To some scientists, they’re deadlier than cigarettes; to others they’re harmless. Will we ever know the truth about mobile phones? Julia Llewellyn Smith finds out.
By Julia Llewellyn Smith, 7:00AM BST 30 May 2013
In 1996, Neil Whitfield, a sales manager from Wigan, was given his first mobile phone by his company. “It was introduced as a nice, cuddly friend. It had all of your mates’ contact details on it. It was always in your pocket or pressed against your ear,” he says.
However, within a short space of time Whitfield, a father of six who was then in his late thirties, started suffering terrible headaches. “Then my hearing deteriorated and I kept forgetting things, which was not like me.” A scan revealed he had an acoustic neuroma – a rare brain tumour that grows on a nerve in the brain near the ear. Without surgery, he was told, he had five years to live.
“The specialist asked if I used a mobile a lot. When I said yes, he replied: ‘Mobiles will be the smoking gun of the 21st century.’ He sowed a seed in my mind.” Whitfield, now 56, is one of a growing and vociferous group of people who are convinced that mobile phones are killing us. A phone, they point out, along with cordless phones and Wi-Fi, works in the same way as a miniature microwave, emitting electromagnetic radiation.
Admittedly, this radiation is at too low a frequency to heat human tissue, but there’s a large amount of evidence that it could affect the protective barrier between the brain and blood, allowing toxins to enter. There is also evidence that mobiles could be damaging our immune systems, reducing sperm motility and causing tumours, Alzheimer’s, strokes and autism.
It’s not just individuals like Whitfield who believe this, but a number of eminent scientists and physicians. Two years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organisation, published a report, reclassifying radiation from mobiles from category 3, with “no conclusive evidence” of causing cancer, to category 2b – a “possible human carcinogen” – along with diesel exhaust, chloroform, jet fuel, lead and DDT.