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Wireless world

May 17, 2011

European body issues non-binding recommendation on health risks, stirring up a slumbering debate. Despite no conclusive proof that mobile phones and WiFi networks are harmful, Strasbourg-based group calls for caution.

Little girl with a cell phone
Health and electromagnetic fields still need study, some sayImage: picture alliance/Dinodia Photo Library

In a new report issued earlier this month, a Council of Europe panel has recommended banning mobile phones and WiFi in schools.

Citing their "potentially harmful" effects on humans - especially on young and still-developing brains - a Council of Europe draft resolution has recommended taking more precautions against electromagnetic fields on school grounds.

Radical recommendations

Despite a lack of scientific proof that electromagnetic fields are harmful to human health, the Council urged governments to take a "precautionary" approach to the matter.

"Waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof can lead to very high health and economic costs, as was the case in the past with asbestos, leaded petrol and tobacco," the report said, which was carried out by the Council's Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs.

baby with cell phone
Ever younger children are using mobile phonesImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

The Council of Europe represents 47 European nations, and includes nearly every country in continental Europe, and also includes Russia, Turkey, and other countries along the Caspian Sea, including Azerbaijan and Armenia. While its recommendations are often taken into consideration by European countries, it is not part of the European Union, and it is not a lawmaking body.

The Council's report, led by Jean Huss, a Green Party MP from Luxembourg, recommends lowering the currently acceptable "threshold values" of electromagnetic radiation, establishing thresholds for lifetime exposure, and - most attention-getting - banning mobile phones and wireless networks in schools. This reflected the committee's particular concerns about the effects of cell-phones on young and developing brains.

Furthermore, it called for improved labelling of products or areas with electromagnetic fields, and for more information campaigns on the health risks associated with mobile phone towers and WiFi.

Inconclusive evidence

Currently, scientific data on the potential effects of electromagnetic radiation on health is inconclusive at best. Major studies - including a 20-year Danish study of cellphone users and the World Health Organization's much-debated Interphone study if cell-phone users in 13 countries - have failed to establish a link between the use of wireless devices and increased health risks, including a risk of cancer.

Still, there is a general sense of malaise around the subject.

The Council of Europe report raises the concern that too much wireless exposure could affect sleep and cognitive ability, even if they aren't cancer-causing. Further, a report published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association raised more than a few eyebrows when it concluded that talking on a cell phone altered brain activity, raising the glucose metabolism.

Health officials throughout Europe have already issued directives to consumers urging them to keep their phones on speaker mode or use a wired headset when possible, in order to reduce the amount of cell-phone radiation close to the brain.

a back pocket with phone in it
For many people, smartphones are a permanent accessoryImage: DW/ Ella Volodina

However, tech industry insiders slammed the new recommendation by the Council of Europe. In a statement, the GSM Association called it "unbalanced" and "not scientific."

"It ignores the conclusions of the many authoritative reviews who have found that present safety recommendations provide protection for all persons," the organization said.

'Luddite morons' ?

American tech journalist and blogger Sylvie Barak reflected the general tone of much of the tech community's dismissal of the recommendation, on Tuesday, when she wrote on Twitter: "Ok, Europe, I know you don't give a toss what I think, but your parliament are a bunch of Luddite morons."

However, some European health watchdogs applauded the resolution, including the UK-based electromagnetic-field watchdog group Powerwatch.

"It is long past the time when governments all around Europe should have started being more precautionary about these issues," wrote the organization on its website. "The suggestions here . . . will meet with great opposition not only from the industry, but also from governments who now receive large annual tax incomes from wireless devices, especially mobile phone use. This has really thrown down a gauntlet."

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Cyrus Farivar