While radio waves and other forms of electromagnetic energy
have been in use for decades, the recent dramatic increase in the use of the
microwave portion of the spectrum for wireless technology such as mobile
phones, the proliferation of mobile phone towers and antennas and accompanying
anecdotal and scientific evidence showing biological and possible health
effects associated with this technology, have led to increased public concern
about their safety.
The Committee found interpretation of the results of studies
of electromagnetic radiation and its effects on living systems to be highly
complex, contradictory and contentious.
The Committee’s understanding of the implications of
scientific research findings was made difficult by the variable and complex
nature of genes, immune and other biological systems, debate about the
importance of replication of studies, the vexed question of the influence of
the telecommunications industry in the design, funding and interpretation of studies
and the lack of consensus about implications for health and safety.
The Committee has found that while adverse health effects
are not agreed upon, the existence of biological effects associated with
radiofrequency radiation is now recognised.
For these reasons the Committee Chair recommends a rigorous
precautionary approach in all areas of the deployment of wireless technology,
that radiofrequency (RF) emissions be kept As Low As Reasonably Achievable
(ALARA), and that the expired interim exposure Standard not be adapted to the
International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP)
The science on which the current non-ionising radiation
standards is based, relates to the capacity of heating to cause adverse health
effects and, while these ‘thermal effects’ are said to be understood,
interpretation of studies showing biological effects of non-thermal exposure to
electromagnetic radiation remains contentious and knowledge about the mechanism
which causes those effects is still limited.
Studies examining the relationship between radiofrequency
radiation and biological and health effects have been extensively reviewed in Australia
and overseas, but the conclusions made in these reviews have been uncertain and
in many respects, contradictory with different conclusions drawn about whether
or not the scientific evidence was sufficiently reliable as a basis for sound
judgments on exposure levels.
While the CSIRO said too little relevant research had been
carried out, the European Commission took the approach there was no convincing
evidence to suggest a long term public health hazard. The World Health
Organization (WHO) said there were no known health hazards associated with
radiofrequency. The Royal Society of Canada and the Stewart Reports concluded
that although biological effects had been demonstrated, there was no evidence
of documented health effects but they did not rule out the possibility that
One of the most contentious issues with regard to the
validity afforded scientific studies is the question of replication. Industry
argued that studies cannot be regarded as reliable evidence unless replicated
but the Committee heard evidence of difficulties in attracting funding for
replication studies, lack of interest in such work, unforeseen variables,
particularly with regard to the genetic make-up of animals, changes and
sometimes improvements in the methodology and the argument that the weight of
evidence is as important as the confirmation of individual studies.
Whilst industry, the WHO and government submissions argued
that the science was inconclusive, others said that the majority of
peer-reviewed, published scientific research showed effects from non-ionising
radiation including DNA damage, heat shock protein response, changes in the
movement of substances across cell membranes, changes in the blood brain
barrier, oncogene change, melatonin reduction and altering of calcium ion
In animals, studies have shown chromosome aberrations, increases
in double and single strand DNA breakages, increases in the promotion of
certain cancers in genetically predisposed mice, severe depression of the
immunological and endocrinological responses of young chickens, changes in
temperature regulation, changes to calcium ion mobility in the brains of cats
and rabbits, changes to the proliferation rate of cells, alterations to enzyme
and nervous system activity and behavioural change, at low level exposure to
The body of scientific research, whilst substantial, was
criticised by the Stewart Report as inconsistent, inadequate, based on single
experiments rather than a consistent series of hypothesis-driven
investigations. Dr Neil Cherry argued that the evidence of biological evidence
was solid and consistent but that much of it had not been sighted, summarised
or integrated. The Royal Society of Canada Report said that studies showing
observed biological effects that it reviewed were well-designed, had
appropriate positive and/or negative controls, contained valid RF exposure
parameters, included appropriate statistical evaluation of the significance of
the data and had been observed to occur by more than one investigator.
Professor Litovitz said his work using electromagnetic
fields to protect against damage due to heart attacks and to treat cancer and
inflammation led him to the theory that, through a signal transduction,
electromagnetic signals reach the surface of the cell or receptor and send a
signal to the nucleus which proceeds to undergo various biochemical processes
and, in particular, alters the levels of protective proteins.
Dr Peter French suggested that continual use of a mobile
phone could potentially induce the chronic expression of heat shock proteins
which can lead to increased metastasis, initiation and promotion of cancer and
resistance to anti-cancer drugs. He said the mechanism by which microwaves may
cause protein unfolding, leading to heat shock response, could be a resonance
of the microwave field with the protein or water in the cell but that this was
as yet only a hypothesis.
