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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
Section: Science Life
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Published: 09.12.2004, 06:00
Modified: 08.12.2004, 21:59
Research Foundation Mobile Communication
Electromagnetic fields: Study must be designed to deliver unequivocal results

Up until now no scientifically acknowledged field studies exist on the effects of electromagnetic fields associated with cellular phone networks, despite years of discussion and its highly political relevance. ETH Zurich's Research Foundation on Mobile Communication (1) has now acted to find an answer to the question of whether field studies on possible harmful consequences are at all possible.

By Michael Breu

In the meantime, the mobile phone network GSM covers the whole of Switzerland, down to the remotest valley, and over 80 per cent of the population makes use of the advantages of the cellular phone. And development in the industry still continues: the three mobile-phone providers, Swisscom Mobile, Sunrise and Orange, are busy setting up the network for the third generation (UMTS) of cellular phones and have invested heavily in W-LAN and Bluetooth technology. The future, promises Fulvio Caccia, president of ComCom, will bring more efficient networks that will significantly lower the levels of radiation exposure, the so-called electro-smog.

Very few of today's cellular phone base-stations exceed the strict limit of 4 (900 MHz) or 6 (1800 MHz) Volt per metre, respectively. To put this into perspective, we need to recognise that standing near to a cellular phone base-station emitting a field force of 1 V/m for 24 hours, would subject one to a similar dose of radiation as a three-minute telephone call or standing for an hour within a metre of a turned-on cell phone. Nevertheless, large numbers of people are worried that cell phones could have negative effects on their health. This fear is fed by numerous, quasi-scientific, studies describing tumours, migraines and loss of concentration as possible consequences of electro-smog. Bernhard Aufdereggen, member of the Board of Physicians for the Protection of the Environment and practising doctor in Visp for the past 17 years warns: "There are some indications that base-stations do effect health, and we must take this seriously.“ To date, however, no concrete studies that are accepted within the scientific community have been carried out; too many questions on the design of such a study are still open.

Radiation is investigated in the laboratory–for example, by Nokia. large

What does the layperson think?

(mib) The Swiss Research Foundation on Mobile Communication chose four projects last year, which it promoted with funding; another four projects have been concluded in 2003, reports Gregor Dürrenberger in the current Annual Report. Research activities have led to 13 publications, four of which appeared in peer-reviewed journals. The aim of the current projects is to investigate the importance of precautional measures and scientific uncertainties on the risk assessment of the layperson, whether epidemiological studies on possible effects of base-stations on health are feasible, whether electromagnetic fields influence the stability of the human genome and what effects electrosmog has on the circulation of blood in the brain and the volume of blood.


Measuring radiation at the cellular phone base-station. Picture: Nokia. large

At a recent Science Brunch (2), Gregor Dürrenberger of the Research Foundation Mobile Communication, founded by ETH Zurich and the mobile-phone providers Swisscom Mobile, Sunrise and Orange, attempted to promote the discussion by asking the approximately 40 experts present the question: "Are field studies on the health aspect at all possible?“. In order to elucidate the question independently, Georg Neubauer and a team from Seibersdorf Research, a branch of the Austrian Research Center, launched an investigation two years ago. For the first time, Neubauer presented the results of this investigation to a wider audience at the Science Brunch (they were presented to specialists at the 26th Annual Meeting of the Bioelectromagnetic Society in Washington DC at the end of June 2004).

A field study on health was possible, in principle, concludes the electronic engineer from the results. However, in order for any study to deliver clear conclusions, a few parameters in the study design had to be defined accordingly. It was precisely here, though, that the main problem lay: "How can we measure well-being?", asked Neubauer. Can this be done based on EEG and ECG examinations? Or would blood analyses also be necessary? And how should the effects be allotted to the diverse radiation sources? Because, in addition to cellular phones and signal masts, police and amateur radio, as well as beams from radio and TV stations also radiate. For these reasons Georg Neubauer recommends that controlled lab studies are carried out in a first step and later expanded with field studies.

A study has been commissioned by the Research Foundation on Mobile Communication to replicate the study of the Dutch TNO prevention and health agency, which caused quite a stir a year ago (3). The conclusion reached in this study is that electromagnetic fields of the type GSM–in contrast to UMTS–have no consistent effect on cognitive abilities or on well-being.

ETH doctor from wonderland

(mib) With figures made from plastic or wood, claims the Egyptian architect Ibrahim Karim, who studied at ETH Zurich, he could transform bad cellular phone radiation into positive radiation (4). The founder of biogeometry attracted a lot of attention last year in Hemberg, St. Gallen with his "divine designer language“; the press began to refer to him as "Karim from wonderland“ (St.Galler Tagblatt). The background here is that in June 2002 Swisscom Mobile had installed a cell phone mast in the bell tower of a catholic church. Immediately after it was turned on, the collective population began to complain of "vibrating sensations in the head, lethargy, insomnolence, problems with the eyes, feelings of fear or depression, and inexplicable feelings of aggression“ (Beobachter). Karim brought deliverance; he started to place his figures in homes and churches and succeeded in transforming the bad electrosmog to a "harmonic energy field". Karim's biogeometry was descried as nonsense by most scientists, as, for example, by Hansjörg Znoj, professor of psychology in Berne. The methods will now be put under the microscope. ETH Life received confirmation of this from Erika Forster-Vannini, a FDP Federal Councillor of State representing St. Gallen, and president of the "Office of the Ombudsman of Mobile Communication and Environment" at the Science Brunch. There is however, an obstacle to overcome: Ibrahim Karim, who likes to describe himself in the press as "ETH-Doctor of Natural Sciences", resists a scientifically defined study. In particular, he does not want to be questioned by psychologists.

(1) Reseach Foundation Mobile Communication:
(2) Lectures delivered at the first Science Brunch:
(3) ETH Life reported on the TNO study on 29th September 2004:
(4) The author reported on the "Wonder healer from Egypt in June 2004 in the politics magazine "novo“ (No. 70, p. 23): or

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