According to Ahonen, the strongest research evidence now concerns the effects of radio frequency (RF) radiation on fertility. He says that the research – conducted at the Cleveland Clinic in the United States and elsewhere – reveals that many men with low sperm counts have something in common: they use their mobile phones a lot.
“Men often keep their mobile devices in their trouser pockets with the Bluetooth and wireless data transfer switched on,” Ahonen says.
“User manuals provided by mobile phone manufacturers inform people not to keep the phones close to their bodies. However, few people read those instructions.”
For the past twenty years, Ahonen has worked on topics related to educational technology and mobile learning. He cooperates with Tarmo Koppel’s research group based at Tallinn University of Technology, and together they have researched the risk management of mobile technology.
Ahonen writes on this topic and gives frequent lectures. He is also a partner in a radiation safety company.
Sum total of environmental factors
Ahonen and his colleagues have measured the RF radiation emitted by mobile phones in different environments.
“Our measurement device really shows how much of an effect being even a small distance from the device can have on the amount of radiation,” Ahonen says.
For example, Wi-Fi – the wireless local area network technology – has a huge difference in peak RF radiation values depending on whether the Wi-Fi router is kept on top of the desk at work or at a distance of 3–5 metres.
Research into the effects of radiation is made more difficult due to the many environmental factors in play. Besides mobile phones, RF radiation is emitted by other devices, such as wireless USB modems, smart meters and mobile phone base stations. Power lines and underfloor heating, for example, also create low frequency magnetic fields.
To make matters more complicated, the human body is also affected by chemicals, heavy metals and nanotechnology.
“The medley of environmental factors keeps growing. The challenge is to discern what causes what, and what the combined effect of all the environmental factors is,” Ahonen says.
“For example, there are studies that indicate that chemicals and RF radiation can readily react with one another to increase the total impact on humans.”
Ahonen’s latest project, which investigates the effect of environmental factors on ADHD and autism, is funded by the Kone Foundation.
“The increase of these diseases cannot only be explained by hereditary reasons. We must also pay attention to the environmental factors.”
RF radiation effects studied
The effects of non-ionising radiation – including RF radiation and ELF (Extremely Low Frequency) magnetic and electric fields – are currently being debated, particularly in France and Russia.
“There is intense debate in France on the irradiation of children and whether it is justified. Some cities in France have set low guidance levels on children’s exposure to RF radiation from mobile phone base stations, and that recommended level can be even a thousand times lower than those given by the official ICNIRP guideline, the only guideline where thermal effects are actually considered,” Ahonen says.
According to Ahonen, the longest research tradition on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields can be found in Russia. There are also strict warnings about children’s mobile phone use in Russia.
“Russia’s radiation safety authorities have also issued recommendations on Wi-Fi devices and said that they should not be installed in day care or primary schools.”
The prevalent idea is that electromagnetic fields only cause warming of tissues. The website of STUK – the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland – states that while it has not been possible to unambiguously conclude that mobile phones cause health hazards based on the current research results, it would still be good to limit children’s mobile phone use.
STUK is coordinating the Cosmos follow-up study investigating the possible health effects of mobile phone use, which is conducted on an initiative of the World Health Organization. Finns are also involved in the international GERoNiMO project, which researches the health effects of electromagnetic fields.
Towards a new research paradigm?
Ahonen says that researching electromagnetic radiation and discussing its risks is a difficult subject, at least in Finland, where the debate on this issue has yet to even begin properly. He says that researchers feel under pressure because the results can be embarrassing for the companies that finance the research.
Ahonen has been involved in a lot of international research collaboration. He would also like to see more open-mindedness and interdisciplinary cooperation.
According to Ahonen, a paradigmatic change in both medicine and engineering would be possible if the health risks related to mobile technologies were admitted.
Medical scientists would need to rethink what causes diseases and how they could be diagnosed, treated and prevented. Engineers would have to reconsider what the safe radiation emission threshold levels of the devices are, and whether it makes sense to finance technologies that are harmful to the human body.
“These are huge questions from the points of view of our national economy and life itself. This is why the issue is so contested.”
Limit your own risk
You can reduce your exposure to the radiation caused by mobile devices by increasing your distance from them and reducing the length of time you are exposed.
Ahonen recommends that you should switch off all extra transmitters: mobile data transfer, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
“When you do this, your mobile phone is a calmer device. It still connects to the base station, but this happens less frequently, maybe once every hour or half-hour.”
You should not carry your mobile phone on your body, but in a bag, for example, and it should be switched off at night. You should also keep the mobile phone about an inch or two centimetres from your head when you speak. In addition, you should make calls using the loudspeaker or (air-tube) handsfree and keep your calls short.
A wired Ethernet connection is safer than Wi-Fi, and a desktop computer emits less RF radiation than a portable computer, such as a laptop or tablet.
Ahonen also advises that children should be taught to switch their phones to flight mode when they start playing games. When the phone is in flight mode, all extra transmitters in the phone are switched off.
“A great number of games try to update scores on the internet while you are playing. The device is thus connected to the internet throughout gameplay, even though the game itself does not require this.”
Ahonen doesn’t want to forbid children from playing games or using mobile devices, but attention should be paid to their safe use at school and during free time.
“For example, many children and young people use the WhatsApp instant messaging service. This means that the smartphone or mobile phone transmits and receives information all the time.”
Ahonen’s own two children, who are ten and fourteen, can practise using mobile devices and play with them, but his older child only got his own phone about a year ago and the younger child doesn’t have her own mobile yet.
“They have had a hard childhood,” Ahonen laughs.
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Pictures: Jonne Renvall
Translation: Laura Tohka