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Mobile Phone Risks -

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Mobile Phone Risks

Can mobile phones cause cancer? To find out, Mark Horstman sees how phones are tested, watches
brain surgery, and peers very closely at some damaged sperm.

TRANSCRIPT

Narration

Neurosurgeon, Kate Drummond is an expert on brain cancers, how they grow and how to get rid of
them. She's performed thousands of operations like this one.

Assoc Prof Kate Drummond

This morning I'll be removing a brain tumour in a patient who has breast cancer and the cancer has
moved to her brain.

Mark Horstman

It's hard to imagine anything quite as invasive as brain surgery.

Narration

And increasingly, Kate's patients want to know if their brain tumour is the result of using a
mobile phone.

Assoc Prof Kate Drummond

It's in the media all the time and they ask and I tell them that I don't think that there's any
evidence that, that mobile phones have caused their, their cancer.

Narration

But not all neurosurgeons agree.

Dr Charlie Teo

The incidence of brain tumours in this area here called the insular is increasing and an increasing
frequency and younger people. I mean, that's pretty scary.

Narration

Debate has been raging since mobile phones were large enough to need wheels.

Man

Don't put the antenna right against your head.

Man

The worst aspect of mobile phones is that they probably interrupt my meal in restaurants.

Narration

After nearly twenty years in use, they're now so common that if mobiles were dangerous, you'd
expect severe health impacts to be widespread.

Mark Horstman

The latest science says there's a possible link between mobile phone use and brain cancer, but what
do we really need to know to answer that question once and for all?

Dr Joachim Schuz

One of the ways actually to at least see the range of possibilities is to monitor the incidence
rates of brain tumours in the population and by doing this we can actually rule out that there's a
large risk.

Narration

To find out if there's any risk, a large study called Interphone examined the history of mobile
phone use across thirteen countries by fourteen thousand people, half with tumours and half
without. It focused on tumours found in the four types of tissues that most absorb radio waves from
mobile phones.

Dr Joachim Schuz

Overall we didn't see a relationship between mobile phone use and brain tumour risk. So in short
term users of mobile phones, we didn't see any association.

Narration

But they did find an increased cancer risk in the five percent who were the heaviest users - people
on their mobile for more than half an hour every day, for ten years or more.

Dr Joachim Schuz

By the end, what we can only say is that we see the statistical association but we don't know
whether it represents a causal effect or not.

Narration

Even so, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, listed radiation from mobile phones as a
possible human carcinogen. But, the statistics aren't strong enough to convince Kate.

Assoc Prof Kate Drummond

You've got to remember that mobile phones is in the same category of possibly causing cancer as
pickled vegetables and coffee. We're not spending a lot of time researching that and cancer. We
look down the microscope and say okay this is a brain cancer but if we look into the genetics of
that tumour, we know that it's actually many different diseases and so research into defining those
genetics and then looking for therapies that target those specific gene abnormalities I think is
much more important.

Narration

Electromagnetic energy powers our planet and surrounds our lives. We all swim in a sea of energy
waves, both natural and manmade. We're familiar with the dangers of exposure to high frequency
ionizing radiation from nuclear reactions but what are radio waves at the lower frequency end of
the electromagnetic spectrum?

Man

Radio waves from many programs are being picked up by your radio all the time.

Narration

After all, using radio frequencies to transmit and receive information is nothing new. What is new,
is our unnaturally close relationship with mobile phones.

Lindsay Martin

It's probably only in the last fifteen years that billions of people have been putting a low
powered transmitter right next to their head.

Narration

Lindsay Martin measures radiation from mobile phone base stations to check their emission levels
are in line with what the companies predict.

Lindsay Martin

Well here we can see the Optus and the Vodafone signals. A mobile phone base station would
typically be something like twenty Watts per transmitter. Your mobile phone handset is typically
around about a quarter of a Watt when it's at full power and often it might be running at a
hundredth of that. So we might be talking about a thousandth of a Watt.

Mark Horstman

But the issue of course is the proximity to your head?

Lindsay Martin

When the phone's working at full power, it certainly will give you a lot more exposure, even
probably just held in your hand, than will a base station.

