Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Ticky Fullerton
Over half the world now pays to have a mobile phone. But any research into a link between mobiles phones and brain cancer looks like 'unfinished business' especially with children. Some countries like France and even Finland, the home of Nokia, are changing policies on mobile phones and two leading Australian scientists have spoken out.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: They've sold in the billions, and now they're even being marketed to five-year-olds.
Along the way the prevailing scientific opinion has been that mobile phones don't really have any significant health effects.
But in the past year some governments including the European Union have suddenly changed their policies on how cell phones should be used, especially when it comes to children.
And they're not the only voices breaking from the orthodoxy that mobiles are safe.
The epidemiologist in charge of Australia's part in the biggest ever study of mobile phone safety is now warning of an increased risk of potentially deadly brain tumours.
And another Australian doctor, whose controversial recent findings of a similar link were attacked by the mobile phone industry, has this month had his research endorsed by peer review.
Even so, the Australian Government is yet to shift its approach to mobile phones and human health. Ticky Fullerton reports.
TICKY FULLERTON: There are more mobile phones than people in Australia, now a necessity for both the public and the Government.
Mobiles pump $6.5 billion a year into the economy. Many of us grew up about that niggling doubt about the heat of the phone from those half hour calls. But life goes on.
And let's be clear, the World Health Organisation, the US Federal Drugs Administration and Europe's top scientific committee all agree that the weight of scientific evidence does not link mobile phones with any major health problems and that this machine i.e. benign and safe.
So why, then, are some governments warning their citizens and some Australian scientists urging we take precaution, particularly around children.
It's all happened in just the last 12 months.
Two very different Australian voices have questioned the orthodox view. Epidemiologist Professor Bruce Armstrong has broken ranks on the world's largest research study, and top neurosurgeon Dr Vini Khurana has this week published his research review. Both find an increased risk of brain tumours on the side of the head the mobile is used after 10 years of calls, reflecting growing concerns around the world.
PROFESSOR DEVRA DAVIS, UNI OF PITTSBURGH CANCER INSTITUTE: When it comes to proof of human harm, we've kind of been led down a garden path that says the only proof that really counts is enough sick or dead people. And I think that approach has got to change and particularly with respect to something like brain cancer. Brain cancer can take 10, 20 or 30 years to develop. It may affect people 30, 40 years after they've been exposed. Our children are using cell phones in growing numbers. They're marketing cell phones now to five-year-olds.
TICKY FULLERTON: The country's major research centre in any possible link is the Australian Centre for RF Bioeffects Research run by Rodney Croft. Should we be worried about this?
RODNEY CROFT, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ACRBR: No. There really has been a lot of research done to date and the research has very clearly shown that there aren't any effects. With children, I really don't think that there is any evidence suggesting that this might be a problem. There isn't anything to suggest that we may have to be a little bit more cautious.
TICKY FULLERTON: The ACRBR boasts some of our most experiences scientists, but as we'll see, it also has strong links with the industry.
In New York, Louis Slesin runs Microwave News, which has tracked the mobile story for over 20 years. He's become highly critical of those he sees downplaying a link to cancer.
LOUIS SLESIN, MICROWAVE NEWS: The people who are not inside, the insiders if you will, are much more willing to speak out and say, "we've got to be careful." The resistant comes from the people in the field, you know, the so-called expert groups, those who make their bread and butter out of this, and they're saying, "No, no, there's nothing to worry about," which is what they've been saying for 20 years.
TICKY FULLERTON: Last month a survey found over a third of British children had a mobile at eight-years-old.
It was 10 years ago that a British documentary raised concerns about children and mobiles.
10 years on, what more do we know?
The research that was supposed to answer this question was Interphone, a huge $15 million population study. Thirteen different countries, including Australia, compared thousands of tumour cases with healthy people and their use of mobiles.
Interphone completed in 2006 but the conclusions have never been published. Insiders tell Lateline that the scientists can't agree on the results and have refused to talk to the media.
LOUIS SLESIN: The fact that Interphone has not come out yet is a scandal.
TICKY FULLERTON: What has come out are some results for individual countries, particularly northern Europeans.
