A major study into the safety of mobile phones has concluded that they may affect the health of people who use them.
Research carried out by scientists in Finland suggests radiation from mobile phones causes changes in the brain. It is the first time that scientists have looked at the effects of mobile phone radiation on human cells rather than those of rats.
The two-year study concluded that even low-level emissions from handsets are damaging.
Scientists from the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority found that exposing human cells to mobile phone radiation damaged the blood-brain barrier – a safety barrier in the body that stops harmful substances in blood from entering the brain.
They discovered that the exposure caused the cells in blood vessel walls to shrink which enabled molecules to pass into brain tissue.
Professor Darius Leszcynski, who carried out the study, said the results came from laboratory tests on human cells and that further research was needed to see if the same effect actually happened in humans.
He said: “The blood-brain barrier has been shown to be affected by radiation in animal studies. There is a lot of uncertainty about whether this happens in humans. We have shown some biological effects.”
Prof Leszcynski said these changes could have a serious impact on a person’s health if they were found to happen in humans. “If it did happen it could lead to disturbances, such as headaches, feeling tired or problems with sleeping. A study by a Swedish research group even suggested it could lead to Alzheimer’s disease.”
However, he added: “It is important to remember that our study has been done in the laboratory where we can detect even the smallest changes. We cannot say whether it happens in humans. We need further study looking at real people to see if the blood-brain barrier is affected. What is happening in the human brain is an absolute enigma. We don’t know at all.”
Prof Leszcynski said mobile phones were still safe to use. “At the moment, there is no scientific support for introducing any sort of limitation either on use of mobile phones or setting new safety limits. There is no need because we don’t have any science to support it. All the guidelines in place at the moment are fine.”
Prof Leszcynski will present his findings at a conference in Quebec, Canada, next week. He said a study by French scientists, which will also be presented at the conference, found similar results in rats.
Dr Michael Clark, science spokesman at the National Radiological Protection Board, said the research did not show any impact on people’s health. “This is demonstrating a biological effect in cells in the lab.” He said: “It doesn’t relate to a health effect. You can’t go from a biological effect in a Petri dish to say that’s a health effect.”
He added: “The authors themselves are saying that this doesn’t mean that mobile phones are unsafe or the guidelines are wrong.”
The Consumers’ Association said there was still insufficient evidence to say whether or not mobile phones were safe. A spokesman said: “At the moment, it’s too soon to reach a definitive verdict on health risks from mobile phones, but neither has research given it the all clear.”
The National Consumers’ Council said mobile phone users were reaching their own conclusions about the risks. “The people who feel that mobile phones are very important and essential in their lives would attach less weight to this new information than those who are already concerned about the risk,” said a spokeswoman.
More than 40 million people in Britain have mobile phones, many of them children.
Two years ago a government inquiry led by Sir William Stewart concluded that mobile phones posed no provable health risk. But its report urged caution over the use of mobile phones by children until more was known about their impact on health.
In January, a new £7.4 million research programme was announced, backed by the government and the mobile phone industry, to be managed by an international committee of experts led by Sir William.
The programme includes 15 studies which will seek clear conclusions about the health hazards of mobile phones, in particular fears of an association between mobile phone radiation and brain cancer.
The main purpose of the research will be to see whether “subtle biological changes” already known to be caused by mobile phones pose a risk.
Nearly half of all UK mobile phone users are unlikely to use their handsets for anything other than basic voice calls, according to a survey in the Financial Times.
The news came as mobile operators are meeting in Asia, trying to rouse demand for new mobile services under the next generation of mobile phones known as 3G.
It also comes as Japan’s Sony and Sweden’s Ericsson unveil a new set of phones with picture-messaging features.
Mobile operators paid billions of pounds for the privilege of building 3G networks that offer faster internet services, video clips and colour photos.
But the faith in the future profitability of the telecoms market has since been seriously undermined over fears that consumers will not be prepared to pay for the latest services.
