Are mobile phone users at risk to their health? If they are, it will be noticed first in Finland. By Jaakko Lyytinen
“It stings my ear just as if someone had stabbed a nail into my head. My skin doesn’t just get inflamed and itchy and hot, but I also come out in a rash as if I’d grabbed a stinging-nettle”, explains Hanna Nurminen.
The it in her description is a mobile phone handset – something that 54-year-old Hanna Nurminen picks up only under the greatest duress.
She even gets distressing symptoms from other people’s phones.
At the beginning of this year, for instance, Nurminen travelled from Helsinki to Turku by bus, and in a nearby seat was another woman, who spoke on her mobile for the entire two-hour journey.
After the trip, Nurminen’s muscles and joints ached for several days.
Nurminen, whose maiden name is Herlin, retains a significant holding in the family engineering firm, the international elevator and escalator company Kone, which her father Pekka Herlin headed as CEO (from 1964-1986) and as Chairman (from 1987 until his death in 2003).
She is also the Chairman of the Board of the Kone Foundation (Koneen Säätiö), which exists to promote Finnish academic research, arts and culture.
Hanna Nurminen does not give interviews about Herlin family matters, but she has no qualms about talking freely about her own problems with mobile phones – in fact she is only too eager to express her views on the subject.
Her symptoms grew more pronounced in the autumn of 2006.
Electromagnetic devices, for example a PC or a mobile phone, began to cause her to suffer cardiac arrythmia symptoms, giddiness, shortness of breath, aches in muscles and joints, tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears), and headaches.
Nurminen had become a victim of electrohypersensitivity or electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS).
EHS sufferers believe that they are allergic to electromagnetic fields.
Although Nurminen’s symptoms – and those of fellow-sufferers – are perfectly real, it has not been possible to determine from blind “provocation trials” that there is a direct association between the symptoms and the electromagnetic radiation alleged to cause them.
Doctors do not consider EHS to be a medical condition as such, but more of a vague syndrome, not unlike MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), for example.
This naturally frustrates and infuriates sufferers.
“It is so humilitating the way that doctors and the authorities respond to the problem. Even though a sizeable number of perfectly sane individuals are suffering, there is a complete unwillingness to acknowledge the very existence of the malady”, complains Nurminen.
“I want to be everywhere, with everyone, all the time. Now and always.”
Ten years ago, the pushy advertising strapline from Finnish telecoms operator Elisa was a source of irritation to many, but now it is as real as you like.
This IS the mobile age.
There are smartphones, 3G networks, wireless broadband connections, mokkulas or USB-modems, mini-notebooks and ultraportables, bluetooth, and WLAN, online 24/7…
Everywhere one goes, there is a vast and complex web of electromagnetic fields criss-crossing at different frequencies.
Finland has something like seven million mobile phone connections in a country of not much more than five million inhabitants.
Many Finnish children get their first mobile by the time they reach pre-school age, a good deal earlier than elsewhere in Europe, and quite a few adults are carrying around two handsets in their pocket on a daily basis.
And we are no longer talking – in fact we haven’t been for years now – about “the cellphone as status symbol”, but as a practical everyday device that we all take very much for granted.
In 2008 the Finns made 4.9 billion calls on their mobile phones, amounting to a stunning 14,500 million minutes on the phone.
That is a lot of talking – more than 27,587 years of it, in fact.
For precisely these sorts of reasons, the Finns are an interesting case-study in any research into the adverse effects of mobile telephony.
Towards the end of last year, an exceptionally broad health study was launched here and in four other European countries.
By the end of 2011, one hundred thousand Finns aged between 18 and 69 years will have received an invitation to take part in this international cohort study on mobile phone use and health (COSMOS).
COSMOS will explore whether the use of mobiles has any influence on the development of neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s Disease.
Equally, the researchers want to establish whether the phones cause an elevated risk of head and neck area tumours, cerebrovascular disorders and diseases, headaches, sleeping disturbances, mood affective disorders such as bipolar disorder, or tinnitus in the ears.
