Well, isn’t that a relief? In case you were still worried that little box you hold in very close proximity to your head almost all day every day was quietly warping your brain tissue, you can relax. A lengthy programme of research into the possible health risks of mobile phones has found that, surprise surprise, there’s no evidence of any adverse effects.
The research was conducted by the UK-based Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research programme, and was funded by the government and the telecommunications industry to the tune of £13.6 million ($22 million). It involved projects over 11 years (taken together with a previous report in 2007), which resulted in 60 peer-reviewed papers. This thing is pretty comprehensive.
If all that work into an issue many would regard as little more than superstition and technophobia seems a little over the top, we have to remember that back when the project was started, landlines and fax machines were still a thing. MTHR chairman David Coggon, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Southampton University, acknowledged this in a release announcing the report: “When the MTHR programme was first set up, there were many scientific uncertainties about possible health risks from mobile phones and related technology.”
He went on to effectively sum up the 50-page report in a sentence: “This independent programme is now complete, and despite exhaustive research, we have found no evidence of risks to health from the radio waves produced by mobile phones or their base stations.”
While that result might not be unexpected, it at least helps quash some of the conspiracy theories and is more satisfying than previous studies that came to that annoyingly common catch-all conclusion of “more research needed.”
Specifically, the programme included projects that debunked rumours like “base stations give pregnant women’s future kids cancer” and “phones cause leukaemia.” The media loves a good cancer conspiracy, but the report found no evidence for either. “Neither of the studies identified any association between exposure and an increased risk of developing cancer,” it stated.
For the former, they looked at 1400 cases of children who had cancer and calculated how far they were from the nearest base station at birth, what the output of the station was, and what the “power density” at their birth address was. They found no correlation between any measure and incidence of any type of cancer.
They then focused on leukaemia because your skull and jaw contain 13 percent of your body’s active bone marrow, and as they’re closest to your phone when you use it, that seemed to make sense. But by interviewing people diagnosed with leukaemia, they found no link with regular phone use. “There was also no evidence of a trend of increasing risk with the time since a mobile phone was first used, total years of use, cumulative number of calls or cumulative hours of use,” they wrote.
Another field of interest was whether TETRA transmissions—radio signals used by the emergency services—could result in symptoms of the not-medically-recognised condition of electrical hypersensitivity. They tested if people who said they were sensitive to electromagnetic fields could tell when they were exposed to signals. Spoiler: they couldn’t.
Of course, despite the lengthy research, there’ll no doubt still be people who think mobile phones are the cause of all society’s ills. We’re naturally—and perhaps wisely—suspicious of things that are new, which means technology often becomes the fall guy. Then there's the fact that it's basically impossible to prove something isn't true—"absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence" and all that.
The report even admits it won’t settle the matter. Because despite its lengthy analysis and convincing findings, it of course also ends with a call for more research. One project, named COSMOS, is still ongoing and is tracking 100,000 British mobile phone users long-term “to be sure that there are no delayed adverse effects, which only become apparent after many years.”
Meanwhile, we can expect to see more sensational claims over how phones are frying our brains. Oh look, there’s a new one today.