Who will pay for Mobile Phone Safety Research?

Senate Sub-Committee hearings on mobile phone safety

Senate Sub-Committee hearings on mobile phone safety

An article on the register today referred to a story on CNET about senate hearings concerning mobile phone safety. The Register article is typically juvenile, but the CNET article is long and modestly well informed. Well at least it rather longwindedly reports what was said in what I now realise is a manner characteristic of american journalists. Its the kind of article which would never appear in a UK publication. There are a couple of interesting points.

Firstly there was the recommendation that people should only talk when the signal from the base station was strong. This implies (correctly) that safety would be improved (i.e. dose would reduced)  if we increased the number of cell phone masts. And I guess that would be just about as popular in the US as would be in the UK. So we have at the core of the issue a basic refusal of people to agree to simple measures that would improve their service level and safety. Why? I have not a clue.

The simplistic concept of ‘safe’ was again laughably introduced, but the report does not refer to any discussion of the need to weigh risks and benefits when the risks are not fully known. This is the case in many situations and if we could acknowledge the reality of the situation we would already be so far ahead of where we are now. We need to acknowledge our ignorance, the need to take time over research, and the probability being that at the very least that there would eventually probably be measureable ‘effects’ which might or might not be harmful.

Martin Blank’s comments that heating of the tissue was irrelevant is not quite right. It is a fair measure of dose. The problem with people arguing that there are effects caused by non-thermal mechanism is that there aren’t any that anyone can think of. Temperature is a measure of the level of jiggling that key molecules such as DNA experience within the body. Each photon of energy from the phone signal provides a force on the molecule around 10,000 times less violent than that which the molecule experiences normally in the body. It would be really surprising if DNA was that sensitive. That said, the precautionary principle is probably wise.

Finally the issue of putting in a place a mobile phone tax of one dollar per phone bill was not well received. But actually the level of funding required for this research is not so great. In the UK I believe we spend a few million pounds each year on this – a few pennies from each mobile phone customer. I would have thought a tax at a similar level – perhaps  1 cent per bill  – would raise many tens of millions of dollars which would be enough to get started.

And what do I learn from all this? That the issue rolls on, and I predict, will roll on and on for many years to come.

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