Dr Neil Cherry said it had been demonstrated that
oscillating signals interfere with the brain and can change the EEG, and
therefore calcium ions, by resonant absorption.
The Committee Chair is persuaded that without an
understanding of biological mechanism(s) responsible for observed effects it is
not possible to accurately establish safety limits.
Whilst some witnesses argued for the need to clearly
distinguish between the evidence for adverse health effects from exposure to
radiofrequency radiation such as that from mobile phones and extremely low
frequencies (ELF) (primarily 50/60 Hz) such as those from powerlines, others
said that the cell’s characteristic response was the same. Many studies cited
during the inquiry related to ELF and report observed effects from exposure to
ELF on the reproductive system, blood changes, ECG, heart rate, blood pressure,
body temperature, melatonin and cancer.
The development and promotion of cancer ranks in the general
public’s mind as a real health risk associated with mobile phones, but again,
the scientists and reviewers disagree about the evidence.
The Stewart Report said studies of brain cancer provided
inconsistent results, and others commented that there were inherent selection
biases, numbers too small to be reliable and that better designed studies
tended to show no association.
The CSIRO pointed out that one animal study often cited as
negative was analysed by separating out each type of cancer whereas the overall
incidence of primary malignancies between the exposed and the control group
showed a fourfold increase.
The Telstra-funded study in 1997 on mice genetically
predisposed to lymphoma showed a doubling in the incidence of the cancer in the
group exposed to mobile phone frequencies.
Studies done on human exposure to analog mobile phones have
shown no short term effect but researchers have recommended that further
research is undertaken to account for longer induction periods, particularly
for slow-growing tumours and for the differences between analog and digital
Cases which examined cerebral tumours, found no association
between cancer and the duration of mobile phone use but tumours did occur more
frequently on the side of the head to which the phone was customarily held. In
one study temporal lobe cancers occurred more frequently on the opposite side
of the head.
Other health effects
An Australian study of 40 people who identified health
effects from mobile phone use showed symptoms including dull pain, an
unpleasant warmth or heating, as well as ache, throb, sharp pain and pressure.
Most respondents felt the sensation less than five minutes after commencing the
call, but for others the sensation built up as the day progressed. For some
the sensation lasted less than an hour after ceasing calls, for others it
lasted for many hours. The author of the study, epidemiologist Dr Bruce
Hocking, said this was the first clear indication of a health effect on humans
attributable to a mobile phone.
There was disagreement about the implications of studies
showing effects on the cardiovascular system, brain function and the immune and
neurotransmitter systems but it was agreed that further research should be
conducted in these areas.
Ten epidemiological studies have found significant
miscarriage from EMR exposure across the spectrum from ELF and SW to RF/MW.
The Scandinavian study of physiotherapists found significant prematurity,
congenital malformation, still-birth and cot death but reviewers said that the
numbers exposed to microwave equipment were too small to provide reliable risk
A Greek study of mice placed at various locations in
relation to a RF transmission tower showed the low exposure group became
infertile after five generations and the high exposure group after three
generations. This study was said by reviewers to be inconclusive because it
did not include matched control groups or take into account other environmental
factors. The potentially greater sensitivity of children to the effects of
electromagnetic radiation, was also the subject of disagreement amongst
scientists and reviewers. Ionising radiation and some chemicals are known to
have the greatest effect in causing brain and nervous system cancer in rats
when administered early in life during which time the nervous system is
developing but this has not yet been established for mobile phone exposure.
The implications for children of greater absorption of RF
because of thinner skulls and brain tissue containing more ionic fluid and
therefore higher conductivity were disputed. The Stewart Report recommended
that children be discouraged from using mobile phones for non-essential calls
and that the industry refrain from promoting the use of mobile phones by
children, however the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency
(ARPANSA) disputed the conclusion that led to the recommendation saying that
whilst it was true that children are likely to be exposed for a much longer
time than adults, in the absence of any knowledge of an injury mechanism, there
is no reason to believe that children will be inherently more vulnerable than
any other age group.
Given the increasing use of mobile phones by young children
and teenagers, the Committee considers that research into the effects of mobile
phone technologies on young people should be treated as a priority and that
material should be developed to advise parents and children of the potential
risks associated with mobile phone use.
