Mobile phone base stations do not increase the risk of childhood cancer, even if a child’s mother lived close to a mast when pregnant. That’s the message from the largest study looking at the health effects of mobile phone base stations in the UK.
The new research, published in the British Medical Journal, should provide reassurance to parents, especially expectant mothers, who are worried about living close to such stations.
The authors concluded:
“In summary, we found no association between risk of childhood cancers and mobile phone base station exposures during pregnancy. The results of our study should help to place any future reports of cancer clusters near mobile phone base stations in a wider public health context.”
What did the study find?
The results come from a large study of British children aged 0-4. The research team, led by Paul Elliott at Imperial College London looked at 1,397 children under five who were diagnosed with cancer between 1999 and 2001. They specifically focused on cancers of the brain and central nervous system, leukaemia, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Each child was compared with four children of the same sex who were born on the same day but didn’t have cancer.
Elliott’s team worked out the home address of every child at their time of birth and gathered information about any mobile phone base stations that were close by. For each antenna, they took detailed information from the four mobile phone operators who were active at the time.
After crunching all this information, the team found no association between mobile phone base stations and risk of cancer. The distance between a child’s birth address and the nearest phone base station did not affect their risk of cancer. The total power output of all the base stations within a 700 metre radius did not affect their risk of cancer. The power density (a measure of power over a given area) of all stations within 1400 metres did not affect their risk of cancer.
It is worth stressing that the team did a large study covering all of Britain, they measured the effect of base stations in three different ways, and they considered a wide range of childhood cancers. And despite all of that, they didn’t find a single statistically significant result – not even a hint that mobile phone base stations could affect the risk of childhood cancer.
Who funded the study?
It’s also worth talking about sources of funding. This study was funded by an independent body called the UK Mobile Telecommunications Health Research Programme (MTHR). The MTHR was set up in 2001 to fund research into any possible health effects of mobile phones, following a recommendation by an independent expert group called the Stewart Committee.
The group is jointly funded by the UK Department of Health and the mobile telecommunications industry. It says, “In order to ensure that none of the funding bodies can influence the outcome of the MTHR Programme, it is run by an independent programme management committee.” This is a common theme in this area of research – industry funding has always been mediated by an independent third party, such as the International Union for Cancer Control.
What are the limitations of the study?
The study uses a child’s birth address to estimate the exposures that their pregnant mothers would have received from nearby base stations. That seems like a reasonable assumption, but it’s obviously not as good as directly measuring such exposures firsthand. It doesn’t account for emissions from other sources of radiofrequency fields such as cordless phones. And it’s possible that mothers may have moved house during their pregnancy.
And because the study focused on early childhood cancers, it has nothing to say about any longer-term effects of base station emissions. However, we should also note that childhood leukaemia is most common in the first 5 years of life so longer-term studies are unlikely to say anything different for this type of cancer.
Does this fit with previous research?
Yes. As we have said before, there is no strong evidence that mobile phone radiation can increase the risk of cancer. The majority of studies in people have not found a link between mobile phones and brain cancer, although weaknesses in these studies mean that more research needs to be done.
National trends also argue against such a link. The incidence of brain cancers in countries around the world has not significantly increased, despite the skyrocketing rise in mobile phone use over the last few decades. However, brain cancers can take many years to develop, so it is possible that such trends would only start rising after more time.
Most importantly, there is still no consistent or convincing explanation for how mobile phones or their base stations could actually increase the risk of cancer. The ‘radiofrequency radiation’ that they emit does not have enough energy to damage DNA directly. Many other possible explanations have been investigated but no consistent pattern has emerged.
Base station exposures are even less likely to affect our health than phones themselves as their emissions are many times weaker. These extremely low emissions are between 1,000 and 10,000 times lower than values set in international guidelines.
However, until now, it was hard to say anything conclusive because very few studies had looked at this issue. There were also concerns around exposures for babies and children since they would get a greater dose for their size and their developing nervous systems are possibly more sensitive.
This new study should help to address these concerns and it adds some valuable evidence to this area. In a related article, John Bithell from the Childhood Cancer Research Group in Oxford says,
“Moving away from a mast, with all its stresses and costs, cannot be justified on health grounds in the light of current evidence. [This] is also supported by experimental evidence, which has so far failed to show any biological effects… that might lead us to worry about the impact on health.”
What about cancer clusters?
There have been a few reports of clusters of cancer around mobile phone base stations, but all of these have been based on very small numbers of affected people. With such small numbers, it is entirely possible that such clusters are coincidences. Just through chance, you would expect some cases of childhood cancer in any country to happen close together, and some of these might be near a visible mast. In such situations, it is tricky to work out whether the mast was directly involved.