So far, for people using mobiles for less than 10 years, there's no increased risk of gliomas, the killer brain tumour. That's the message that the industry wants the public to hear.
Chris Althaus runs the industry's peak body.
CHRIS ALTHAUS, AUS MOBILE TELECOMMUNICATIONS ASSOC: Having looked at the results of Interphone and having looked at the studies that have been longer than Interphone, there's a Danish study that's two decades long. There is no medical, no biological or statistical substantiation of an adverse health outcome between brain and noble phone use.
TICKY FULLERTON: But the Interphone study tells a different story for people using mobiles for 10 years or more.
LOUIS SLESLIN: It's been a couple of years now that we have data from the Interphone project that indicates that we have a potential problem.
TICKY FULLERTON: Late last year in Melbourne, the scientist running Australia's Interphone study spoke out.
Bruce Armstrong declined an interview with Lateline citing Interphone sensitivities, but his opinion is now on the public record from the keynote speech he made a Rodney Croft's ACRBR conference, streamed on the internet.
Professor Armstrong's conclusions, if correct, are an industry nightmare: for long-term users; suggestions of an increased risk of gloom, the deadly tumour, on the same side of the brain that a mobile is usually used; enough to be a cause for concern; and that we should limit exposure, especially for children, to as low as reasonably achievable.
RODNEY CROFT: Certainly in terms of the research that Professor Armstrong is talking about, I certainly do not believe that it is as strong as what he would think.
LOUIS SLESIN: Armstrong says, "Be cautious." ACBR, which has all these connections to the industry, is saying, "Listen, you know, don't worry, be happy," if you will. He is their keynoter, he is the guy who's putting it all together. So he's not really an outsider, he's just not a member of the club. He is, you know, certainly a card carrying member of the epidemiologist - I mean, he's a world class epidemiologist.
TICKY FULLERTON: The Interphone data has been widely criticised for inaccuracies. After all, can you remember the number of calls and how long you spent on the phone, say, four years ago?
But the link of tumours to the side of the head a mobile is used relies only on people remembering which side that was.
RODNEY CROFT: Well, there are many difficulties with this kind of research, trying to determine what side of the head, for instance, someone uses their phone on, particularly after they've been diagnosed with a brain tumour.
TICKY FULLERTON: Is it really that difficult, though? I mean, how many minutes you might have been on a phone might be difficult, but most people remember what side of the phone they've used over the years.
RODNEY CROFT: You would think so. Someone actually tested this recently to see how difficult it was. And there was very little correlation between the side that they actually used and the side that they reported.
TICKY FULLERTON: Why is that, though? Because certainly the research that Professor Armstrong has done on this supports the view that there isn't recall bias in this particular area, so what was the piece of research that you are talking about?
RODNEY CROFT: I would have to find that for you.
TICKY FULLERTON: When Lateline asked to see the research showing people couldn't remember the side they used the mobile, Rodney Croft admitted to some difficulties. The research was not yet published but he says the conclusions drawn by Armstrong are wrong.
RODNEY CROFT: We're looking at about 50 cases across the entire world. So far all that's been reported in the literature is 23 cases.
TICKY FULLERTON: Bruce Armstrong's findings now sit neatly alongside independent research from a scientist here in Sweden.
Lennart Hardell has been talking about a link between the side of the head and since the lates1990s. Again sample groups are small, but in the same month that Armstrong spoke out, Hardell presented his latest research at the Royal Society in London.
PROFESSOR LENNART HARDELL, UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL, OREBRO: What is actually worrying us now is recent analysis of our data where we find that the risk for gloom and acoustic melanoma is highest among those persons who have started their use of a mobile phone or cordless phone before the age of 20.
TICKY FULLERTON: Dr Hardell found that for people who started to use cell phones as teenagers, by the time they were in their really late 20s, they had four to five times more malignant tumours of the brain.
TICKY FULLERTON: Professor Armstrong acknowledged he was delivering the same message about side of head as Hardell, who the industry largely ignores, and that he, too, would be downplayed.
BRUCE ARMSTRONG: Will everyone go away tonight and say, "Well, that stuff about side of the brain and use of mobile phone, that's interesting, but I don't think it can be real."