Mobile phone towers and base
There were differing claims about the risks of exposure to
mobile phone base stations and transmitters. Submissions expressed concern
about the continuous and involuntary nature of the exposure however it was generally
accepted that radiation from mobile phone towers is potentially less harmful
than mobile phone emissions and ARPANSA argued that mobile phone base stations
contribute only a small amount of RF compared with radio and television
In spite of this and the controversy surrounding results of
the Hocking study which found a 60 per cent increase in leukaemia in children
living close to TV towers, the Committee is persuaded that a precautionary
approach should be taken in siting base stations.
The Committee also notes the report of the UK’s National
Radiological Protection Board indicating evidence of a slightly increased risk
of leukaemia in children living near high voltage powerlines.
Minimising the risk
The Committee Chair was disturbed at the lack of industry
and government attention to developing lower-emission mobile phone technology
or consumer advice about minimising exposure. The Committee found that the
effectiveness of shielding devices and hands-free kits was at best unclear, that
no standards or other regulations existed for these devices, and that whatever
guarantees there were of mobile phone compliance with current standards, these
became null and void with the use of such devices.
The Committee was concerned to find that there was no
complaints or referral system in place for consumers experiencing health
effects. Although some scientists and mobile phone manufacturers said it would
be difficult to collect useful data, the Committee Chair supports the CSIRO’s
proposal for a ‘register of health effects to systematically investigate and
record reports of adverse health effects from mobile phone use’ and an industry
code of practice for handling complaints.
Funding of research and public information
Under its first term of reference, the Committee examined
the allocation of funding from the Commonwealth’s $4.5 million
radiofrequency electromagnetic emissions fund for research and public
information (the RF EME program). This program consists of three components:
an Australian research program, a contribution to the World Health Organization
Electromagnetic Field Project, and a public information program.
The major criticism of the research program was that funds
were inadequate. Of the $4.5 million RF EME program, $3.4 million was
allocated for Australian research, $131,000 spent to June 2000 on public
information and $US50,000 per annum on the WHO International EMF Project. The
$4.5 million was collected from a one per cent levy on radiocommunications
licences over a five year period which ends in 2000-01.
The RF EME program has funded six studies to date (including
one a completed pilot study) which are detailed in Chapters 2 and 3.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has
the responsibility for awarding grants for this program and the Committee
examined the funding allocation and criticisms that scientists who had found
health effects of electromagnetic radiation were overlooked for funding, the
length of time taken to get research results, the fact that the public
information program had proceeded ahead of the research and accusations that
there was an industry bias in the allocation of funds.
Submissions argued that in the light of identified gaps in
knowledge of health effects, the need for replication, the cost of research,
particularly animal studies, the value of the mobile phone industry, the
significant revenue earned by government from the industry and the large number
of people exposed, that a much larger sum should be available on an ongoing basis.
Counter arguments were made by the NHMRC to the effect that
the program was consistent with amounts awarded in other areas of medical
research, that a higher level of government funding would mean other projects
would not be funded. It said that setting priorities for research spending was
ultimately a social or political decision.
The NHMRC had reservations about the small number of
researchers in this field being available to take up significantly more grants
but acknowledged that one-off funding did not encourage specialisation.
There was general agreement on the need for research funding
to be at arms-length from industry and whilst generally finding no fault with
the NHMRC’s processes, the Committee Chair was critical of the fact that
Motorola employee, Dr Ken Joyner, is a member of the NHMRC’s Radiofrequency
Electromagnetic Energy Expert Committee and involved in the grant awarding
process. Despite assurances that this role is a non-voting one, the Committee
Chair is of the view that it is nonetheless an influential role and that for
the sake of public confidence in the program, all members should be quite
independent of industry.
The RF EME program was criticised as piece-meal, too
scattered across institutions and lacking in structure and strategic planning.
The Committee Chair is not in a position to judge the
quality or relevance of current research but does accept that more money should
be available for research and recommends that a levy of $5.00 be raised from
each mobile phone user annually, the bulk of which should fund a structured
program of research and a specialised research unit set up within the CSIRO for
this purpose. The Committee Chair also recommends maintaining the NHMRC
administered research program at $4 million per annum from the levy.
Details of the World Health Organization Electromagnetic
Fields Project are outlined in Chapter 2.
The Committee heard from witnesses that lack of information
on the potential risks associated with electromagnetic radiation and the
failure to provide information on research findings denied the public the
opportunity to make informed decisions.
The Committee holds the view that the Public Information
Program has not been successful in informing the public, evidenced by the fact
that many do not believe the information that is provided by government and its
agencies. The Committee recommends that the Committee on Electromagnetic Energy
Public Health Issues (CEMEPHI) website is regularly updated to reflect ongoing
developments in research and standard setting.
