Science in Society Archive

Fields of Influence 2

Also see our previous fields of influence series

Debate over the health impacts of weak electromagnetic fields continues unabated as more and more biological effects are documented. This mini-series began in Science in Society 17, where we described how a new physics of the organism that can account for those effects has been systematically ignored and excluded from mainstream discourse. The situation has hardly changed since and requires radical steps to be taken in scientific research funding and in science education.

Mobile Phones & Brain Damage

Rats exposed to mobile phones for two hours showed brain damages that persisted 50 days later. But current exposure standards are still highly inadequate to protect the public. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

Mobile phones "the largest human biologic experiment"

Researchers found "highly significant" evidence for damages to brain cells in rats exposed for 2 hrs to microwaves from mobile phones; and these damages were still seen 50 days after the exposure.

One quarter of the world’s population is now exposing themselves to microwaves from hand-held mobile phones. The research team in Lundt University, Sweden, led by Leif Salford, referred to this as "the largest human biologic experiment ever". They pointed out that soon, microwaves will be emitted by an abundance of other appliances in the ‘cordless’ office and in the home.

Most researchers have concentrated on the question of whether radiofrequency electromagnetic fields can induce or promote cancer, but the evidence appears conflicting.


Sir William Stewart hit out at mobile phones lobby but exposure limits still highly inadequate

In his keynote address to a Children with Leukemia conference in September 2004,

Sir William Stewart, who chaired an enquiry that resulted in the Stewart Report on Mobile Phones and Health in 2000, hit out at the mobile phones lobby for reporting that, "Stewart report says there are no adverse health effect for mobile phones". He said there are biological effects below the current exposure guidelines, and people can vary in their susceptibility. He had warned that children may be more susceptible, and should limit their use of mobile phones.

In his speech, he also said, "Don’t ignore non-peer reviewed findings." These have to be carefully independently confirmed, and have to be put to the public "simply and clearly". Not only the results reporting impacts of mobile phones on health need to be independently confirmed, but also negative findings of no impacts. At the moment, there is a bias towards accepting negative findings without question.

A recent health survey carried out in La Ňora, Mucia, Spain, nearly two 900/1800Mhz mobile phone base stations showed statistically association between the measured electric field and a number of symptoms, especially depressive tendency, fatigue, sleeping disorder, difficulty in concentration and cardiovascular problems, and also loss of memory, visual disorder and dizziness. It confirms the findings of several earlier published studies. On the basis of this work, D. Oberfeld Gerd of the Public Health Department of Salzburg, Austria, is advising a reduction of exposure levels to no more than 1 microWatt/m2. The current exposure limit set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) Guidelines is 10 W/m2, or 10 million times that recommended.

Sir William now chairs the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), which is being merged into the Health Agency. The NRPB is due to publish advice to the government that the ICNIRP standards - already shown to be highly inadequate - should be adopted for the UK. As the NRPB’s own report admits, the standards are "intended to prevent adverse effects due to excessive whole- and partial-body heating", totally ignoring non-thermal effects, which are increasingly documented in many laboratories all over the world.

Mobile phones undermine the blood-brain barrier

Lundt and colleagues have been studying the effects of 915MHz radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in rats since 1988. "In a series of more than 1,600 animals, we have proven that subthermal power densities from both pulse-modulated and continuous RF EMFs – including those from phones – have the potency to significantly open the blood-brain barrier such that the animal’s own albumin passes out of the bloodstream into the brain tissue and accumulates in the neurons and glial cells surrounding the capillaries."

These results have been duplicated in at least two other laboratories. One group showed that the animals’ own albumin injected into the brain of rats led to damage of the neurons at the site of injection when the concentration of albumin in the injected solution is at least 25% of that in the blood.

Brain damage persists 50 days after exposure

In a study published in June 2003, Salford and colleagues exposed rats to RF EMF in special transverse electromagnetic transmission line chambers (TEM-cells) designed by scaling down previously constructed cells at the National Bureau of Standards. These cells generate uniform EMF s for standard measurements. A mobile phone with a programmable power output was connected via a coaxial cable to the TEM-cell; and no voice modulation was applied. The TEM-cell is enclosed in a wooden box (15x15x15 cm) that supports the outer conduction and central plate. The outer conductor is made of brass net and is attached to the inner walls of the box. The centre plate, or septum, is made of aluminium. The TEM cells were placed in a temperature-controlled room, where room air is circulated through holes in the wooden box.

The rats were placed in plastic trays (12x12x7cm) to avoid contact with the central plate and outer conductor. Thirty-two male and female Fisher 344 rats 12-26 weeks old and weighing 282 + 91 gm were divided into four groups of eight rats each. Three experimental groups of rats were exposed to peak power densities of 0.24, 2.4 and 24 W/m2, resulting in average whole-body SARs (specific absorption rates) of 2mW/kg, 20 mW/kg and 200 mW/kg respectively. The fourth (control) group of rats was simultaneously kept for 2 hr in non-activated TEM-cells. The animals in each exposure group were allowed to survive for about 50 days after exposure and carefully observed daily for neurologic and behavioural abnormalities.

At the end of the period, the brains were removed and sectioned and stained.

The exposed rat brain showed multiple spots of albumin leaking out from the blood vessels. On high power, dark, dead neurons can be seen interspersed with the living ones. There is an apparent dose-response relationship between the level of exposure and the number of dead neurons found.

Previous studies by the same group showed that albumin leakage into the brain occurs within hours after exposure in about 40% of the animals. But in the present study, there is still albumin leakage after 50 days. This suggests that there might have been a "vicious circle" started by the initial leakage, leading to long lasting effects.

Teenagers most affected

The researchers pointed out that 12-26 week old rats are comparable in age to human teenagers, the most frequent users of mobile phones. This level of damage to the nerve cells is worrying, as "it may result in reduced brain reserve capacity". In other words, the teenagers’ brains may age prematurely. A study by retail analysts Mintel found that up to 80% of 11 to 14 year-olds have a mobile phone in the United Kingdom.

There is now evidence that a wide range of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum can have biological effects from DNA damage in brain cells to childhood leukemia (see "EMFs & childhood leukaemia & DNA damage", this series).

Article first published 28/09/04


  1. Salford LG, Brun AE, Eberhardt JL, Malmgren L and Persson BRR. Nerve cell damage in mammalian brain after exposure to microwaves from GSM mobile phones. Environmental Health Perspectives 2003, 111, 881-3.
  2. Stewart W. Impacts on health – the changing world of the 21st century. Keynote Address, Children with Leukemia Scientific Conference, Westminster, 6-10 September, 2004.
  3. "’Hidden’ radiation. Mobile phone firms remain silent on the possible hazards" Sean Poulter, Daily Mail, 8 September 2004.
  4. Oberfeld G, Navarro AE, Portoles M, Mastu C and Gomez-Pereta C. The microwave syndrome – further aspects of a Spanish study. Preprint circulated at Children with Leukemia conference September 6-10, 2004;
  5. Navarro AE, Segura J, Portoles M, Gomez-Peretta de Mateo C. The microwave syndrome: a preliminary study in Spain. Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine 2003, 22, S161-9.
  6. Advice on Limiting Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (0-300 Ghz), Documents of the NRPB, Volume 15 No.2, 2004.
  7. Ho MW. Mobile phones & cancer. Science in Society 2003, 17, 10-15.

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