Kristiansen IS, Elstein AS, Gyrd-Hansen D, Kildemoes EW, Nielsen JB. Radiation from mobile phone systems: Is it perceived as a threat to people’s health? Bioelectromagnetics. Mar 23, 2009. Ahead of print.
In several countries, the widespread use of mobile phones (MPs) has led to public concern about potential adverse health effects of radiation from these devices and their base stations (mobile masts/towers). Research has shown that lay people’s perceptions of risk are influenced not only by numbers, but also by qualitative and ethical dimensions. MPs may be considered as a technology with unknown consequences. Unknown or potentially catastrophic consequences (e.g. brain cancer) have been shown to influence the perception of risk. The extent to which perception of risk from MP radiation is additionally influenced by individual characteristics remains to be analyzed.
The aims of this investigation were to describe concerns about radiation from MPs and masts, the determinants of these concerns, and to study sources of information about MP risks and public trust in these sources.
In December 2006, Gallup Denmark conducted a Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI). Respondents were randomly sampled from a register of all private telephone numbers in Denmark. In total, 1,822 telephone numbers were sampled and 1,004 individuals (55%) were successfully interviewed. The sample was representative of the Danish population with respect to geographical region and gender. Persons aged 15-44 years were slightly overrepresented, while persons aged 45-64 years were slightly underrepresented. Persons above the age of 74 years were considerably underrepresented. The interviews were conducted based on a specially developed questionnaire. To characterize concerns, the respondents were asked how often they think about exposure to radiation from MPs/base stations (or about pollution). Associations between variables were explored in contingency tables and multivariate logistic regression analyses. Chi-square and Fisher’s exact tests were used.
The proportion of respondents concerned about MP radiation (28%) and base station radiation (15%) were lower than the proportion of respondents concerned about pollution (82%). About half the respondents considered the population mortality risk of 3rd Generation phones and masts to be at the same level as lightning (0.1 fatalities per year per million population) while 7% thought it was the same as for tobacco-induced lung cancer (~500 fatalities per million per year). Women were more concerned than men about pollution (P<0.001), exposure to radiation from MPs (P<0.001) and exposure to radiation from base stations (P<0.001). Among women, the concerns were greater amongst those who were worried about unknown consequences of new technologies, used mobile phone must, considered the potential fatality risk high, and those who were older or more educated. Among men, none of these covariates were statistically significant. In contrast to women, having children in the household increased men’s concern about MP radiation. Mass media were sources of information about health hazards for 94% of the respondents, while internet – for only 34%. Information about MP risks from the Danish Cancer Society and the National Board of Health was estimated as trustworthy by the respondents (mean score of 4.3 on the scale from 1 to 6), while information from the telephone companies – as least trustworthy (mean score 2.4). Less than one third of respondents stated they had been sufficiently informed before the implementation of the new 3rd Generation mobile phone system.
Interpretation and Conclusion
Even though the term “thinking about” may not fully capture concerns or risk perception, the results of this study indicate that most people are not greatly concerned about exposure to radiation from MPs or base stations. A minority, however, is quite concerned. This latter group consists mainly of women and people who are generally worried about unknown consequences of new technologies. Health authorities are considered as trustworthy source of information, but the majority obtains information from mass media. More than 66% of the respondents felt that they had received inadequate public information about the 3rd Generation mobile phone system.