Are mobile phones the new cigarettes? Will we discover that the telecommunication industry, like the tobacco industry, dismissed evidence that their product can kill us?
70 years ago, most Australians smoked. When studies established irrefutable evidence that cigarette smoking was the leading cause of lung cancer, the tobacco industry and its supporters denied the evidence. Tobacco companies devoted enormous resources to discrediting these studies. For many years, smokers saw no reason to quit.
Today, most Australians own a mobile phone. As we increasingly use our mobiles, evidence trickles in about their potential for negative physical, psychological and financial consequences. These studies rarely make a blip on the radar.
While some may feel peaceful when our phones are off the hook, many are hooked. Although mobile phone addiction has not yet been formally recognised as a diagnosable condition, the term 'no mobile phone phobia' – dubbed "nomophobia" – has been coined.
Nomophobia describes people who feel anxious when their mobile's batteries are flat or there is no network coverage. They may panic when they misplace, lose or break their mobile phone, or drop it in the toilet. The most common symptoms of nomophobia include preoccupation with a mobile phone, including excessive time or money spent on it. Other symptoms include adverse effects on relationships, such as bringing a mobile phone to bed with a lover. Addicts may also use their mobile phone in socially inappropriate ways, such as replying to a text mid-conversation. They may also use their phone in physically dangerous situations such as texting while driving a car or using machinery.
Data from recent studies suggest that some mobile phone users exhibit serious problematic behaviours similar to substance use disorders or pathological gambling. Compulsively checking mobile phones for texts, emails, tweets and Facebook updates has been compared with mindlessly playing the pokies. We certainly gamble with our lives when we text and drive.
Excessive use of mobile phones may also result in financial problems. Mobile phone bill shock, most commonly after an overseas holiday, has driven some users into serious debt. Telecommunications service providers are now required to send alert notifications to help customers monitor their usage.
Mobile phones are also wreaking havoc on our neck and shoulders as we constantly peer downwards to read our phones. Some texters have developed repetitive strain injury (RSI) of the thumb. Others complain of headaches and blurred vision from staring for hours at a small screen.
There is also the question of cancer, specifically brain cancer. The World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer describe mobile phones as a potential carcinogen, though evidence is currently inconclusive. Nonetheless, a number of studies show a possible relationship between mobile phone use and brain cancers, particularly gliomas, acoustic neuromas and parotid gland tumours.
There is concern that children may be more vulnerable to any effects due to their developing nervous systems, thinner skulls and increased cumulative exposure over their lifetime. The World Health Organisation has ranked the effects of mobile phones on children and adolescents as a "highest priority research need". To date have been two studies focusing on childhood cancers and mobile phone use. One has reported no association; the other, Study of cognition, adolescents and mobile phones (SCAMP) is ongoing.
The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association adamantly rejects any claim that low-energy radiation from mobile phones has any detrimental health effects. However, Telstra sent a text last year to inform customers how they could reduce their exposure to mobile phone radiation. This sent a mixed message.
Research on mobile phones is in its infancy so the possibility of adverse health effects cannot be ruled out. Researchers have not yet examined the long-term effects of mobile phone use. In the past 20 years, most studies have compared the mobile phone use of people who have cancer with those who don't. These studies rely on people remembering how often and for how long they used their mobile phone in the past.
The largest case-control study to date is the INTERPHONE study. It included over 5,000 people with head and neck cancer from 13 countries, including Australia. Like research funded by the tobacco industry, The INTERPHONE study claimed complete scientific independence despite receiving partial funding from the telecommunication industry.
A friend was a participant in the INTERPHONE study. A researcher interviewed her soon after the removal of her brain tumour. She was asked the brand, model, shape, size and level of radioactivity of her first mobile phone and how often she used it. Not surprisingly, she could not remember. Who could?
Several scientific journals no longer publish potentially biased studies that are funded by the tobacco industry. These same standards should apply to research paid for by the telecommunication industry. We need independent research so that we can all know the risks when we pick up our phone.