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Monday, 4 July 2011
Page: 7541

Ms LIVERMORE (Capricornia) (20:06): I am pleased to join with other members in speaking on the member for Robertson's motion here tonight and commend her for bringing the matter before the parliament. Members could not have missed the media stories earlier this month that reported the conclusions reached by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that radio frequency electromagnetic fields—that is, the ones that power mobile phones—should be classified as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans'.

I know that I was in the Parliament House gym with many other members and senators, with the early morning news on in the background, and everyone stopped to listen just that bit harder to what was being said. And no wonder, when you think of how much all of us here rely on our mobile phones to do our jobs and to organise our lives. It is no different for our constituents who are the owners of Australia's share of the five billion mobile phones in Australia around the world. Any suggestion that mobile phone use could be dangerous to our health was sure to send shockwaves not just through Parliament House but across the country.

This motion is in no way intended to hype up or sensationalise the findings of the IARC but rather to assess exactly what this research means and what our response here in Australia should properly be. The first thing to note is that the evidence about links between mobile phone use and cancer is not conclusive. That was clear to me when I started doing some research for this speech. Every reference to a study supporting a link between mobile phones and cancer was matched by another study rejecting such a link.

There is no doubt, however, that the widespread use of mobile phones means that research into the effects of such long-term exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields has to be ongoing and deserves the attention of national and international health agencies. That is what has happened here. The International Agency for Research on Cancer is a specialised agency within the World Health Organisation. Its mission, among other things, is to coordinate and conduct research on the causes of human cancer and the mechanisms of carcinogenesis.

In this case, a 31-member IARC working group made up of expert scientists from 14 countries deliberated over eight days in May this year, reviewing a large body of peer reviewed research into the effects of radio frequency electromagnetic fields. Those studies were mainly epidemiological studies of glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer which was found to occur more frequently in heavy users of mobile phones. It was following that meeting that the IARC announced their finding that those radio frequency electromagnetic fields could correctly be classified as a 2B carcinogen. In other words, it is possibly carcinogenic to humans. The category has also been described as being used when a causal association is considered credible but when other factors cannot be ruled out with reasonable confidence. By contrast, tobacco and solar radiation are in the group 1 classification with proven causal links to cancer in humans. Clearly there needs to be more research in this area to come up with more conclusive evidence one way or another. In the meantime, it makes sense for government and relevant health and scientific agencies to take a precautionary and proactive approach to something that has been identified as a possible risk. That has certainly been the reaction of ARPANSA, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. ARPANSA has said that it will consider the implications of the IARC announcement and the underlying scientific evidence and, if necessary, review the current standards and other means of protecting the public. All Australians would be reassured to know that ARPANSA has indicated an open-minded and proactive approach on this important issue of public safety.

ARPANSA has also been amongst a number of well-respected people and organisations, including the Cancer Council and neurosurgeon Dr Charlie Teo, urging people to take sensible and practical steps to reduce their exposure to the fields powering mobile phones. The advice from the World Health Organisation is that the power and therefore radiofrequency exposure to a user falls off rapidly with increasing distance from the handset. A person using a mobile phone 30 to 40 centimetres away from their body when texting or talking hands-free will have a much lower exposure than someone holding a handset against their head. The simple message from these organisations and from tonight's motion is: why take the risk? We should be doing everything we can to encourage safe and sensible mobile use and, very importantly, encouraging our kids to do the same, by texting, favouring landline use, using hands-free wherever we can and limiting call time, until we have more certainty about the true nature of possible health risks from mobile phones.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs D'Ath ): Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.