On the basis of earlier studies, the radiofrequency exposure from mobile phones can indeed have an impact on sleep patterns and on the electrical activity of the brain, but as yet the jury is still out on whether these effects are adverse ones, or whether they could even possibly be beneficial to us.
COSMOS is the world’s largest study of mobile phones and health, since it is also being carried out simultaneously in Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, and The Netherlands.
The Finnish test-subjects are being invited randomly from the customer registers of mobile phone operators Elisa and TeliaSonera, and if they agree to sign a consent form, they will join the study.
The number and duration of calls by participants will then be monitored over a period of several years and with their permission the data will be collated with health status information, followed from the comprehensive Finnish population-based health registers and databases.
The subjects invited in 2009 will be joined by more this year and next, and the first meaningful results are expected something like five years from now.
But what is the purpose of and even the need for a study on a giant scale such as this one?
For years now, the authorities and the mobile phone companies have been assuring us that everything is fine and that cellphones do not pose a health risk.
And the ‘all-clear’ declarations are said to be based on “extensive studies”.
“It is hard to give recommendations. It is more a matter of radiation protection policy than anything based on hard scientific evidence”, says Research Professor Anssi Auvinen from the University of Tampere’s School of Public Health, who is heading the COSMOS research team under the aegis of STUK, Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority.
“The situation is quite different from that with ionizing radiation, such as in X-rays or gamma rays, the effects of which we know quite a bit about and with a good degree of accuracy. But electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range is another matter altogether”, says Auvinen.
Hmmm. This means in effect that we “know very little” about devices that we use a very great deal – and which we hold for long periods right next to our brains.
The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, which is headquartered in a large tiled edifice in Eastern Helsinki, regulates for example the safe use of nuclear energy, carries out research on the means of radon prevention in Finnish homes and workplaces, and is also responsible for studying the radiation effects of cellular phones.
On its website, STUK has this to say on the subject:
“So far, the only known mechanism that mobile telephone radiation has had an effect on living tissue is heating. The rise in temperature on the surface of the brain caused by radio waves is 0.3°C at the most. This kind of temperature rise is not known to have biological significance. The temperature of the brain normally fluctuates by about one degree Celsius, and only after a five-degree increase in temperature do cells become seriously damaged.”
“Several studies, in several countries, have tried to find out any other effects apart from heating. On the basis of the results obtained from the studies, it has not been possible to conclude that radiation from mobile phones would be detrimental to health”, adds the STUK comment.
But when one scrolls down a little further on the page concerning mobile phone radiation, it transpires that the picture is not quite so clear-cut after all.
Some studies have in fact reported “an increased risk of brain tumour in people who have used a mobile phone for a long time (more than ten years)”.
In some other studies, on the other hand, it was observed that non-ionizing mobile phone radiation could cause temporary changes in the functions of cells. This was noted among others by Dariusz Leszczynski at STUK.
Research Professor Leszczynski, 55, took a doctorate in molecular biology from Jagiellonian University in Krakow in his native Poland in 1983, and moved to Finland as a researcher.
After settling here he took a Ph.D in biochemistry from the University of Helsinki and wound up at STUK, where from the end of the 1990s he steeped himself in the subject of the health impacts of mobile telephony.
This was around the time when the whole cellphone business went ballistic, and mobile handsets became the toys of the nation at large.
In 1995 there were just over one million mobile phone connections in Finland, but by 2001 this figure had grown to four million and more.
Leszczynski observed that the research into the possible health risks associated with mobile phones was full of contradictory findings and had serious shortcomings.
Researchers had approached the problem from the perspectives of their respective specialist fields, but practically nobody had considered what ought really to be under the microscope to determine if there are any health risks.
“We realised that we really had to start again from scratch”, says Leszczynski.
In 1999 his team began to study the biological effects of microwave radiation in the STUK laboratories.
They brought to the table completely new methods for gene and protein research.
The results were interesting. Radiation caused a stress reaction in some cells, and it also influenced gene and protein expression and activity.