Narration

Energy intensity drops dramatically with distance, so energy from even a low power transmitter is
little reduced when pressed tight against your ear.

Measuring how much gets inside your body is the job of this laboratory, established jointly by
Telstra and the Swinburne University of Technology.

Prof Andrew Wood

What we're doing in here mainly is looking at what's called radio frequency dissymmetry and that is
to try and work out the amount of energy that gets absorbed by particular parts of the body.

Narration

Each type of phone is tested for its specific absorption rate or SAR for short. It's a measure of
how much energy is absorbed by each kilogram of tissue.

Prof Andrew Wood

Down here we've got a mobile phone that's emitting radio frequency which is going into here. This
is a representation of the head. It's filled with some solution that represents brain - it's got
the same sort of electrical properties - and this is a probe which lowers down inside the simulated
brain. I can move that to any point inside the head and what it does is it finds the places where
the most energy is being absorbed.

Narration

Measuring energy absorption by the body is one thing, figuring out what effects it has on the cells
is another, and there is no accepted mechanism to explain how phones could cause cancer.

Mark Horstman

Research in Australia is surprisingly sparse. Here at the University of Newcastle, they're doing
something unique, but they're not looking at brain cells. Here, they're looking at human sperm.

Narration

Geoff De Iuliis is a sperm cell biologist.

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

In a clinical sense, we wanted to see whether there was any DNA damage in the sperm as a
consequence of the radiation.

Mark Horstman

If we're interested in what mobile phone radiation does to the brain, why are you looking at sperm?

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

Yeah well we, we started out looking at, trying to work out the mechanisms by which the radiation
affects biology and sperm cells are quite a good model for that.

Narration

Sperm cells are basically a clump of DNA with a small outboard motor. They're perfect for these
experiments because any results don't get confused by other cell types.

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

In our experiments we're irradiating purified cells in a wave guide and we're doing this for
sixteen hours, so we run it over night and at various powers.

Narration

In the control sample with no exposure to electromagnetic radiation, the sperm are healthy and
swimming vigorously.

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

You can see that they're quite happy and, and swimming along.

Mark Horstman

Very fresh.

Narration

And then Geoff shows me the sperm that have been zapped over night with more than ten times the
maximum power output of a mobile phone.

Mark Horstman

Well that's dramatic.

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

So ...

Mark Horstman

It looks apocalyptic for the sperm.

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

Yeah so as you can see there's still a couple that are hanging on there.

Mark Horstman

Yeah.

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

But most of them have lost their motility after they've been irradiated.

Narration

We've seen no radiation, radiation at about thirty Watts per kilogram. Now what does the maximum
phone radiation of two Watts per kilogram do?

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

As you can see there there's maybe a slight decrease of motility but a lot of them are, are still
quite happy.

Mark Horstman

So basically from this you're finding that if you put a mobile phone in talk mode next to sperm for
sixteen hours, you won't see much effect?

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

There's no real effect on motility yeah.

Narration

The cells are then assayed to see how their chemistry is changed. What Geoff has discovered is that
increasing doses of irradiation eventually stops sperm in their tracks by creating chemical
imbalances in the cells.

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

The whole mechanism is that the radiation affects the cell's mitochondria. Those mitochondria will
generate these reactive oxygen species, tipping the cell into a state of oxidative stress, then
this state of oxidative stress will then oxidize the membranes which will then lead to your
motility loss.

Narration

Geoff cautions that animal testing is needed to see if this stress happens in other cell types like
the brain, but just finding a mechanism is a key to the puzzle.

Dr Geoff De Iuliis

You know from what I've seen, I think the potential that is there for radiation to affect biology.
Certainly we've, we've shown that. What that means for me and you, you know, I just can't say.

Prof Andrew Wood

It may be that science cannot in fact deliver a clear answer at all and that people may just have
to live with the uncertainty that exists.

Mark Horstman

We all worry about mobile phones frying our brains, but it doesn't seem to stop us using them.
Science may yet find a definitive link between brain cancer and mobile phones but in the meantime,
I'm just holding mine a little further away from my head.

G'day. How are you?