Science in Society Archive

Cancer Risks from Microwaves Confirmed

Microwaves from wireless mobile phone transmitters may be more potent than lower frequency electromagnetic fields in promoting cancer
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Evidence linking weak electromagnetic radiation (EMR) to leukaemia and other cancers has been fast accumulating in recent years [1-3] ( Electromagnetic Fields Double Leukemia Risks , Mobile Phones & Cancer , SiS 18; Electromagnetic Fields, Leukaemia and DNA Damage , SiS 24). Such β€˜non-thermal' effects of EMR – due to levels well below that sufficient to bring about any heating - have been observed even before World War II [4] ( Non-Thermal Effects , SiS 17).

During the cold war period, a four-fold excess of cancer cases was diagnosed among the staff of the American Embassy in Moscow that had been secretly irradiated with microwaves at well below the threshold set in current guidelines. The US State Department study on this episode was described in a paper published in 1997 [5]. This was among the earliest evidence for non-thermal effects of microwaves, and many studies are now confirming the high cancer risks of people exposed to microwaves from mobile phone base stations and transmitters around the world. Microwaves are no different from EMRs in the lower frequency range in that respect; except that microwaves may be even more potent in promoting cancer and other illnesses [6] ( Drowning in a Sea of Microwaves, the Wi-Fi Revolution , SiS 34).

Ten year study in a German city found cancer risk trebled

In June 1993, a GSM transmitter antenna was set up in the Southern Germany city of Naila, and became operational since September 1993. The transmitter antenna has a power of 15dbW (31.6W) per channel in the 935 MHz range. In December 1997, an installation from another company was added.

Several doctors living in Naila decided to respond to the call by Wolfram König, President of the Federal Agency for Radiation Protection, to collaborate in assessing the risk posed by mobile phone radiation. They carried out a study to examine whether people living close to transmitter antennas had increased risk of cancer [7].

They found that the proportion of newly developed cancer cases was significantly higher among those who had lived during the past ten years at a distance of up to 400m from the cellular transmitter site, compared to those living further away, and the patients fell ill on average 8 years earlier. In the years 1999-2004, five years after the transmitter has been installed and operating, the relative risk of getting cancer had trebled for the residents within 400 m of the installation compared to inhabitants outside the area.

For the purpose of the study, an inner and an outer area were defined. The inner area covered the land within a distance of 400 m from the transmitter, the outer area comprise land further than 400 m. In the inner area, additional emissions come from the secondary lobes of the transmitter. Thus, the outer area has significantly reduced radiation intensity. Computer simulation and measurements both show that radiation in the inner area is 100 times higher compared to outer area. The measurements of all transmitter stations show that the intensity of radiation from the cell phone transmitter station in Naila in the inner area was higher than the electromagnetic fields from radio, television, or radar, according to measurements made in previous studies.

Data gathered from nearly 1 000 patients covered almost 90 percent of the local residents, and all patients had been living during the entire observation period of 10 years at the same address. The social differences are small, there is no ethnic diversity, no heavy industry and in the inner area there are neither high voltage cable nor electric trains. The average ages of the residents are similar in the inner and outer areas.

For the entire period from 1994 to 2004, the odds ratio (OR) for getting cancer in the inner, strongly exposed area compared to the outer area was 2.35. The average age of developing cancer was 64.1 years in the inner area, whereas in the outer area it was 72.6 years, a difference of 8.5 years. The average for Germany as a whole for developing cancer is 66.5 years, among men, 66 and women 67.

The new cancer cases showed a high annual constant value. Considering only the first 5 years, there was no significant increased risk of getting cancer in the inner area. However, for the period 1999 to 2004, the OR for getting cancer was 3.38 in the inner area compared to the outer area. Breast cancer topped the list, with an average age of 50.8 year compared with 69.9 years in the outer area, but cancers of the prostate, pancreas, bowel, skin melanoma, lung and blood cancer were all increased

Four fold cancer risk in Israel

Researchers from Tel-Aviv University, Israel, compared 622 people living near a cell-phone transmitter station for 3-7 years who were patients of one health clinic in Netanya, with 1 222 controls who get their medical services in a clinic located nearby, with very closely matched environment, workplace and occupational characteristics [8]. The exposure to mobile phone radiation began one year before the start of the study.

