November 2000


The growing global concern over the effects of wireless technology on human health is reflected by tougher exposure standards. However, in the United States the telecommunications industry continues to deny that there is cause for concern.

By Arthur Firstenberg

‘Our family, neighbours and children are plagued with headaches, eye discomfort, facial redness, ringing or high-pitch sounds, fatigue, dizziness, sleep disturbances, irregular heartbeat, high blood-pressure, nausea, pain in the joints and muscles, difficulty in concentrating, memory difficulties, immune system abnormalities, asthma, allergies, etc.’

The authors of the preceding letter live in Duanesberg, New York, but similar complaints are coming from communities all over the world. The culprit in each case: a cellular communications tower.

On 7 June, scientists from the US, China, Russia and other countries convened the International Conference on Cell Tower Siting in Salzburg, Austria to discuss their growing concerns about the impact of wireless technology on human health.

On 29 June, Belgian Member of Parliament Paul Lannoye called a conference in the European Parliament to discuss the dangers linked to mobile phones and antennas. Experts from France, Belgium, Switzerland, England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand participated.

The  growing  global concern is reflected by  tougher exposure standards  in other parts of the world. In Salzburg, the permissible public exposure for pulsed radio-frequency (RF) radiation is 10,000 times lower than in the US.

Turning up the Radiation

Meanwhile, the US telecommunications industry continues to deny that there is cause for concern. In the 29 May issue of Time magazine, industry representatives eagerly promoted the idea that ‘in the future, virtually all inanimate objects - from front doors to light bulbs - will have a wireless Internet hookup.’

The industry’s success in reassuring the public is aided by the popularity of wireless technology, and the fact that the current economic boom is fuelled in large part by the growth in telecom. In addition, it is difficult to link the environmental effects of radiation exposure with the use of a particular product.

In his pioneering 1985 book, The Body Electric, Dr Robert O Becker warned about the growing health dangers of exposure to electromagnetic pollution. Becker recently declared that he now believes electromagnetic radiation has become ‘a bigger threat to the planet than global warming’.

World health authorities have been puzzled by recent sharp increases in asthma, sleep disorders, hypertension, tinnitis and memory loss. Influenza and flu-like illnesses also have become more severe and more frequent. In the US, this sharp increase began in November 1996, the same time that digital cellphone service first became available in many cities. In the last four years, RF and microwave radiation levels have increased 10-fold around the world (and up to 100,000-fold in some large cities).

Electromagnetic Pollution

Despite the reluctance of authorities to regulate electromagnetic pollution, a number of long-term epidemiological studies sponsored by universities and governments in Mexico, Latvia, Poland and Switzerland have documented health and environmental effects from exposure to short- and long-wave radio, radar and wireless communication facilities.

In 1954, the Swiss government began operating a short-wave transmitter in the village of Schwarzenburg to broadcast radio programmes to Swiss listeners overseas. After years of citizens’ complaints, in the summer of 1992 it initiated a public health study of the surrounding population.

The study found that insomnia, nervousness and restlessness, limb and joint pain, general  weakness and tiredness,  cough and sputum,  and abnormal blood  pressure  were more prevalent within 1.5 kilometres (3,280 feet) of the transmitter, and that effects on sleep were demonstrable up to approximately 4 kilometres (2.5 miles).

Over the 40 years of the transmitter’s operation, the promotion rate of children at a school a half-mile from the transmitter was found to be lower than at a similar school located on the far side of a mountain from the transmitter. Because of these findings, the Schwarzenburg facility was shut down on 28 March 1998.

US Waffles, Citizens Sue

Over the past five years, 95 million Americans have begun using cellphones on a daily basis. On 17 July, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) responded to growing public concerns by announcing a new policy to disclose how much radiation is emitted by different brands of cellphones.

According to the Associated Press, the industry’s action reflects growing fears about the ‘long-presumed safety of holding a wireless phone against the head for prolonged periods of time’.

Since this is an industry initiative and not a federal regulation, the cellphone manufacturers have said that they will not disclose the radiation warnings on the outside of the boxes - only on the equipment inside.

On 11 May, Britain’s Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones issued a report that strongly recommended that mobile phones not be used by children and proposed a ban on marketing cellphones to kids. The group called for an independent panel to conduct ‘substantial’ research into cellphone safety and asked the government to leaflet every UK household to warn of the health impacts of cellphone use. Finally, the study demanded that radiation warnings should be made ‘readily accessible to consumers’ by placing the exposure numbers ‘on the box’.

In June, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that it would begin epidemiological and genotoxicity studies of cellphone radiation - funded by the CTIA.

But not everyone agrees that more studies are needed before the public should be protected. Fiorenzo Marinelli of the Institute of Cytomorphology in Bologna, Italy, spoke for many at the Salzburg meeting when he said that evidence of biological effects of RF radiation is so convincing that much stricter exposure limits should already be in place.

In 1997, the Cellular Phone Taskforce (CPT), a citizens watchdog group, led a legal  challenge  alleging  that  the   Federal  Communications  Commission  promulgated RF-exposure standards that were not based on current science and failed to protect the public health and the environment.

The CPT also challenged the constitutionality of sections of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that mandated universal wireless services and banned states and local governments from regulating such facilities based on the environmental effects. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Arthur Firstenberg is the founder of the Cellular Phone Taskforce [PO Box 1337, Mendocino, CA 95460, (718) 434-4499] and editor of No Place to Hide, the CPT newsletter.

The above article first appeared in Earth Island Journal (Winter 2000-2001).