Brain tumours and childhood leukemia were the focus of discussion at the Energy Networks Association’s November workshop.
On 23 November the Energy Networks Association, the peak organisation of Australia’s electrical utilities, hosted a one-day workshop featuring electromagnetic fields and mobile phone radiation.
Here’s a snapshot of the presentations.Professor Bruce Armstrong
World-renowned epidemiologist Professor Bruce Armstrong, from Sydney University’s School of Public Health, presented a summary of the Interphone Study on mobile phones and brain tumours, released in May this year. Dr Armstrong coordinated the Australian arm of this 13-country international study, co-ordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
The study was begun in 2000 following media reports of brain tumours developed by heavy mobile phone users next to the position of their phones’ aerials. It involved interviews with over 14 000 participants, aged primarily from 30-59, in order to obtain a ‘biography’ of their mobile phone use. (Hands-free use was excluded.)
Dr Armstrong said that the study found that ‘regular’ mobile phone users had an ‘apparent substantial degree of protection’ from any use of mobile phones. However, he continued, ‘we didn’t consider that to be a plausible finding.’
When the researchers considered the risk of glioma tumours for people who had made over 1640 hours of phone calls they found the first suggestion of a possible effect.
Similarly, people were more likely to develop tumours on the side of the head used for calls and in the part of the head (temporal lobes) that would absorb radiation from mobile phone calls.
Together, these factors provide ‘some degree of consistency suggesting heavy mobile phone use may be contributing to brain tumours.’
An appendix to the study contained an analysis in which most exposed were compared with least exposed phone users. This found a higher risk of gliomas for more than 1640 hours of use and for long-term (10 years) use.
Dr Armstrong admitted that there were a number of biases that could have affected the results of the study. There was a high rate of nonparticipation suggesting that participating controls were more likely to be mobile phone users than not—a fact that could have skewed the results. Similarly, recall bias was ‘definitely present’ as subjects were not always able to accurately recall the amount of their mobile phone use or the side of the head used for calls.
Additionally, very heavy users—those that reported more than five hours use a day—were excluded from the study on the basis that this amount of phone use was implausible. Also excluded were tumour victims who had died or were seriously ill.
Dr Armstrong said that there is only one other study that is directly comparable with Interphone—a study by Dr Lennart Hardell’s team (2005, 2006). However, it found higher rates of brain tumours for long-term mobile phone users.
The Interphone report concluded ‘Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.’
The Interphone study team has still to report on vestibular schwannomas, parotid gland tumours and on risk estimated by RF exposure at the site of the tumour.
On the question of ‘what should people do?’, Dr Armstrong advised following the precautionary recommendations on the website of ARPANSA (Australian
Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety) at
He suggested that manufacturers should continue to reduce SAR (specific absorption rates) of phones and ensure that consumers can access this information when purchasing phones. He also advised them to ‘make meaningful information about emissions from base stations available’, for example, comparing them to exposures from mobile phones.Dr John Dockerty
New Zealand epidemiologist, Dr John Dockerty, addressed the question ‘Why do kids get leukaemia?’ The most common type of cancer in children, it affects over 200 children a year in New Zealand. The most common leukemia is acute lymphoblastic leukemia which accounts for 70% of cases. The incidence of this leukemia has increased over time and ‘environmental factors are likely to be important’ in its initiation.
EMF is one of many risk factors that have been investigated for childhood leukemia. The significant studies on this were meta studies conducted by Greenland and Ahlbom in 2000 that found increased risks of the disease at 3-4 mG. A recent study by Kheifets (see p 4) added some support to the EMF/leukemia link.
Dr Dockerty said that the current state of scientific research suggested than EMFs were likely to be responsible for only a small number of childhood leukemias annually but felt that a policy of prudent avoidance was ‘reasonable’.
Dr Dockerty is taking part in an international research collaboration called CLIC (Childhood Leukemia International Consortium) involving 30 countries, that will investigate different possible causes of the disease.
Dr Armstrong commented that some childhood leukemias may start in utero because they affect children as young as 2-4. If anything goes wrong with cells in utero, the error will be magnified because of the rapid turn-over of the foetus’s cells, he said.Ken Karipidis
Dr Ken Karipidis from ARPANSA presented an update on the long-awaited Australian ELF standard. The standard will protect against established short-term effects at high levels of exposure, such as flashes of light in the eye (phosphenes) and stimulation of the peripheral nervous system.
But what about the long-term effects, particularly given the association of EMFs with childhood leukemia?
‘Protection of the public will mainly be from precautionary measures,’ he said. The current draft of the standard includes strong precautionary measures with recommendations for all sectors of society.
To comply with the standard, organisations must consider whether precautions to minimise exposure to electromagnetic fields are justified. This assessment must be documented and retained.
The current draft provides a framework for a precautionary approach. It provides suggestions for reducing exposure including removal of the source, movement of exposed people away from the source, shortening duration of exposure, shielding the source and educating people likely to be affected.
The standard has yet to be approved by the Radiation Health Committee and adopted by ARPANSA and it is not yet known whether the document will be mandatory and therefore legally binding.Brett Moule
RF Consultant, Brett Moule, described a scenario in which powerline workers were overexposed during maintenance work. The linesmen were replacing insulators on a high voltage line situated close to two AM broadcast towers. They were using a cherry picker to access the insulators and within seconds of beginning work they noticed heating in their forearms.
On investigating the situation, Mr Moule found that the AM transmitter was inducing (causing) a field in the cherry picker and in the metal tower of the powerline. When s worker in the cherry picker touched the tower, his body completed the circuit, allowing current to flow in a loop.
Mr Moule said that this problem is likely to occur more frequently in the future as urban areas expand closer to radio transmitters and suggested some precautions to prevent it occurring elsewhere.
He also pointed out that existing RF standards do not protect against this occurrence because they don’t cover the appropriate frequencies. Dr Andrew Wood undertook to bring this problem to the attention of ARPANSA’s Radiation and Health Committee.Michael Dolan
The ‘precautionary principle’ first espoused in the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit has been widely adopted and embodied in legislation, said Melbourne Lawyer Michael Dolan. It is now accepted that it applies equally to health.
In 2006 Mr Justice Brian Preston gave a judgement in the NSW Land and Environment Court (Telstra Corporation Ltd v Hornsby Shire Council) on the application of the precautionary approach to the siting of base stations. It has the status of a decision by the Supreme Court and is binding on lower courts.
Mr Preston said that a precautionary principle applies only where there is a threat of serious or irreversible environmental damage and scientific uncertainty as to that damage. He maintained that these conditions were not satisfied in matters relating to base stations.Mr Gary Melik
Gary Melik, from Magshield Products, said that Australian wiring standards could be improved to reduce EMF exposure.
Mr Melik described how different configurations of cables and phasing produced different magnetic fields. For example, separating the cables increased fields, while locating them closely together—in a trefoil (triangular) or quadrature (square) configuration dramatically reduced them.
The presentations will shortly be available from the ENA website at
from 'EMR and Health' Dec 2010, vol 6 no 4
About The Author - Lyn McLean is a consumer advocate, author and educator and has been monitoring and writing on the subject of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) for over 20 years. She is the director of EMR Australia.