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Why 3G won't fry your brain just yet

Dutch health study questioned

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A study for the Dutch government which linked UMTS or G3 base stations to complaints about nausea and headaches in people close to them, has caused quite a stir this week, but only in the media.

The actual study (download the PDF here) conducted by the technological research institute TNO is less conclusive. Most reporters forgot to mention that only a very small group of people participated in the double-blind experiment, whereby participants do not know whether they are exposed to 3G base station signals or not.

Indeed, some subjects said they felt tingling sensations, got headaches and felt nauseous. But then again, how would you feel in a shielded semi-anechoic chamber?

The study also suggests that cognitive functions such as memory and response times were boosted. Some people became more alert when were exposed to signals from GSM and UMTS antennae. But thermal effects, or the warming up of body tissue, could play a role here too. Third-generation UMTS networks transmit signals at a higher frequency range.

TNO seems to be aware of its shortcomings: the report says that because of a lack of scientific data "a prediction of reasonable electromagnetic exposure is not possible". And that the constant presence of the base station antennas during the measurements "might invite the subjects to malinger the results". And that the "dimension of changes observed" is relatively small.

TNO also admits that it not possible to speculate on "a scientifically justified hypothesis to explain the potential effects on cognition". In other words: we measured something, but we don't know what it is.

The GSM Association claims that the effects reported are too small to be taken seriously. Ericsson too downplayed the report this week, telling Reuters there is no scientific evidence that there are any health problems associated with radio waves from mobile communications.

The government ministers responsible for Economic Affairs, Health and Telecommunications in the Netherlands reconfirmed this week that follow-up research is needed to substantiate the findings as well as to look at any longer-term health effects and biological causes. Germany's Research Association for Radio Applications already commissioned its own health study. Until we know the results, let's assume UMTS won't fry you brain just yet. ®

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