Are Mobiles as Safe as we Thought?

I remember the first time I ever saw a mobile phone in use. It was on the movie ‘Wall Street’, and Gordon Gecko had just pulled a new shirt from a packet, changed into it (imagine throwing a shirt out and getting a new one every day) and was holding this brick-sized contraption next to his ear, yelling, “Sell, sell!” Film buffs will criticise my 12-year-old brain for having laid down memory of multiple melded scenes, but the point is this – here was this filthy rich guy, talking on a phone that wasn’t plugged into the wall!

That was 1987, and it was more than a decade before I held a slightly smaller, but much yellower Nokia version to my own head. Even early on, the idea of holding a device with radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) that close to my brain didn’t seem like a good idea. For years, I was sure that we were looking at our generation’s version of cigarettes, once smoked by doctors whilst consulting. Decades on, we would chuckle at our ignorance: “Hold a radiotransmitter that close to their brain and not think that it would cause trouble? Who were they kidding?”

I looked for RF shields for my Nokia 5110, struggling to find anything particularly satisfactory, and settled on a device called an RF3 headset, which used descriptive language to describe something first invented in 1816 – the stethoscope. By using a piece of plastic tubing attached to an ear piece at the top end, and the microphone and radiofrequency transmitter at the bottom end, it kept the RF waves away from my head, and presumably, decreased my brain’s exposure. Forget the fact that I kept it in my pocket, right next to my gonads all day.

As time passed, and I got a little more busy and a little less fastidious, I ditched the device. Whilst there has been some concern for the last fifteen years, there have been an equal number of other studies, pouring water on the notion that mobile phones were potentially dangerous. I had begun to consider that my notion was all paranoia. After all, mobile phones are now ubiquitous, and have now been widely available for three decades. But after all, causality is sometimes a hard thing to prove.

A recent study from Sweden pricked up my ears, and with it my concerns. They looked at the long-term effect of mobile phone AND cordless phones on the increased risk of glioma, a type of brain cancer. They found the risk increased the over time, the more hours spent on these devices per week, and the younger the commencement of use. Risk was tripled among users of mobile phones for over 25 years.

This study is significant, as it pooled two separate studies, and had large numbers, 1498 tumour cases in all. It included patients from 18 to 80 years of age. But for me, as a paediatrician, it is particularly concerning, as children have a thinner skull, a higher level of conductivity to the brain, and in a more actively developing brain, an inferred higher risk.

So, what do you do? My first piece of advice – don’t panic! You have not caused your child irreparable damage by letting them play with your mobile phone, and using it to call home to check in. Rates of glioma are still incredibly low; whilst a relatively common type of brain tumour, rates in adults are 27.9 people per 100,000 – which is 0.03% – or 1 in 3500 people. In my mind, three times rare still equals rare.  But the first thing I ever do when I read a study, is ask myself, will this change my practice?

And I think it will, in these simple ways – all of which I’ll do myself as well as advise to my patients:

  1. Consider getting a corded phone. I know they went out in 1984, but I was surprised to see the inferred risk not only from mobile phones, but cordless phones. I will certainly be ‘updating’ my own cordless phone in my home office to one that has a curly little cord that plugs straight into the base.
  2. Call back from a landline. For years I’ve been receiving calls to my mobile, and if I happen to be near a fixed line, calling back from this. I didn’t realise all this time that my cordless phone was also a problem (!), but looking at the data – although it is all clumped – mobile phones are more of a concern.
  3. Use your speaker phone function. Sound quality may be reduced for the person at the other end, but if so, get the info you need and talk again later – from a fixed line or in person. Most modern cars now have this built in, which keeps the phone away from your ear.
  4. SMS! Quick, simple, arm’s length from your head!
  5. Consider getting an RF reducing device, or other hands free device. My concern with conventional handsfree kits is that the RF frequency may be transmitted through the wire. It is hard to find good data on this – websites will tell you: ‘Nah, that doesn’t happen with ours’, but the RF3 device has piece of tubing, conducting only air. I still have mine, and after this, having been stored from years through complacency, I’ll be dusting it off and getting it out again.
  6. Think twice about whether your child needs their own mobile phone, or if so, how much time they talk on it.

On this last point – don’t get me wrong. I’m a parent too. I completely understand the utility of mobile phones, and how they have forever revolutionised our world. A couple of minutes here and there for your child, in my mind, is not going to damage them irreparably. But hours on their mobile phone with friends, ‘catching up on what’s happened since school finished at 3.30pm’ isn’t a great idea.

Just think – you finally have ammunition for stopping those phone calls. Just let your sulky teenager know you’re saving their life! And then get back to your conversation on your own phone, plugged directly into the wall.

Maybe Gordon Gecko wasn’t so smart after all.

What’s your experience of mobile phones? Ever had headaches or a hot ear after using your phone for too long? Ever had any health concerns? Let me know, I’d be fascinated to hear…


To listen to the interview with Denis Walter on 3AW Afternoons, on 18th November 2014, click below:



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