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back to article Mobile-mast danger is all in your head

Researchers investigating the health effects of mobile phone masts have found that sufferers report symptoms regardless of whether the equipment is actually on or off. The academic investigators were led by Professor Elaine Fox of the University of Essex, and their report (pdf) was published by Environmental Health Perspectives …

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The Columbus & Fulton argument deployed

From the bbc.co.uk story: ...But Mast Sanity declared "history has shown that many now commonly accepted physical conditions were initially dismissed as psychological"...

I love it when a group titled 'Mast Sanity' deploys the Columbus & Fulton argument.

In the words of Carl Sagan: "The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

I suspect that maybe Bozo the Clown is a paid-up member of 'Mast Sanity'.

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Mind your head

"Mobile-mast danger is all in your head" - yes, that's exactly what the action groups are claiming !!

Surely the title should read "Mobile-mast danger is all in your mind".

Now that's a different matter.

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legal action

I wonder if there is a law suit in the making here. Let us suppose that a group lobbying about the "dangers" of mobile phone masts makes me so worried about it that I get ill. Would they then be to blame for my illness?

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I ran a similar test with Russian Roulette

I took a group of people and gave them a gun in which I either had or hadn't placed a live round.

When I told members of the group that the gun contained a live round, they were much more wary of it and believed it to be more dangerous.

When neither the instructor nor the participant knew if the gun contained a live round, the results showed no link between the percieved danger factor and the presence of a live round.

From this I concluded that guns containing live rounds are not dangerous.

Spot the deliberate mistake...

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dek

Confused

So does this mean there is no danger if no one reports having any symptoms? Like if I get run over and die but fail to complain then the driver of the car couldn't have been driving dangerously?

But seriously, would the average person who is probably not even aware of the location of local masts even make the connection to symptoms they may be suffering?

Who sponsored the research?

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Anonymous Coward

No doubt believers will claim double blind studies are invalid

That's the mode of homeopathic believers when double blind studies, time after time, show no efficacy of homeopathic remedies above the placebos. The argument, illogical as it is, usually goes along the lines that "believing" the "cause" is present somehow strengthens the argument that the cause and effect are real.

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Interesting discussion

at Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.net

http://www.badscience.net/?p=470

Including the following very heartening statement from Graham Phillips of the Powerwatch website. Who until recently was completely in denial over these studies, and made money by selling <cough>protective devices<cough> to those people who seem to suffer from Electro-sensitivity.

"Of course, the help might be entirely placebo, and in a lot of cases I suspect it is - but for some it might be very real, and I for one would have no idea which is the case.

I will certainly look at making sure we have psychological recommendations for treatment on the Powerwatch website, but beyond that I really cannot say for the time being."

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Anonymous Coward

You failed to fire the gun

Mark,

Your analogy is flawed for a number of reasons, but the largest is that you never produced a physical stimulus by pulling the trigger to produce a real emission from it when fired on a live round. In the mast test, the masts really did emit RF at times and that RF really did reach the subjects, but the subjects failed to elucidate correctly that it was indeed emitting any better than random chance would allow.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Confused

"But seriously, would the average person who is probably not even aware of the location of local masts even make the connection to symptoms they may be suffering?"

No they would not. But you are not dealing with the average person when dealing with people claiming sensitivity to such things. The whole point of doing double blind tests, where neither the researchers nor the subjects know when correct answers as to whether the stimulus was really present until after the data is collected, is to determine whether the sensitivity is real or imagined. Lots of mental disorders, with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) as an example, make sufferers think all sorts of things around them are affecting them. (e.g. obsessing over “germs” everywhere, etc.) On the other hand, allergies are an example of a real hypersensitivity to things that normal people are not sensitive to. Again, the point of double blind experiments such as the one reported here is to delineate between the two situations.

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Bronze badge

In a nutshell

It means that radio waves are not responsible for any of the reported symptoms, so when some muppet looks you in the eye and complains that your wifi is giving them a headache you are well within your rights to administer a restorative blow to their head.

Did they test any of these sufferers for the 'thin skin of brain clinging to the inside of their skull' syndrome?

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Anonymous Coward

Confusion cleared up for Dek

" So does this mean there is no danger if no one reports having any symptoms? Like if I get run over and die but fail to complain then the driver of the car couldn't have been driving dangerously? "

No, it means that if you regularly claim to have been run over by cars, but you turn out to be just as likely to claim to have been run over when there are no cars around as when there are cars around, we can conclude you're talking rubbish, and there is no reason to believe you really have been run over when there are cars around, since you'd say the same even if there weren't.

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Wow, it is amazing how many people don't understand science...