LOUIS SLESIN: He's basically changed the conversation. He's saying, "We can't accept these denials that there's nothing there anymore." I think this is a watershed moment.
TICKY FULLERTON: Other research by the ACRBR itself has found the power of a mobile does affect the brain.
RODNEY CROFT: We've been exploring effects on mobile phones on very subtle changes to brain function. We have been finding reliable changes in a particular frequency of brain activity called the alpha rhythm.
TICKY FULLERTON: Why is it such a leap of faith to think that if there's a biological change, that that might not be a health impact?
RODNEY CROFT: I think one of the reasons is that the only known mechanism for interaction is heating. But we must remember that it's also possible that holding a block of wood to your head, which is going to increase the temperature by more than the radiofrequencies, could cause a problem.
LOUIS SLESIN: We don't understand the mechanism, but, you know, Croft himself has shown that it does something in there. I find it so interesting that people find facts which could lead them to a breakthrough in terms of understanding basic science and say, "Oh, listen, don't pay attention, it doesn't matter. It's a subtle thing, throw it out." That's completely unscientific.
TICKY FULLERTON: Bad science was behind a YouTube clip in March last year, which got four million hits in its first week.
It looks like radio waves from the four mobiles are strong enough to cook popcorn.
At the ACRBR's conference, Telstra was on board. It was easy to expose the popcorn hoax.
TELSTRA REPRESENTATIVE: I think we have enough phones on the table to successfully prove that at the moment these phones are not cooking the popcorn.
TICKY FULLERTON: Not so easy is explaining close ties with the industry. The ACRBR was created with Telstra funding and Telstra lab equipment. Rodney Croft denies the industry buys influence.
You have Telstra researchers working through the ACRBR. Your board consists of at least one director who's a Telstra board member, who's a former chief Government scientist and a former head of the CSIRO. Can you see the potential for some heavy influence there?
RODNEY CROFT: It would still be very difficult. I mean, you really have a board of six that make the scientific decisions.
Money going into this research comes from a levy on industry, but it goes to Government, Government sends it to National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, they then have independent groups to decide what research is important.
TICKY FULLERTON: Telstra declined an interview with Lateline, leaving the industry peak body to speak on its behalf.
CHRIS ALTHAUS, AUST. MOBILE TELECOMMUNICATIONS ASSOC: It's for the scientist to use funds to investigate these subjects. They are very expert at doing so. It's a very complex area. So this industry is responsibly contributing but in no way influences the outcome of the research.
TICKY FULLERTON: Epidemiologist Deborah Davis says industry research has shown that the radiation penetrates the brain of a child more deeply than an adult.
PROFESSOR DEVRA DAVIS: Should we insist, we won't act until we have proof of sick or dead kids before acting? I don't think so, and neither does the European parliament.
TICKY FULLERTON: In September the European parliament voted 522 to 16 to recommend tighter safety standards for mobiles. Five countries have now warned their citizens about the dangers of mobile phones around children - even Finland, where Nokia makes up a third of the Stock Exchange.
There are other players sounding the alarm. In Canberra, neurosurgeon Dr Vini Khurana deals with tumours day to day.
In March last year he made headlines with his review of research. He found that 10 years of mobile use doubles the risk of brain cancer on the same side of the head the mobile is used. He later appeared on Larry King in the US.
VINI KHURANA, NEUROSURGEON (archival footage, 'Larry King', 2008): Just Because we don't know the mechanism or the link, at a molecular level, between how cell phones may generate the milieu at a molecular level that results in a brain tumour does not mean that there is no mechanism. There's no known mechanism, but not necessarily no mechanism. And I'd like to point you to the long term data that's coming out of the Interphone studies.
TICKY FULLERTON: What's your reaction to Vini Khurana's research paper from last year?
RODNEY CROFT: Look, I really don't think it's a good research paper scientifically. There are many limitations with that, and I don't think the conclusion that he reached make any sense.
TICKY FULLERTON: If that paper was peer reviewed favourably by respectable scientists, would you change your view?
RODNEY CROFT: By respectable scientists, yes. There is certainly different levels of peer review.
TICKY FULLERTON: Just this week a peer review of Dr Khurana's research has been published in the international journal 'Surgical Neurology'.