It was not possible to draw hard and fast conclusions over health risks on the basis of cell culture tests, but the results did garner quite a bit of attention.
At one international conference, a colleague and a representative of the mobile phone industry warned Leszczynski that his findings – using large-scale screening of gene and protein expression – were going to stir up a hornet’s nest and that the media would be generating banner headlines on the illnesses caused by mobile phones.
The reaction left Leszczynski shocked and stunned.
“Science cannot work in such a way that we limit our research methods on the basis of how the media might raise a storm over the findings”, he says.
The next step, in 2006, was to apply the tests to human subjects.
The skin on the forearms of test subjects was exposed to mobile phone radiation [a 900 MHz GSM signal] for one hour in the laboratory, and changes in protein expression were examined.
The results corresponded to the findings from the cell culture tests: there were changes to be seen in the expression of proteins in the skin.
Even these results did not provide a red flag of the danger of mobile phones, but rather indicated a direction for future research.
However, funding for such research has thus far not been forthcoming.
And hence, says Leszczynski, the answer to the core question remains elusive: does the human body react to mobile phone radiation or does it not?
“The basic research into the subject is still missing. Animal and cell studies have been carried out in the laboratory, in which it has been demonstrated that radiation can have an effect. There have also been studies that have indicated no such impact”, he goes on.
“It is problematic to consider that humans will not have any health problems from the exposure to mobile phones. Such claims are premature in a situation when we still do not know whether the human body reacts to mobile phone radiation.”
The health risk deriving from mobile phones that has been examined most thoroughly is that of cancer, most particularly brain tumours.
Animal studies on the risk of cancer from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields were launched in Finland in the early 1990s.
Jukka Juutilainen led a team that explored the effects of mobile phone radiation in conjunction with ionizing radiation, for instance from X-rays.
“Already at that stage it began to look quite probable that radiofrequency radiation alone was not sufficient to cause cancer promotion”, reports Juutilainen, who now heads the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio.
The explanation was simple enough: the energy level of the radio waves is not sufficient to cause damage to DNA in cells.
Subsequent empirical research on the cancer risks associated with RF radiation has been carried out on a massive scale, says Juutilainen.
And the results that have come back have been almost unanimously negative: no effects have been found.
And no effects were found, either, in what has hitherto been the largest cellphone study performed in Finland, the so-called Hermo Research Programme [Health Risk Assessment of Mobile Communications].
This three-year study, carried out under Juutilainen’s leadership, was completed in 2007, and in addition to looking into elevated cancer risk it examined such things as whether the electromagnetic fields had any effects on the developing nervous system – a study relevant to children’s use of mobile phones.
This last issue is one of the real hot potatoes of the entire mobile phone debate.
Research data relating to children are to all intents and purposes non-existent, and for ethical reasons the gathering of such information through human testing is not possible, since the development of the human brain continues until as late as the age of 20.
Hence in the Hermo study, too, the experiments were carried out on juvenile rats, some of which were exposed after weaning to RF radiation similar to that emanating from GSM phones.
The results were surprising: in addition to there being no degenerative changes in the RF-exposed rats, in some behavioural tests the irradiated rats demonstrated improved learning and memory functions.
In other words, at least in theory it is conceivable that mobile phone radiation could have a beneficial effect on human memory and learning.
Dariusz Leszczynski’s tests on protein expression and activity in human skin were also included in the Hermo programme, but in the view of Jukka Juutilainen there are attendant problems with the repeatability and interpretation of such procedures.
Besides, Juutilainen argues, protein changes will occur regardless of the type of exposure.
“Let’s say, if I hold my hand out in direct sunlight for a few minutes, then there will certainly be changes in protein expression, and also a small change in temperature. It is the task of our bodies, after all, to adapt constantly to changes in the surrounding environment. But it is a very long step from this to determining whether this is a health hazard.”
The majority of the mobile phone & health studies conducted around the world have hitherto been general population assays concerning the causal relation of RF radiation and possible brain tumours of one kind or another.
One such is Interphone, the world’s largest study to date, which was initiated at the end of the 1990s by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), based in Lyons.