I thought it was self evident. It is suprising in modern days to see we are still not that far from a world run by superstition and fear. Observe, test, conclude people, not the other way around.

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United Skeptics?

Has anyone ever walked under a 137,000 volt power line holding a fluorescent tube?

Medical double blind experiments are about as reliable as tabloid celebrity exclusives or BBC exposees.

During World War 2 I saw many people dive for cover after hearing a V2 "coming" after it had been, it was all in their heads and it certainly did harm!

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Jim

What did the study show?

"A few of the subjects correctly guessed the answer every time, but the report authors said that was to be expected."

So how do the researchers know that the individuals were guessing? Maybe those individuals really knew when the RF was present? Just because the results were within the realms of chance does not mean that it was chance - "Correlation does not imply causation".

Maybe all the study showed is that the majority of people claiming sensitivity were talking cr@p.

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Anonymous Coward

Who funded this?

---

There was an apparent correlation at first between UMTS signals and the sensitive group's reports of "arousal"

---

Um, so they did find some correlation, but wrote it off to fit their conclusion? Who funded this? Verizon and Motorla?

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@Jim Coe

"Has anyone ever walked under a 137,000 volt power line holding a fluorescent tube?"

Yes, and as I'm not a fluorescent tube, only one of us glowed.

As to the study itself, buggerit! There goes my fledgling tinfoil hat business!

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So how do the researchers know that the individuals were guessing?

Presumably as it wasn't always the same people stating that they felt something when the transmitter happened to be on. Otherwise, there would have been a different result, no?

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Was the test determining whether the RF was dangerous, or just detectable?

I have a mobile phone and the cheek nearest the phone always tingles when it is being used, more so in 2G mode than 3G mode, especially if there is a bit of stubble. I also feel my head throbbing a bit when transferring large files via wireless LAN, so much so I leave the room till it is done. The throbbing stops within a few seconds of turning off the transmitter. My Freeview box also gives up when the wireless lan is transmitting a lot, so it's not surprising really I might be able to feel something. So, detectable, undoubtedly, but unsafe, who knows! That's where they need to do the research.

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Science lesson

>There was an apparent correlation at first between UMTS signals and the sensitive >group's reports of "arousal"

"Um, so they did find some correlation, but wrote it off to fit their conclusion? Who funded this? Verizon and Motorla? "[sic]>

I read this as they used a proper random generator to turn off/on the signal generator. A random generator will give a random distribution over a large number of tests, but over a short number of tests may give a sequence like On, On, On, On, Off, On ... . So imagine if the random sequence starts with a sequence of on's while the subjects were still jumpy about being strapped into a seat near the 'evil' cellphone tower - you would get a +ve correlation, but after say 30 - 40 switches of the generator, and a more even mix of off/on, the correlation would go away. Repeating the experiment, you might get a random sequence at the beginning of Off, Off, Off etc and get a -ve correlation (which would actually still be significant if it continued).

Nice thing about science - they publish the results and the methodology. Any anti-cellphone tower group can repeat the experiment if they want or challenge the methodology, but not the results. It is not a conspiracy.

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RE: Was the test determining whether the RF was dangerous, or just detectable?

If you read the article again, you'll find they were determining whether some people who claim they can detect RF can actually detect RF -- I suspect this is because the most vociferous anti-mast people claim to have this ability.

What the study seems to show is that these people cannot "detect" RF any better than could be attributed to chance.

Perhaps you ought to contemplate this result next time you feel the need to leave the room whilst transferring files over your WLAN. You might also wish to think about this study next time you spend any time near to a police car (at traffic lights, for instance), or walking through an area populated with offices.

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To Jim Coe

"During World War 2 I saw many people dive for cover after hearing a V2 "coming" after it had been, it was all in their heads and it certainly did harm!"

Erm, so these people you 'saw' completely missed the explosion of the V2 landing, but heard the V2 'coming' and reacted to that? Clearly...

To Mark Coley:

"So, detectable, undoubtedly, but unsafe, who knows! That's where they need to do the research."

Did you not read the article? The radio waves were *not* detectable by the subjects, so the symptoms are completely unrelated to the presence of radio waves. What 'they' really need to research is how to stop idiots from ignoring facts!

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@ Mark Johnson

"I took a group of people and gave them a gun in which I either had or hadn't placed a live round.

When I told members of the group that the gun contained a live round, they were much more wary of it and believed it to be more dangerous.

When neither the instructor nor the participant knew if the gun contained a live round, the results showed no link between the percieved danger factor and the presence of a live round.

From this I concluded that guns containing live rounds are not dangerous.

Spot the deliberate mistake..."

.. you failed to specify if it was an automatic or revolver.

I Highly recommend anyone interested in russian roulette use an automatic.