Co-authors include Lennart Hardell and high-profile neurosurgeon Charles Teo.
Dr Teo was asked recently if mobiles had anything to do with the onslaught of brain tumours.
DR CHARLES TEO, NEUROSURGEON: In my view, yes, but not scientifically, no. I think the scariest thing is that we know that when you give radiation for cancer to the brain, you can develop brain cancer from the radiation. So we know that, we know that radiation causes cancer. But it takes about 10 years for it to develop.
TICKY FULLERTON: Elsewhere in the world, eminent scientists have taken very public stands.
Last September, the head of Pittsburgh University's cancer centre put out a memo to 3000 staff warning them about mobiles.
And in France last June, 20 top health professionals used a newspaper to lobby the Government. They were not epidemiologists, but the campaign drew out a clear comment from the then head of the very guarded Interphone group.
LOUIS SLESIN: When the statement came out in the French press saying we should be careful, she endorsed it too. Now, who - is there anybody more central to this than Elizabeth Cardis?
TICKY FULLERTON: So what does the Australian Government make of all this?
DR COLIN ROY, AUST RADIATION PROTECTION NUCLEAR SAFETY AGENCY: There's no real evidence, no convincing evidence that there's any adverse effects from mobile phone exposure. We don't receive here a lot of express concerns about mobile phones, and I think this is because people can take control. You know, it's up to them how they use that phone.
TICKY FULLERTON: For those anxious, the Department website advises shorter calls and using a hands free and a mobile without a built in antenna.
But the website description of Interphone research had a curious omission; it said,"... for prolonged mobile use, there were reports of a small association with the benign tumour, acoustic neuroma, but did not mention the nasty one, gloom.
DR COLIN ROY: That is an emission if it doesn't. Certainly in our briefings and that, we keep the Government and the Ministers up to date with the latest findings from Interphone.
TICKY FULLERTON: After Lateline pointed out the emission, the website was updated.
Besides what the public can do, changes could also be made to the radiation level coming out of a mobile phone, called the SAR. SAR levels are often buried on company websites, but the industry is required to keep the SAR below two watts a kilo.
Yet if mobile phones are causing brain tumours, they're causing them at this level of exposure. I'm a high user, and the ABC mobile that's been given to me has a SAR of at least twice many others on the market.
I asked the industry peak body if it was worried that making SAR levels more prominent might be admitting a problem.
CHRIS ALTHAUS: No, because there isn't a problem. We go back to the rationale around an SAR reading and of course, again, it comes back to standards that have been set with large safety margins.
TICKY FULLERTON: For Devra Davis, as long as industry holds the purse strings, its influence on research will continue.
PROFESSOR DEVRA DAVIS: And I think the motto for how to do this comes from the movie 'Thank You For Smoking'. 'Thank You For Smoking' was all about how you lobbied promote products that are, shall we say, a little questionable. Products like tobacco, and alcohol, and guns.
TICKY FULLERTON: At the end of the movie, the newest recruit is the mobile phone industry.
(Excerpt of film 'Thank You For Smoking')
CHRIS ALTHAUS: And what we know is that there's no medical, biological or statistical evidence of any adverse health outcome from the use of a mobile phone.
But that's not sufficient to just rule a line on research. 10 years and beyond is now a new dimension of research, and industry supports that approach.
TICKY FULLERTON: Yet in reality, there's little effort into new research. The US National Research Council has called for large population studies into the future, and others for long term high users, which is a lot of us these days.
Do you think the research should be done urgently?
RODNEY CROFT: Well, I wouldn't say urgently. I really think it's more a matter of following up some of the reports out there, which don't seem to fit in to our understanding of science.
LOUIS SLESIN: Here's the killer: there is not a single study on cell phone radiation going on in the United States today. Nothing. There's a big study in the wings, but it hasn't started yet. But if that gets under way, we'll have one study. That's it. Now, with four billion people worldwide using cell phones, could we spend a few dollars finding out whether our children are at risk or not?
TICKY FULLERTON: The powers of the mobile reach into governments and business as well as into our brains.
So, after years of trusting that pressing a mobile to our heads is safe, should the growing dissent now be ringing in our ears.
Ticky Fullerton, Lateline.