The issue: The danger of radiation from mobile phones seems low
Article: Geert Maarse
More and more people are concerned about the proliferation of UMTS networks and Wi-Fi. But who decided that this 'electrosmog' could lead to infertility, stress and even cancer? Radiation expert Gerard van Rhoon: "We can’t rule anything out."
You insist that this interview only reflects your personal views. Why?
"I’m chairman of the Electromagnetic Fields Committee of the Dutch Health Council. We advise the government by issuing publications in which every word is weighted. But as a committee, we rarely get involved in the public debate because it often focuses on individual cases: a mother concerned about the power line above the football field or a street which opposes the construction of a UMTS tower. We have to stick to the science."
In 1990 there were only a few large transmission towers for radio and television in the Netherlands. Now we have nearly thirty thousand antenna systems on around seven thousand GSM, UMTS and LTE towers. In addition, almost every house has a Wi-Fi connection and everyone has a mobile phone. Should we worry?
"We all drive cars. We don’t all eat healthily. And there are places in the Netherlands where the air quality could be improved. These are factors which involve far greater risks. At least, as far as we can ascertain based on scientific research."
So you agree that there are risks.
"What people want is to be assured that there is no danger. We can't give them that assurance. For our committee's latest publication - the link between mobile phone use and brain tumors - we looked at all the best studies. We selected eighty-five epidemiological publications from an initial selection of two thousand. We concluded that electromagnetic fields are not carcinogenic. But of course there are researchers who have found a link. So, I can’t rule out a possible causal link."
Do you understand that people don’t feel reassured by this?
"Absolutely. But remember: it’s often based on weak or inconsistent evidence. For example, a Swedish study found that people who use the mobile phone intensively are twice as likely to develop a brain tumour - after just a year. Now imagine that this was true; many Swedes would now have died from a brain tumour. And that’s not the case."
The most common complaints about radiation relate to insomnia, stress, headaches and dizziness. How do you respond to this?
"It’s very difficult to explore someone's state of mind. I'm not saying that this is trivial, but today there are many things that can make people ill, weak or sick. Anything we can’t explain --including ADHD-- is attributed to the use of mobile phones."
Do you believe there’s such a thing as hypersensitivity?
"I have met some people who claim to suffer from this, and for them it is an unmitigated disaster. But I've never seen any evidence of it. When you test these people, they don’t appear able to detect the presence of an electro-magnetic field."
I carry my phone in my pocket. Is that a threat to my fertility?
"I'd worry more about my jeans. They’re tight and keep in a lot of heat and it’s been proved that this results in a reduction in seed production."
How strong is the radiation from a mobile phone?
"To eject an electron from an atom or molecule by breaking it open and damaging it, you require a photon with an energy of between ten and thirty-five electron volts (eV ). A mobile phone produces a millionth of that energy. Therefore some scientists describe the impact of this electromagnetic field as that of a feather blown against a wall or urinating against a skyscraper and expecting it to fall over. That's why I always try and avoid talking about radiation but about electromagnetic fields. In the spectrum of light, we can clearly distinguish between radiation that is more energetic than visible light - ultraviolet, X-rays and radioactive gamma rays - and radiation that is weaker - infrared and radio frequency radiation from transmission towers, Wi-Fi and mobile phones. There is no way that this weak radiation can induce ionisation."
At home, I have access to over twenty Wi-Fi networks. Ten years ago, there were perhaps three. To what extent can science make valid statements about a phenomenon that is developing so fast?
"Basically you're always late. Especially when it concerns cancer, where you only see the consequences in the long term."
As happened with asbestos. Or smoking.
" That correlation is much stronger. "
We know that now.
"Yes, it did a while. But we also have to look at how the academic world has developed. How many more opportunities we now have to look deep inside the cell. We know much more about the process of cell division and DNA damage. We look further and deeper."
There is no reason for you as a scientist to say: be careful
" The current guidelines are based on the acceptable rise in temperature. They already include a very large safety margin. The legally permissible exposure to electromagnetic fields is fifty times lower than what would be harmful."
A number of Danish high school students made headlines with an investigation into the effects of Wi-Fi on the growth of garden cress. In a radiation-free zone the cress grew very well, while the seeds placed between routers hardly germinated
Oh, come on. That experiment? This is someone trying to prove a thesis: this is not research with an open mind. Pure hype. "
I can see that this gets you quite worked up?
"Look at the results! It involves cress, which is super sensitive to all kinds of influences. Goes to his computer and opens a file on this experiment. Look, here you can see the photos. The exposure to light is different everywhere. And they just left a window open. There was no control."
But it made headlines.
"Because this is what people want to hear. Negative stories always do well. Why do people believe that ten high school girls know better than thousands of academics. Do we really think that these researchers are having us on?"
Surrounding yourself with unnatural things is unhealthy. Is this such a strange assumption?
" No, but we’ve always tried to change the nature around us. Manhattan was once an island with only trees, now you have to look for them with a magnifying glass. That's not really healthy, but people like to live there. And we continue to improve technology. For example, you see that the radiation exposure of a mobile phone is declining. Because the more it radiates, the faster the battery goes down. And we want to use the phone for as long as possible. Incidentally, it’s funny that we start out from negative effects. Yet we also do a lot of research into the positive effects of radiation."
What can you do if you're worried?
"Use a hands free kit rather than holding the phone to your ear. Don’t have Wi-Fi at home, but have everything wired. Buy good equipment: a DECT phone that doesn’t transmit when it isn’t receiving calls."
Is it risky to keep my phone next to my bed?
"I don't do that myself. But that's because I don't want to be disturbed during the night. I think that’s more important than any radiation, which at half a meter from your head is hardly detectable anyway. I have a DECT phone beside my bed. And two Wi-Fi stations at home. I tend to look for convenience. That’s something everyone has to consider. On the one hand the potential - and in my view not yet proven - dangers. On the other hand, the enormous benefits. You can call if you're stranded in the
tuesday 25 febraury 2014 (week 9)
The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.