The cell-phone transmitter came into service in July 1996, and people in the first health clinic live within a half circle of 350 m radius from the transmitter. The antenna has a total maximum transmission power of 1 500 W at 850 MHz, with a 50 Hz modulation. Both the measured and the predicted power density in the whole exposed area were far below 5.3 mW/m 2 , and hence far below the current guidelines.

There were 8 cases of different kinds of cancer diagnosed in a period of just one year (July 1997 to June 1998): 3 cases of breast cancer, one of ovarian cancer, lung cancer, Hodgkin's disease (cancer of the lymphatic system), osteoid osteoma (bone tumour) and kidney cancer. This compares with 31 cases per 10 000 a year in the general population of Israel, and 2 per 1 222 in the matched controls of the nearby clinic.

The relative risk of cancer was 4.15 for those living near the cell-phone transmitter compared with the entire population of Israel. As seven out of eight cancer cases were women, the relative cancer rates for females were 10.5 for those living near the transmitter station and 0.6 for the controls relative for the whole town of Netanya

One year after the close of the study, 8 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the microwave exposed area and two in the control area.

Mobile phone use in Sweden

Sweden has a long history of mobile phone use in a relatively uniform population, which is ideal for studying the health impacts of exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

Analogue phones operating at 450 MHz were introduced in Sweden in 1981, and was at first used only in the car with fixed external antenna. Portable analogue 450 MHz phones were introduced in 1984, and analogue 900 MHz phones came into use between 1986 and 2000 [9].

The digital system GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) started in 1991 and has increased sharply in recent years to become the most common phone type. This system uses dual band, 900 and 1800 MHz. From 2003, the third generation of mobile phones, 3G or UMTs (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System) started operating in Sweden at 1 900 MHz.

Desktop cordless phones also depend on wireless technology. The 800-900 MHz analogue system was introduced in 1988, and digital cordless telephones (DECT) that operate at 1900 MHz have been in use since 1991.

The Nordic radiation protection authorities as well as the Swedish work environmental board recommend hands free devices for employees, but very few workplaces offer them.

Almost everyone has a cell phone today in Sweden, and the country very likely saturated with mobile phone transmitters. The use of cellular and cordless telephones has increased dramatically during the past decade, and with it, concern over the health impacts of microwave exposure, and the brain is the main target organ.

Increased risk of brain tumours

Since the latter half of the 1990s, cancer researchers at the University of Örebro, Sweden, have carried out six case-control studies: three on brain tumours, one on salivary gland tumours, one non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and one testicular cancer. Exposure level was assessed by self-administered questionnaires [9].

The results showed that the odds ration (OR) of acoustic neuroma (a non-malignant tumour of the auditory nerve) was 2.9 for analogue cellular phones, 1.5 for digital cellular phones and cordless phones. The corresponding OR for astrocytoma (a tumour of astrocyte nerve cell) grade III-IV was 1.7, 1.5 and 1.5. The ORs increased with latency period, with the highest estimates at >10 years from first use. Lower ORs were found for astrocytoma grade 1-II, and no association was found with salivary gland tumours, NHL or testicular cancer, although as association with NHL of T-cell type could not be ruled out.

In a further review of 18 studies on brain tumours [10], two cohort and 16 case-control, the results show that mobile phone use for more than 10 years give a consistent pattern of an increased risk for acoustic neuroma and glioma (a tumour that begins in a glial cell), and risk is highest for the side of the brain next to the mobile phone.

The increased risk of glioma with mobile phone use for more than ten years was confirmed by other scientists in a population case control study in three regions of Germany, the odds ratio was 2.2 [11].

Article first published 24/05/07


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  2. Ho MW. Mobile phones & cancer. Science in Society 17 , 10, 2003.
  3. Ho MW. Electromagnetic fields, leukaemia and DNA damage. Science in Society 24 , 52-53, 2004.
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