A total of thirteen countries are taking part, including Finland.
According to an Interphone results update released in October 2008, “pooling of data from Nordic countries and part of the UK yielded a significantly increased risk of glioma [a type of tumour that starts in the brain or spine] related to use of mobile phones for a period of 10 years or more on the side of the head where the tumour developed”.
In layman’s terms, this means if you hold a mobile phone against your left ear for long enough, you are at risk of developing a tumour on that side of the head.
On the other hand, the same pooled data referred to above “found no increased risk of meningioma in relation to long term or heavy use” of mobile phones.
An Israeli Interphone study, meanwhile, debunked this and observed a possible relation between heavy mobile phone use and the risk of parotid gland tumours, both benign and malignant.
No such findings were forthcoming from the Scandinavian research subjects.
If mobile phone researchers are unanimous on anything, they are certainly of very like mind in saying that there are problems with the Interphone methodologies.
“When you go asking sick people how much they used a mobile phone ten years ago, the answers you get back are not going to be awfully reliable. It is much the same as if you were to ask someone how many emails he sent ten years ago”, says Research Professor Anssi Auvinen from STUK, who also heads the Finnish end of Interphone.
According to Dariusz Leszczynski, the problems with the Interphone studies were known from the outset.
Even so, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has leant on the Interphone results in its advisory work.
The ICNIRP, a body of independent scientific experts, is also responsible for determining and publishing international exposure guidelines, including those for RF radiation.
“From the very start, it was known that the Interphone research was not sufficiently comprehensive. The studies explored what happened in the course of a few years, but the development of a cancer in the brain can take ten years or even more”, charges Leszczynski.
The truth about the possible health risks associated with mobile phones and RF radiation is out there somewhere, but at the very least it is swathed in mystery at present.
But who are the people who consider the health hazards already proven beyond doubt?
One of them can be found almost next door to Prof. Jukka Juttilainen on the Kuopio Campus of the University of Eastern Finland.
Osmo Hänninen, 70, is the former Rector of the University of Kuopio and a long-serving Professor of Physiology there.
Hänninen still maintains an office on the campus in Kuopio.
The small room is lined from floor to ceiling with scientific articles and publications, quite a few of which deal with the subject of electromagnetic fields and RF radiation.
He became interested in the subject when electromagnetic hypersensitivity sufferers got in touch with him.
Hänninen, who has also become known as a supporter of folk medicine, believes strongly that the health risks of mobile phones have been gravely underestimated.
“The present demands are based solely on the one narrow area, the thermal effect. It’s quite pointless to think that way”, he says.
Hänninen has compared mobile handsets to medical preparations.
A new drug is tested for years in in vitro and in vivo studies on animals and cell cultures, and only then in clinical trials on humans – a total of more than ten years for all phases.
In order that a new pharmaceutical product gets through the demanding approval process of regulatory authorities and onto the market, it must be determined that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
In the case of electromagnetic radiation, there are no such research obligations.
If the mobile phone were a drug, it would be banned, claims Hänninen.
“We have this enormous machinery in place to determine the safety of chemicals, but for things like this we do nothing”, Hänninen shakes his head.
For the interview, he has brought along with him files stuffed with research papers that prove the existence of electrohypersensitivity.
Hänninen takes the view that what is happening right now is the greatest human experiment in all history, the results of which will seen only in 10 to 20 years from now.
The authorities, the mobile phone manufacturers, the teleoperators, and the media are covering up the truth, he claims, because of the colossal commercial interests that are involved.
He also charges that the handset industry directs most research studies.
Hänninen’s theories could come across as something out of the Conspiracy 101 textbook, but in terms of the backing for the research studies he does have a point.
For example, on the steering group of the Hermo project there were representatives from Nokia and the teleoperators Elisa and TeliaSonera, who all also took part in the funding of the venture, along with Finnet Networks.
The overall budget for the three years was of the order of EUR 1.9 million, with the firms putting in EUR 325,000 (roughly 17%) and the lion’s share of the funding coming from Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation – and from universities and research institutes.
