Is RF a danger to health? - Part one

By Elizabeth Latham, Journalist
Wednesday, 05 March, 2008

Over the years there have been ongoing concerns, scare stories and many reports on the possible harming effects of RF emissions, particularly in relation to mobile phones. We have also had many reports on the possible hazards from high tension power lines but that is another story.

The survey is the first in a multi-part survey looking at various RF effects including sperm count, interruption of sleep patterns and brain tumours.

Is sleeping with your mobile next to your bed bad for health?

Researchers from the US and Sweden investigated whether the electromagnetic fields emitted from mobile phones interrupted sleep. From the 68 subjects that completed the study, 38 were symptomatic (had self-reported symptoms) and 33 reported no symptoms.

Common symptoms reported included: headaches, dizziness, pain in the ear region, cognitive impairments, concentration problems, memory problems and disturbed sleep.

"The outcome variables in the project were not only symptoms but sleep cognitive functions, blood chemistry that could be correlated to symptoms, heart rate and heart rate variability," researchers Bengt B Arnetz and Dr Wiholm explained.

"The model we used was to investigate possible differences between exposure (radiofrequency) and sham (no exposure on) and also to study whether there were any differences between the two groups: symptomatic and non-symptomatic."

The study was a 'double blind design' meaning that neither the subjects nor the operating project team knew when the subjects were exposed to sham or real RF fields.

All the subjects participated in three sessions. The first was a habituation session meaning that the subjects got familiar with the testing procedures and received no exposure. During the second and third sessions the subjects were randomly exposed to RF.

The researchers claimed four major findings after the subjects had been exposed to mobile phone electromagentic fields for about three hours:

  • It took longer for the subjects to reach deep sleep (sleep stage 3), which indicates less recovery from that sleep, compared with sham exposure;
  • The subjects spent less time in deep sleep (sleep stage 4). Stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle are considered the most important for recovery with current awareness of the function of sleep.
  • The subjects reported more headaches after exposure, especially those who usually did not attribute symptoms from regular use of the mobile phones.
  • Subjects became cognitively more alert after exposure. They learned faster; this was especially true for subjects that traditionally had symptoms when they used the mobile phones in everyday life.

The Swedish study was conducted in a laboratory environment. According to Arnetz and Wiholm, the study can be replicated anywhere in the world using the same conditions. However, they explain that it is not possible to speculate on the implications for Australia because the mobile phone symptom picture is complex.

"However, the main outcome of the study, that sleep is affected, should hold true anywhere with similar GSM exposure conditions, not just in Sweden," Arnetz and Wiholm said.

They are considering carrying out more studies in the future focusing on the exact brain mechanisms resulting from their findings. They are also interested in focusing more on adolescents and younger people where the nervous system is less mature.

"The conclusion is that there are some biological and cognitive effects due to RF exposure during the conditions in the study. Whether this is a health hazard or not can not be determined from this study," Arnetz and Wiholm said.

Arnetz and Wiholm noted that using a hands-free headset and moving the phone further from the head would reduce energy exposure drastically.

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