The Committee found the so-called low-impact facility
determination especially to be a cause of community dissatisfaction. Although
radiation from mobile phone towers is considered to be potentially less harmful
than mobile phones, the continuous exposure from towers, and the involuntary
nature of that exposure have generated considerable public concern.
The Committee Chair recommends that the Government review
the Telecommunications (Low-impact Facilities) Determination 1997 and ensures
that a robust precautionary approach is included in the new Code of Conduct
currently being devised by the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF).
The Committee considers that other approaches to improve
community understanding and participation should be facilitated, including
conferences discussing research on the health effects of radiofrequency
radiation and a centralised complaints mechanism for members of the public to
report perceived health effects from mobile phones, the data from which can be
used in determining research funding priorities.
The Committee’s terms of reference (c), (d) and (e) relate
to the Australian Standard which deals with human exposure to electromagnetic
emissions as it applies to telecommunications. Chapter 4 maps the history of
standard setting in Australia and examines in particular the proposal to relax
the Australian standard for exposure in line with the ICNIRP Guidelines and the
refusal of the responsible Standards Australia TE/7 Committee to agree to that
proposal, and the subsequent transfer of that responsibility to ARPANSA.
Central to the question of the adequacy of our standards was
whether or not they dealt with non-thermal emissions. Dr Michael Repacholi
advised that the scientific studies on which our standards are set were
observations made in the 1970’s of behavioural change in primates exposed to
During the 1950’s, dosimetry – the science of measuring
exposure – was developed for non-ionising radiation and the concept of specific
absorption rate (SAR) established. SAR is the rate of absorption of
radiofrequency energy in a unit mass of tissue. A SAR of 4 watts per kilogram
was settled on as a level of exposure that could result in a rise in core body
temperature of up to 1oC.
Evidence presented suggested that this was a relatively
basic idea of preventing core body temperature increases, given the complexity
and variability of the resonant properties of the human body, and that the
development of standards since that time had been somewhat arbitrary and
inadequate in dealing with the effects which could be observed but which could
not be explained by thermal effects.
The 1985 Australian Standard did however take a more
conservative approach to setting exposure levels than the American National
Standards Institute, choosing lower exposure levels for the higher and lower
frequency ranges and an averaging time of one minute for all exposure
conditions rather than the US six minute averaging time. This approach was
said to acknowledge the possibility of harmful non-thermal effects.
Witnesses suggested that since 1985 the Australian Standard
has come under sustained industry pressure to revert to much higher levels of
exposure; to delete references to fundamental principles of radiation safety;
to minimise any explicit references to harmful effects; and to delete the
previous acknowledgment of the existence of non-thermal effects on living
A periodic review of the 1990 Standard was begun in 1993 but
the TE/7 Committee would not agree to proposals put forward by industry to
significantly increase allowable exposure limits. Nevertheless, an Interim
Standard was introduced in 1998, based on International Radiation Protection
Association SAR guidelines but covering an extended frequency range down to 3
The Interim Standard was criticised as establishing exposure
limits to suit mobile phones that failed to comply with previous public safety
Industry generally advocated that Australia’s standards
should be in harmony with world wide standards but the CSIRO observed that the
1985 Australian Standard was in place for more than 12 years and had not
inhibited the introduction of new technologies and that furthermore, lower
standards could have the effect of encouraging technological excellence.
The Committee Chair concurs with the CSIRO’s view that
relaxations of the 1985 Australian limits over much of the frequency range and
averaging measurements over six minutes do not represent progress in dealing
with non-thermal effects and are not warranted.
The Committee Chair also agrees that the standards should
continue to include the precautionary principle and the principle that all
possible efforts should be made to keep exposures as low as reasonably
achievable (ALARA) below prescribed limits.
The Committee Chair is critical of the decision to transfer
the standard setting process to ARPANSA, preferring the process used by
Standards Australia and in particular, the involvement of the CSIRO and
community representation and a voting system which provides for public health
protection to be given appropriate weight against industry considerations. The
Committee Chair notes that voting procedures in the ARPANSA working group are
unclear and, in any case, lack of consensus will cause the Standard to be
referred to the Radiation Health Committee for ratification which the Committee
Chair regards as inappropriate.
Chapter 4 also deals with concerns about the designation of
mobile phone towers as so-called low-impact facilities on the basis that the
impact relates to visual and not planning, heritage, or health considerations.
It examines proposals for labelling of phones, criticisms of testing and
compliance frameworks for phones and shielding devices, occupational standards,
and criticisms relating to the composition and processes of the ARPANSA Working
Group set up to formulate the new standard.
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