By Nic Fleming
August 31, 2007
Just five minutes of exposure to mobile phone emissions can trigger changes that occur during cancer development, according to new research.
Scientists found mobile signals can activate cell division – central to the growth of tumours - even at very low power levels.
Government guidance that mobile phone use is safe is based on the mainstream scientific assumption that electromagnetic radiation from devices such as mobiles could only cause health hazards as a result of heating.
The new research, highlighted in this week’s New Scientist, supports the position of some researchers who argue handsets can trigger potentially harmful changes to cells irrespective of temperature changes.
However other scientists said cell division is a natural process that occurs constantly in the body and does not usually signify health hazards.
Graham Philips, of the campaign group Powerwatch, said: "Current safety guidelines assume health effects from mobiles can only occur when significant heating of body tissue occurs.
"This study shows biological changes in response to low level mobile phone radiation - something that could potentially have implications for health.
"Further research is required, however guidance based purely on thermal effects is clearly out of date."
Prof Rony Seger, a cancer researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and colleagues exposed rat and human cells to electromagnetic radiation at a similar frequency to that emitted by mobiles. The power of the signal was around 1/10th of that from a mobile.
After just five minutes the researchers identified the production of extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK1/2) – natural chemicals that stimulate cell division and growth.
Cancers develop when the body is unable to prevent excessive growth and division of cells in the wrong place.
Prof Seger said: "The real significance of our findings is that cells are not inert to non-thermal mobile phone radiation.
"We used radiation power levels that were around 1/10th of those produced by a normal mobile. The changes we observed were clearly not caused by heating."
The UK has adopted international safety standards for electromagnetic radiation set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNRP).
These state the amount of energy absorbed from an electric field or radio wave cannot exceed two watts per kilogram (W/kg) when averaged over 10 grams of tissue.
Almost all mobile phone emit less that than one W/kg.
Other scientists pointed out cell division occurs naturally as tissue grows or rejuvenates within the body, and that the preliminary study did not prove any health effects.
Dr Simon Cook, a biochemist at the Babraham Institute near Cambridge, said: "The reason people are intrigued by this is this pathway is frequently activated in cancer.
"The research is certainly interesting, however they saw a very transient activation of this pathway, which we know is not sufficient to promote cell division.
"In cancer you see a much stronger, persistent and sustained activation and even this is just one of many changes required for cancer development."
Dr Simon Arthur, from the University of Dundee, said: "The ERK1/2 pathway can be turned on by a huge variety of different things such as natural compounds produced by the body that regulate cell growth, and various forms of environmental and chemical stress.
"The research shows the effect on cells in culture in the tightly controlled laboratory conditions, rather than cells in a person or animal.
"In a living person there are lots of different processes occurring at the same time, so we do not know whether the signal from radio waves would produce a similar measureable effect."
The Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR), an £8.4 million Government and industry-funded investigation into the potential health dangers of mobiles launched in 2001, is expected to publish its final report next month.