One master’s dissertation written in association with Hermo was directed by an employee of the Nokia Research Center.
According to Jukka Juutilainen, this person had already started mentoring the thesis while working as a member of staff at the University of Kuopio.
Juutilainen also defends the need for industrial funding in mobile phone research, but says that the companies cannot be given any elbow-room to influence the interpretation of results or how they are published.
Companies are also involved in the financing of the ongoing COSMOS cohort study, which is itself part of the broader WIRECOM project (Wireless Communication Devices and Human Health).
The corporate partners in WIRECOM are the same trio of Nokia, TeliaSonera and Elisa.
Public funding for COSMOS accounts for 85% of the total, and the companies put up 15%.
Osmo Hänninen has demanded in an online petition that the companies’ representatives be removed from the COSMOS steering group.
At the same time he has urged Tekes to continue the funding of Dariusz Leszczynski’s research.
For his own part, Leszczynski is a little embarrassed and uncomfortable at the attention being paid to his work.
Whilst he says that the electromagnetic hypersensitives mean well, their emotionally-charged viewpoint tends to muddy the waters of the mobile phone debate.
In Leszczynski’s opinion the statements from the EHS sufferers could also have an adverse impact on the funding for basic research.
“The financiers might start to wonder if this is about real science or some Ghostbusters stuff”, he says.
Finland is no exception as far as research funding goes: elsewhere in the world there have been the same problems over finding independent partners to stump up for research programmes.
Last September, Dariusz Leszczynski was among an international scientists’ delegation who convened an expert conference on cellphones and health in Washington D.C. He participated in a U.S. Senate hearing where he spoke about the need for new mobile phone research.
These days he is also active in China, where he holds a three-year professorship at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.
Dariusz Leszczynski also maintains a blog, rather cutely entitled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, which he says accurately reflects his position in the mobile phone research field.
“Some scientists are of the opinion that we have enough evidence that cellphones do not have any health impacts, or at least that they do not pose a clear and present danger to humans. In their view we might just as well pack things up and put the money to some other better use.”
“In the opposing camp, the argument is that mobile phones do have an adverse effect on our health and that the hazards have been demonstrated. Most of those on this side of the fence are the electromagnetic hypersensitives and activists.”
Among the former group, even the smallest of findings are downplayed as meaningless, while the latter group gives them undue emphasis.
“I’d say to both sides of the argument that they would be better off chilling out a bit. We do not yet have sufficient data to say one way or the other that RF radiation represents a health risk, or that it does not. There just isn’t enough solid evidence either way”, argues Leszczynski.
But is this the world’s largest human experiment, a gigantic clinical trial, as Osmo Hänninen claims?
On a daily basis, we use a great many devices whose real long-term impact on our health still remains something of a question-mark.
And as a consequence, some members of the population get sick, like Hanna Nurminen, with whom this article began.
Uncertainty has begun to creep into the recommendations even of the authorities.
STUK, the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, is now recommending that parents restrict the mobile phone usage of their children and even encourage them to use SMS messaging rather than making calls.
According to the newer “precautionary” principles, it is worth reducing risks to a minimum, even if there is no certainty that there is a risk out there.
Use handsfree devices to minimise exposure of the head to RF radiation, be brief rather than garrulous, use SMS, avoid making or taking calls in weak fields, and so on.
Hanna Nurminen is particularly worried about children and young adults.
And it is not merely a matter of cellphones, but also wireless networks, base stations, and radio masts, whose numbers have grown dramatically in recent years.
“My heart bleeds when I see a young child talking on a mobile. Or when I hear that schools are buying smart interactive whiteboards for their classrooms. They are putting wireless networks into the schools and base stations on the roofs of kindergartens”, laments Nurminen.
These days she is able to work on a PC after having got herself built a metal desk that screens out radiation.
Not everyone has it so good.
“Finland is known as a forerunner in technological development and innovation, but we have to be able to recognise the ugly side to all this. People like us ought to be taken seriously”, she sighs.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 3.4.2010