Cousin ME, Siegrist M. Cell Phones and Health Concerns: Impact of Knowledge and Voluntary Precautionary Recommendations. Risk Anal. Sep 29, 2010. Ahead of print.
There exists a question as to whether the public needs precautionary recommendations for cell phone usage that would facilitate informed decision making and enable users to avoid unnecessary exposure. Precautionary recommendations for cell phones need to be considered with care because they may result in exaggerated risk perception. Readers may interpret them not as signs of scientific uncertainty, but as signs of real danger.
The objective of this study was to examine the influence of information about electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and precautionary recommendations for cell phone handling on lay peoples’ health concerns, perception of risk from mobile phone communication, and on people’s behavior (cell phone usage). Another objective was to examine whether the impact of the information depends on its complexity and on the identity of the sender.
The study was conducted in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Participants were 408 individuals (age 15-80 years, 52% females) randomly assigned to one of four conditions (booklets). The four booklets were: A) an existing booklet with relatively technical information, precautionary recommendations and no specific sender; B) a new booklet with selected information, precautionary recommendations and no specific sender; C) the same new booklet with mobile communication providers as senders; D) the same new booklet without precautionary recommendations, no specific sender. The participants’ knowledge and perceptions were evaluated immediately before, immediately after reading the booklets, and two weeks later.
Results and Interpretation
Reading of all four booklets led to an increase in knowledge. The knowledge increase was higher in participants who read booklets B and C, possibly because booklet A was too difficult to understand and booklet D left the knowledge transfer to the readers. The information from the booklets had opposite effects on perception of cell phones and on perception of base stations, increasing concerns in regard to cell phones and decreasing concerns in regard to base stations. Complexity of the information, presence or absence of precautionary recommendations and mobile communication providers as senders had no significant effect on health concerns. Health concerns about cell phones remained at a higher level two weeks after reading the booklets. As shown by a follow-up postal survey, about half of the participants changed their cell phone usage according to the precautionary recommendations.
New information about EMFs from mobile phone communication may lead to increased perception of risk and health concerns, particularly regarding cell phones. Information itself but not precautionary recommendations account for changes in risk perception from mobile communication. Provision of precautionary recommendations leads to behavioral changes. Provision of information should be well-designed, and recommendations should be closely related to people’s everyday behavior.