“The mobile industry is in crisis, not because of a lack of consumer demand for 3G, but because operators have been crippled by billions of Euros extracted by greedy government agencies,” said Cerebrus Solutions vice president Vernon de Silva.
The prices charged by 3G operators for their services will be crucial to the take-up of the new technology, analysts say.
British mobile phone operator MMO2 – formerly BT Cellnet – runs Europe’s first live 3G network on the Isle of Man.
Based on this trial service MMO2 published a tariff on Tuesday of what it thinks individuals and businesses will pay to use the services.
Prices range from £5 to £80 a month ($7.50 – $120). The company’s standard 3G business package gives 100 megabits at a cost £80 a month while the consumer package costs £25 for 20 megabits.
There is an additional charge for each megabit used above the number specified.
As its 3G trial continues MMO2 says these prices are subject to change.
Jim McCafferty of Societe Generale told the BBC’s World Business Report it will be years before the potential of the 3G market can be estimated.
“We are still five to ten years away from knowing how big this market place really is,” he said.
The industry’s fears were deepened by a survey on Tuesday that suggested that four in 10 Britons have no interest in the features that 3G can offer.
Mobile users listed checking their bank balance and paying bills as the most useful additions, when 3G did appeal.
But some industry officials dismiss the notion that people do not want 3G.
“The focus on 3G applications is misplaced,” said Mr de Silva.
“It would be absurd say that users don’t want 3G before the applications are even available.
“People need to be able to use applications as part of their everyday lives before anyone can pass judgement on 3G.”
Mobile operators hope that Asian markets will drive growth and help compensate for saturated western markets.
CommunicAsia 2002, Asia’s biggest telecommunications fair, opens on Tuesday with many firms promoting their latest developments in multi-media messaging.
Asian markets have shown the most enthusiasm for such services so far, and picture-swapping is already a popular past-time in Korea and Japan.
3G phones are currently being rolled-out in parts of Japan, in the world’s most advanced testing ground for the next generation of mobiles.
A UK university has designed a mobile phone antenna which it says could cut radiation emissions into the body by up to 85%.
Scientists from Loughborough University’s Centre for Mobile Communications Research (CMCR) proved the antenna worked in laboratory tests. But it has yet to be tested as part of a phone, or in studies on people.
The researchers say their research could contribute to phones with lower Specific Absorption Rates (SAR).
SAR is the measure of the amount of radiation from mobile phone handsets absorbed by human tissue.
All handsets used in the UK have SARs which fall within international guidelines. But the Loughborough researchers say limits are being continually reduced, so any technology which can contribute to blocking radiation is useful.
They add that as phones get smaller, the antennae is closer to the head, meaning there is a greater need for reduced SARs.
The antennae was designed using laser technology and computer modelling techniques.
The initial aim of the research focussed on how Global Positioning System technology could be used to locate mobile phone signals, such as when a call is made to the emergency services.
But scientists also discovered the potential for reduced radiation emissions.
The design the experts at the CMCR developed has a low ‘near field’ interaction – the radiation field around the antennae.
Professor Yiannis Vardaxoglou, head of the centre, said: “If the near field could be reduced to a millimetres with a high level of predictability then a low SAR antenna could be a real possibility. Our research is ongoing, but tests have shown we are on the right track.”
Barrie Foley, chief executive of Sarantel, a Wellingborough-based company which makes miniature antennas, and has worked with the CMCR, said: “This technology is real and can be delivered to the market, unlike many claims by various organisations in the past.”
But a spokeswoman for the Federation of Electronics Industry said: “Manufacturers are looking at all sorts of antenna developments, some of the research they carry out themselves, other work is carried out by universities or other organisations. Clearly, the design and performance of mobile phones is something the industry is interested in.”
Dr Mike Clarke of the National Radiological Protection Board added: “Our view is that there is no actual evidence for any harm.”