Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

COSMOS officially launched in UK

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COSMOS, a major five-country European study into the long-term effects of mobile phone usage, was launched in the UK yesterday. Over the course of the next two weeks, some 2.4m people in the UK will be invited to take part in the initial stages of the study, via an online questionnaire. The other participant countries are Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands.

The commencement of the research in the UK is the responsibility of the UK’s Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, itself set up following the publication of the Stewart Report into mobile phone use in May 2000. The Stewart Report concluded that, while exposure to radiofrequency emissions from handsets and mobile base stations at levels below the existing guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population, there was a need for a ‘substantial research programme’ into the isses.

The most recent MTHR report, published in 2007 (full report; press release), found no association between short-term mobile phone use and brain cancer, or evidence that brain function was affected either by mobile phone signals or by TETRA (high speed, high frequency communications networks used by the emergency services), and reported that there was no need for further research in this area. However, the report did acknowledge that there were ‘significant uncertainties’ as regards more long-term exposure, since available studies were based on very few people who had used their phones for ten years or more, and that these could ‘only be resolved by monitoring the health of a large cohort of phone users over a long period of time’. At the same time, cancers rarely show up as quickly as within ten years.

Consequently, the COSMOS research is a part of progressing this aim via a 20-30 year study of the mobile phone usage and health of 200,000 adults across Europe, 90,000 of which will be selected from network operator subscriber lists in the UK, for which funding has so far been made available for the first five years (£3.1m).  The study will focus on the risk of cancers, benign tumors and neurological and cerebro-vascular diseases, as well as changes in the occurrence of specific symptoms over time, such as headache and sleep disorders.

The number of mobile phones has increased dramatically in the decade since the Stewart report: then, there were 25m phones in operation (a market penetration rate of about 40%) while currently, according to Ofcom, there are 76.8m mobile phone subscriptions (a total of 1.26 connections per UK inhabitant) (Figure 4.42). Despite the increasing use of smartphones and mobile handsets in general as devices for a range of uses other than talking to people, mobile volume call minutes continue to grow sharply, as the following figure shows:

Source: Ofcom Communications Market Report 2009, Figure 4.71

At current levels of usage, we spend one day per year (24 hours), for each connection that exists, calling someone on a mobile phone. Given the penetration rate in the UK, each one of us actually spends more than 30 hours a year talking on the mobile. These levels of usage are unlikely to drop – smartphones add functionality without replacing the existing, and evidently expanding, need to call people on the hoof.

The study will thus make an essential contribution to filling important gaps in our knowledge about the effects of mobile phone usage in the long-term. As the COSMOS researchers say, there is no evidence that mobiles present any dangers to health – but we don’t know that they don’t. An initial report is expected in 2020 – perhaps an auspicious date for generating a vision as to what the overall conclusions at the end of the project might conceivably look like.

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Written by Calvin

23/04/2010 at 2:06 pm

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