This is a common problem, often known as the Texan sharpshooter effect. Imagine a Texan who fires his gun at a barn door. After he has fired a hundred shots, he finds the closest cluster of bullet holes, draws a bulls-eye around them, and claims to be a sharpshooter. It would certainly seem that way to a passer-by but we know it was just down to chance.
This is why scientists need to do large studies that look at the effects of base stations and masts in a large number of people, often across an entire region or country.
PS – The excellent NHS Choices Behind the Headlines site have also covered this study
Photo by Harald Hubich at Wikipedia
PETER BRIAN October 12, 2010
In Malta the phone masts are positioned within 15meters of peoples’ residences.
Malta is slowly but surely becoming a very unsafe place to live in.
People Investigating Toxic Sites June 24, 2010
We have files of many childhood cancer clusters at schools around the world that were built on top of closed dumps (landfills). Just because you can’t see the carcinogenic chemicals, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It’s possible that the cause of cancers near mobile phone masts is beneath the ground.
Eileen OConnor June 23, 2010
Also read abstract from new German study from Dr Eger.
Specific symptoms and radiation from mobile basis stations in Selbitz, Bavaria, Germany: evidence for a dose-effect relationship
In January 2009 the municipality of the Bavarian town of Selbitz, carried out a health survey by which the data of 251 citizens was recorded and then analyzed regarding radiation intensity by microwaves. In a second step, the radiation data was used to stratify the participants in pollution intensity groups, utilizing place of residence and available readings of the regional mobile telephone radiation. The mean radiation measurements of the groups exposed at most in Selbitz (1.2 V/m) was substantially higher than the mean radiation of the study population studied in the QUEBEB study (1) of the German mobile telephone research program (Deutsches Mobilfunkforschungsprogramm DMF, established mean value DMF 0.07 V/m).
A significant correlation was found dependent on dose-effects for insomnia, depressions, cerebral symptoms, joint illnesses, infections, skin changes, heart and circulation disorders, and disorders of the optical and acoustic sensory systems and the gastro-intestinal tract with objectively determined locations of exposure, which can be related by the influence of microwaves on the human nervous system.
This work, which has been carried out without external resources, provides a protocol for surveys of medical practitioners and municipality administrations to estimate Wissenschaftlicher Originalbeitrag 2 possible health effects of mobile telephone basic stations situated near population residents.
Keywords: symptoms, HF-radiation, dose-effect evidence
Radiation Research Trust
International EMF Alliance
Kok Siong Chen June 23, 2010
Although there is a study and prove on no link between childhood cancer and mobile phone station, i still strongly recommend the women do not stay at that area when pregnant. It might not cause cancer but maybe for other bad effects.
Andrew Goldsworthy June 23, 2010
Just a point about DNA damage. As you rightly, say the photon energy of radio waves is insufficient to damage DNA directly, but this does not preclude indirect damage such as DNase leaking from lysosomes and reactive oxygen species released from the terminal oxidases of the membranes of damaged mitochondria.
However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As cancer specialists, you will doubtless be aware of the excellent work of Yoram Palti in Israel. He found that prolonged exposure to non-ionising radio-frequency radiation, of approximately the same field strength as that of a mobile phone applied to the head, did so much DNA damage that it was superior to conventional radiotherapy using ionising radiation! See http://tinyurl.com/38rv2tw . Food for thought.
Andrew Goldsworthy June 23, 2010
Just a few initial thoughts.
The choice of 700 metres as the radius of the sample may be misleading. If, as many people believe, the bulk of the biological effects occur within 400 metres of the mast, increasing the radius of the sample to 700 metres will dilute it with people who are relatively unaffected. Insofar as the area of the circle around the mast (and presumably the number of people living in it) increases with the square of the radius, this means that the sample around the mast will contain approximately twice as many “unexposed” as “exposed” people. If the cancer cases are more tightly bunched around the mast, this error becomes even greater.
Also, if the people concerned were regular mobile phone users, the exposure to the signal from their own phone would be greater with increasing distance, which would confound the experiment and make any result appear less significant. Also, it takes no account of other sources of radiation, which would also make it more difficult to disentangle the effects of the mast.
Lastly, in this day and age, where do you find unexposed controls? Picking people at random from a register certainly won’t do it.
While the intentions of the study might have been to reassure the general public that living close to mobile phone masts will not harm them, it was not well designed and the results are virtually meaningless.