Science in Society Archive

Confirmed: Mobile Phones Break DNA & Scramble Genomes

But No Health Risks?

New Report on EU-wide study confirms hazards of exposure to electromagnetic radiation but does not prove health risks. So what use is this research, ask Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Peter Saunders

Children under eight should not use mobile phones and those between eight and 14 should use them only when absolutely necessary, warns Prof. William Stewart, Chair of UK's National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) [1, 2]. Sir William issued the same warning 5 years ago, when he chaired an enquiry that resulted in the Stewart Report on Mobile Phones and Health. But his advice has been ignored. One in four 7-10 year olds now has a mobile phone, double the level in 2001.

In a new report published 12 January 2005, Stewart not only repeated his warning that children will be most at risk but also called for a review of the planning process for base stations. He was reported to have said new evidence suggested there might be possible health implications.

This evidence came from a large Europe-wide study lasting four years that once again failed to prove electromagnetic fields from mobile phones and other sources are health risks. Nevertheless, it made Stewart "more concerned" than five years ago, though not sufficiently to recommend more decisive action.

What science to fund?

Why do debates persist over the safety of new technologies such as genetic modification and mobile phones? Why do the issues never seem to be settled - as far as anything in science can be settled - before products are on the market? It is at least partly because we lack both explicit criteria for funding the scientific research in the first place - such as whether it is safe, ethical, and makes genuine contribution to society - and an audit system to assess the effectiveness of our research & development spending.

Consequently, research into the safety of new technologies is done long after they have reached the market, if it is done at all. By that stage, of course, industry has invested a great deal of money and there is great pressure on scientists and regulators not to put all that investment at risk. Instead of applying the precautionary principle, according to which developments should not go ahead until we are convinced beyond reasonable scientific doubt that they are safe, regulators apply the anti-precautionary principle, which demands conclusive evidence of harm before any action can be justified. It is not in the public interest to switch the burden of proof in this way, but it is all too likely to happen when there is so much money at stake.

We should be commissioning research into safety long before large amounts have been spent on product development. And the scientists we fund should be asking probing questions and conducting experiments that provide clear answers both on health risks as well as on the basic mechanisms, which are all too often not well understood.

The Europe-wide study on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields, unfortunately, satisfies neither criterion.

A major study of no consequence

The recent extensive European study, known as Reflex, found that radiation from mobile phones breaks DNA in human cells. But according to its 259 page final report, that does not mean that mobile phones are health risks.

The study involved 12 research groups in 7 European countries working from 2000 to 2004. It cost more than 3 million euros (2.059.450 from the EU, 506.774 from the Swiss government, 191.265 from the Finnish government, and 522629 from the Verum Foundation in Germany). The teams investigated electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in the extremely low frequency (ELF) region coming from the ordinary electricity supply and appliances, and in the radio frequency (RF) range emitted by mobile phones. Much attention was devoted to standardizing exposure equipment and standards and other quality control.

One might have expected that such a major, concerted effort would yield more definitive answers on safety. It didn't.

A fault in design and emphasis

The labs concentrated on studying cells and looking for acute effects on molecules after exposures to EMF for short periods of time, from 6 h up to 24 h; at most a few days. The effects of long-term exposures were not addressed. Moreover, the research focused on field intensities around current exposure limits - about 1mT for ELF region, and specific absorption rate (SAR) of 2 Watts/kg for the RF range. Many scientists consider these far too high because they are aimed at preventing excessive heating of the tissues rather than non-thermal effects such as DNA breakages.

Nevertheless, several of the teams detected significant DNA breaks in human and other animal cells at exposure levels far below the official limits. DNA breakages were observed after 15h exposure to ELF-EMFs as low as 35 microT, and after 18h exposure at 20 microT. Similarly, for the RF region, DNA breakages as well as chromosomal abnormalities were observed at the lowest SAR level investigated, 0.3W/kg.

Yet in the final report we read: "Taken together, the results of the REFLEX project were exclusively obtained in in vitro studies and are, therefore, not suitable for the conclusion that RF-EMF exposure below the presently valid safety limits causes a risk to the health of people." Exactly the same statement is made on the results of ELF-EMF exposure.

This single statement reveals the futility of the whole exercise. The experiments were carried out in vitro. We are now told that in the opinion of the experimenters no in vitro result, i.e. no conceivable outcome of their experiments, could have led them to infer that there is a risk to health. Why then did they bother carrying out the experiments? Why did they feel justified in asking the European taxpayers to fund their work as a contribution to public health?

Who benefits from such research?

While denying that the research results tell us anything about health risks, the leader of the study, Franz Adlkofer of Verum Foundation nevertheless advised against using mobile phones when fixed line phones are available, and also recommended using a headset with a mobile phone whenever possible. "We don't want to create a panic, but it is good to take precautions," he is reported to have said, commenting that additional necessary research could take another four or five years.

That's very convenient for the $100 billion a year mobile phone industry that has been insisting there is no conclusive evidence of harmful effects from electromagnetic radiation. About 1.5 billion people around the world now use mobile phones, and it was expected that about 650 million phones would be sold last year. The leader of the study is clearly concerned about possible risks, but not to the extent of suggesting the industry should do anything about it. Not even a campaign to alert the public so that they can make up their own minds.

