological studies examine direct effects by studying a population and looking for a correlation. If researchers don't find a cast-iron correlation, they conclude there is no link but, as our knowledge of the links between smoking and lung cancer show, cast-iron correlation is not needed. In addition, epidemiological studies take a long time to complete, but mobile phone use is relatively new.

The health effects of EMFs could take 20 years to materialise, rendering current epidemiological studies useless. If the effects do turn out to have long incubation periods, as the effects of asbestos and breast implants did, insurers and phone companies could have a nasty surprise waiting for them.
Jessica McCallin is a freelance journalist, E-mail: jessica.mccallin@ukgateway.net

Mobile phones and health
The report from the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones. (Stewart Group), commissioned by the UK Minister for Public Health, was published last year. It concluded that: "It is not possible at present say that exposure to RF radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects, and that the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach."

The findings from the Stewart Group have helped frame a government advice and information leaflet. Official health advice includes suggesting that employers who require employees to use mobile phones should make staff aware of existing knowledge and consider ways of reducing mobile phone use with any concerned staff.

The full IEGMP report is available at www.iegmp.org.uk