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fon

the mind is a strange thing...

I think they did not mention part of the test...

They said that a certain antenna was going to be switched on/off on a schedule - and the subjects then (od course) started reporting thier symptons - even saying "well it may have been switched off, but the feeling lingers!!!

The one thing they did not say, was that antenna was **never** switched on!!!! so you see, the mind created the symptons.....

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Re: Who Funded this?

Funded by the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme - http://www.mthr.org.uk. Not the Telcos.

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Rob
Bronze badge

Quite simple

Some people just have a great need to feel different from anyone else, this just seems to be the latest in a long series littered through history.

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"Not the telcos"

Perhaps you ought to read the final paragraph of the report in The Times:

http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/health/article2141390.ece

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Anonymous Coward

mind over matter

So . . . believing something to be harmful makes it harmful. This is a very patronising argument. Does believing something to be harmless make it harmless? I'm thinking it would be poetic justice if these researchers got brain cancer from their cellphones.

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Well

Whether they're dangerous or not, T-Mobile still knocked £15k off my house price by building one at the bottom of my garden and I can't do a damn thing about it.

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fon

re:mind over matter

Does believing something to be harmless make it harmless? yes it does!! (in the mind, but...)

when Radium/nuclear power was discovered/invented, it thought to be the 'best thing ever' you clould get atomic/radium/nuclear products of many kinds, said to have the 'healing powers' of atomic power!! toothpaste, cream, bracelets, ...

oh how we laughed and cried.....

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Re: Well

Actually I'd say Powerwatch and Mast Sanity are more to blame for the drop in value than the mobile operators.

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@Lloyd

Couldn't you make lemonade by advertising "superb T-Mobile phone reception throughout the house and garden" or something? ;)

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@You failed to fire the gun

My point is simply that just because danger isn't perceptible doesn't mean it is not there. I believe certain elements of the press have used this research to suppprt the belief that phone masts are necessarily safe.

But, of course, I'm sure that's flawed for so many complex and specialised reasons that I could never possibly understand.

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RE: Was the test determining whether the RF was dangerous, or just detectable?

Perhaps I should add that I have spent several years working with MRI scanners, where there is a limit to the amount of RF that can be used to irradiate a person. The amount is based on the heating effect of the RF and the amount of heat that the body's circulation can dissipate. As the wavelengths are similar with MRI and mobile phones, the heating effect will be there too (though undoubtedly much less). The point is there are physiological effects from bombarding people with radiowaves, so it is hardly suprising (to me at least) that I can often detect tingling on my cheek, or I feel a different sensation in my head when transferring large amounts of data over wireless lan. The whole idea of radio is that a changing field in one location can cause a changing field in a conductor at a distant location, so why shouldn't nerve cells occasionally be triggered? As I said, whether it is safe or not is a different issue, but I've no doubt (from personal experience) the RF can be detected.

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It really is a [mental] condition...

One of the previous wireless companies I was employed with occasionally would begin construction in a neighborhood where the residents had complained to city officials about the health dangers. They'd waste their time (and ours) by spending endless hours at city planning and zoning meetings, crying over concerns their children would grow a third eye or cancerous lump in their heads from the supposed affects of the tower's transmissions. Sure enough, within days of the tower being erected, complaints would pour in from the residents. My company began to combat the problem on 2 fronts. The first involved erecting false antennas in proposed areas such as these on buildings that were little more than plywood and paint. The other involved letting the tower and equipment be erected, but leaving it off air (with no power even supplying the site) for up to 3 months, letting the complaints tally up.

We'd then invite them to city meetings where we would show them proof in both documentation that the sites weren't active (even taking pictures of no electric meter installed at the facilities), and showing pictures of the plywood false antennas.

Outrage and much gnashing of teeth by the so-called 'victims', but they were proven crackpots nonetheless.

-g-

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RE: Was the test determining whether the RF was dangerous, or just detectable?

1) Can some "sensitive" people detect RF?

2) Detectable or not, is RF dangerous to people?

The study shows a clear NO to 1) and makes no claims about 2).

Mark, either you are wrong or you are very special. If you want to know which then do a double blind test.

So is RF dangerous?

a) Is the radiation ionizing? No, thank god.

b) How much energy is being emitted? A few kW? Every direction radially, but not much directed up or down (say, a third of a sphere).

c) Could a combination of reflections concentrate it in one place enough to cook you? Possibly, but the likelihood decreases at least with the square of distance from the top of the mast, which is typically 10-15m tall.

One can go and do research into power levels, absorption rates etc. For comparison a 1-bar electric fire gives of 1kW in a direction over about a third of a sphere and you can feel it up to about 5m away but it will cook you 1m away.

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