In saying they have so far not been able to reach a conclusion, the scientists can hope for another four or five years research support. But if their research so far has told us nothing new; and was designed to tell us nothing new, why should we pay for more of it? Besides, the results are already bad enough even if all they do is confirm what we already know.

Our fears confirmed

Despite its limitations, the Reflex study has confirmed important findings already in the scientific literature. Henry Lai and Narenda Singh at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, among others, had detected DNA breakages in brain cells of rats exposed to far weaker fields at least since the 1990s. Their results were soon confirmed in several other laboratories.

The Reflex study also finds that EMF exposure in both the ELF and RF range led to significant increases in chromosomal abnormalities in human fibroblasts (skin cells), such as gaps, breaks, rings, dicentric (two centromeres) chromosomes and fragments. Gaps increased 4-fold, breaks 2-fold, and dicentric chromosomes and acentric fragments 10-fold. RF-EMF exposure induced an even higher incidence of chromosome gaps and breaks; and dicentrics and acentric fragments increased 100-fold. These chromosomal abnormalities, too, had been observed previously (see "Non-thermal effects", SiS 17) and now considered by a substantial number of scientists to be signs of genome instability linked to cancer.

Indeed, the Reflex study finds that ELF-EMFs promoted the growth of human neuroblastoma cells, by 12% after 42h exposure at 10 microT, and 17% at 100microT; although longer exposures for 90h were without effect, possibly because the cells have reached confluence, at which point they stop growing, and are no longer sensitive to EMFs.

The growth promoting effect of EMF exposure is of especial relevance on account of epidemiological evidence linking it to childhood leukemia and other cancers (see "Electromagnetic fields double leukaemia risks" and "Non-thermal effects", SiS17; "Electromagnetic fields, leukaemia and DNA damage", SiS23). Exposing leukemia cells to RF-EMFs for 48h caused them to multiply aggressively, overriding the signals that trigger cell death (see "Mobile phones & cancer", SiS17).

Mechanism still not understood

By its own admission the Reflex study has contributed little towards defining the health risks of EMFs. Has it contributed towards understanding the basic mechanism of non-thermal biological effects of EMFs? Not really. The genome-wide scans and the protein profiling found many genes and proteins "up-regulated" or "down-regulated", the significance of which will remain unknown until and unless the normal range of variation could be established.

The report highlights (p.194) that, "The mechanism of action induced by ELF-EMF exposure of living cells is not yet known." For RF-EMF, it suggests that "increased formation and activity of free radicals" is responsible for damaging DNA. That suggestion, too, is nothing new, and has been made previously by many other researchers. Furthermore, it does not really address the question of how EMFs could increase the formation and activity of free radicals, which requires the research input of physics and physical methods not included in the Reflex study (see "Mobile phones turn enzyme solution into gel", this series).

A failure of education and market-driven research

Interestingly, the Reflex report is prefaced by a contribution from Prof. William Ross Adey who died on 20 May 2004, having "made fundamental contributions to the emerging science of the biological effects of electromagnetic field".

Adey aptly summed up why there has been so little progress in research into the biological effects of electromagnetic fields: "The history of bioelectromagnetics epitomises a range of problems that arise whenever a community of sciences is confronted with a frontier that delves deeply into the established orthodoxies of biology, the physical sciences and engineering. These conflicts have become even more sharply defined when emerging new knowledge in bioelectromagnetics research has challenged the conventional wisdom in each part of this trinity.

"At no point in the last 20 years has public school education ensured that a majority of citizens has even a basic understanding of sophisticated communication devices and systems, such as telephones, radio and television. Similarly, automotive engineering remains a sea of vast ignorance for most users. Nor is such knowledge considered appropriate or necessary. In summary, we have become superstitious users of an ever-growing range of technologies, but we are now unable to escape the web that they have woven around us."

The remedy he recommended is that there should be formal instruction in physics, theoretical and applied, for those entering a career in medical research. He could have added that physicists should be taught something about biology. It took far too long before most physicists realised that EMFs can do more to cells than just heat them up a bit.

Article first published 17/01/05


  1. "Child warning over mobile phones" BBC news 11 Jan 2005
  2. "Expert spells it out: health fears mean young should not use mobile phone" David Adam, The Guardian 12 Jan 2005.
  3. Saunders PT. Use and abuse of the precautionary principle. ISIS submission to US Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy (ACIEP) Bioech. Working Group 13 July 2000; ISIS News #6, September 2000
  4. Saunders PT and Ho MW. The precautionary principle is science-based. ISIS report 4/4/03; Science in Society 2003, 18, 35-37.
  5. Risk Evaluation of Potential Environmental Hazards from Low Frequency Electromagnetic Field Exposure Using Sensitive in vitro Methods. Reflex Final Report
  6. "Mobile Phone Radiation Harms DNA, New Study Finds", 20 Dec 2004, Reuters
  7. "Mobile -phone radiation damages lab DNA" , Helen Pearson, Nature 21 December 2004

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