Tumult about cell phone radiation

The Dutch TV show Zembla created controversy by arguing that cell phones are dangerous and can cause brain tumors. Scientists and science journalists call the broadcast highly suggestive.

The radiation of cell phones can cause cancer and the use of them is particularly risky for children. That was the gist of the TV show Zembla last Friday. It was an alarming message to anyone owning a cell phone and using it on a daily basis.

But how trustworthy was the evidence? According to two Dutch science journalists, Nadine Böke and Elmar Veerman, the broadcast was highly suggestive.

They criticize for example the beginning of the documentary, when Professor Michiel Haas (Civil Engineering and Geosciences) uses a detector to show how much radiation comes out of cell phones, routers and microwaves.

“The images of detecting radiation from cell phones send out the wrong messages,” says Adrie Bos (Applied Sciences, Radiation, Radionuclides and Reactors section). “It suggests that we’re at risk. They should have explained that there are different types of radiation.”

Bos works with the ionizing radiation that is used to kill cancer cells: “That radiation is dangerous, but cell phones and routers make use of a totally different kind of radiation that transfers only an incredibly small portion of energy. There’s no physical evidence that this radiation is harmful to humans. The documentary didn’t mention this and that is very wrong.”

Haas studied architecture but was called a TU Delft radiation specialist in the documentary. “I wasn’t happy with that,” Haas says. “I did write a book on radiation, but I’m not a radiation expert at TU Delft, but in my company Nibe.”

Haas still supports the message of the broadcast: “Technically, the radiation of cell phones and other devices may not seem harmful, but I think there is a strong possibility that it is, because of recent research.”

He refers to research by the Swedish oncologist professor, L. Hardell, who’s also mentioned in Zembla. He asked patients with a brain tumour if they use their cell phones a lot. He concluded that if this was the case the phone may have caused it. Scientists however question his methodology, because it does not show a strong link between cause and effect. It is also interesting that the number of people with brain tumours did not increase over the last couple of years.

“Before we can conclude whether cell phones are dangerous, more in-depth epidemiological research should be done,” says Professor Bert Wolterbeek (Applied Sciences). “Two groups are necessary to conduct the research: one group in which people use cell phones and another where no one uses a cell phone. It is very difficult to show cause and effect by doing this kind of research, because the people in both groups should behave similar or in a known way, to rule out that anything else than cell phones caused the brain tumour.”

Haas, who hardly uses his cell phone and has no wireless Internet at home, hopes that the TV show will help to discuss the possible risk of cell phones. “People should know that it could be harmful,” he says.

Bos: “Even though physically we can say that there is no risk of using cell phones, I also would like to stress that these subjects need our attention. Because cell phones may be dangerous for reasons we do not know yet, and they should, based on a precaution principle, be handled with caution. But no serious proof has been found.”

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