Story transcripts

Wake Up Call

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reporter: Liam Bartlett

Producer: Nick Greenaway

If you own a mobile phone, you must see this.

For years, the experts have been arguing over them.

Some say they're perfectly safe, others claim they fry your brains.

Well, an international team of doctors, including two of Australia's finest surgeons, have just released their latest, comprehensive research.

And, as the father of young children, it really made Liam Bartlett sit up and take notice.

They say prolonged use of mobile phones could double the risk of malignant brain tumours.

The deadliest of all cancers, the kind that leaves no survivors.

With an entire generation now growing up hooked on their mobiles, that could be absolutely devastating.

Story contacts:

Cure for Life Foundation, founded by Dr Charlie Teo, funds advancements in the treatment of brain cancers. For more information head to:
www.cureforlife.org.au

Full transcript:

STORY - LIAM BARTLETT: The Namoi Valley in northern New South Wales is a beautiful place. The favourite view of John and Margaret Bryant.

JOHN BRYANT: It's just nice to know that I can sit here and look over there for a while.

MARGARET BRYANT: It's beautiful. A little piece of heaven on earth, isn't it?

LIAM BARTLETT: But John is terrified he won't be looking down upon it for much longer, he has terminal brain cancer.

MARGARET BRYANT: You've got to hang on, you've been so positive all throughout. So you've just got to keep on going.

JOHN BRYANT: Yeah.

MARGARET BRYANT: While there's life there's hope.

JOHN BRYANT: I know.

LIAM BARTLETT: Ironically, after a life of physical toil on the land, this rough-and-tumble farmer blames modern technology for killing him - his mobile phone.

JOHN BRYANT: Mate, there's no doubt about mine. I know what killed me.

LIAM BARTLETT: John, you're saying what killed you as if you're already dead.

JOHN BRYANT: Well, I am dead, aren't I? I'm a dead man walking, really, aren't I, when you think about it.

LIAM BARTLETT: Last November, John was working in his shearing shed when he lost control of the left side of his body. Doctors found a malignant tumour just behind his right ear.

JOHN BRYANT: I told Dr Hughes, he's a very good doctor, I said, "I don't want any crap, tell me the truth," you know. And he said, "I'll tell you the truth." This is the truth - he said with this disease there are no survivors, every one dies. So that was a good introduction to the Tamworth Hospital.

LIAM BARTLETT: This is a large and loving family. The Bryants have carved a full life here through farming and the family trucking business. John's mobile phone has been an essential tool of the trade for the past 25 years. And he's in no doubt those countless hours with it glued to his ear gave him the brain tumour. I can't begin to imagine what you're going through.

JOHN BRYANT: No, no-one can begin to imagine because people come up to me just, you know, they're trying to be nice and they say, "I can imagine how you feel." And I think, "No, you can't imagine how I feel," you know. And I reckon it's caused definitely by those bloody mobile phones.

LIAM BARTLETT: Doctor Teo, John insists his brain tumour has been caused by his mobile phone. Do you agree with his diagnosis?

DR CHARLIE TEO: Insist is a strong word, and there are always two sides to every story. But if the question is do I believe that mobile phones can cause brain cancer, the answer is yes, I do. The fact that you've deteriorated so much in the last three days means you probably won't survive for three more weeks with this. It's that bad.

JOHN BRYANT: Yeah, I know it's bad.

LIAM BARTLETT: Dr Charlie Teo is John's neurosurgeon, his last hope to beat the tumour. He's also the co-author of a frightening new study that's predicting a dramatic increase in brain tumours caused by the long-term use of mobile phones.

DR CHARLIE TEO: That's a huge fear. I mean, what if what if we're right? Then if we're right we're going to see a huge increase in brain tumours and brain cancer in the next decade or so. It's going to be frightening. And guess what, Liam, we're already frightened by what were seeing.

LIAM BARTLETT: Most of us are pretty wary of these things and with good reason. Microwave ovens use electromagnetic radiation to cook your food. Now, it's exactly the same energy, on exactly the same wave length, as the stuff that's being pumped out of your mobile phone. Admittedly these are a lot more powerful, but you wouldn't consider for a moment holding your ear up to one of these for hours at a time, day after day. Yet, that's precisely what most of us are doing with our mobiles.

DR VINI KHURANA: Long-term use of mobile phones is associated with a doubling of the risk of being diagnosed with certain brain tumours.

LIAM BARTLETT: You're saying if you use a mobile phone over an extended period...

DR VINI KHURANA: Right, over 10 years.

LIAM BARTLETT: ..you double your risk of a brain tumour.

DR VINI KHURANA: That's what the data that we have analysed, that's what it shows.

LIAM BARTLETT: Canberra neurosurgeon Dr Vini Khurana worked with Charlie Teo and three other leading scientists to produce this latest report. and he believes mobile phones could be the biggest public health issue since tobacco. Were you surprised at the size of the result?

DR VINI KHURANA: I actually think it may be a conservative estimate.

LIAM BARTLETT: You think doubling the risk is conservative?

DR VINI KHURANA: Yes. I would be very happy to be wrong about this because the public health implications of being right about this are enormous. At the moment there are just over four billion users of mobile phones. There are people as young as three using them.

LIAM BARTLETT: And that's where the biggest threat lies - with our kids. Today, being presented with your first mobile is an essential passport to life. Our kids inhabit a wireless world. And it's nothing for them to spend hours each day chatting on the phone.

TEENAGER 1: On the average I use it about four hours a day. I normally have long conversations at night with people, I use my phone a lot.

TEENAGER 2: I've got to probably say about four hours, as well.

TEENAGER 3: This is the way we've been brought up to communicate, with our mobile phones. And it's just the easiest, because they're portable, we can take them anywhere. So it's just the easiest way to communicate with our friends.

DR CHARLIE TEO: I'm incredibly worried, concerned, depressed at the number of kids I'm seeing coming in with brain tumours. Malignant brain tumours. Just in the last three or four weeks I've seen nearly half a dozen kids with tumours which really should have been benign and they've all been nasty, malignant brain tumours. We are doing something terribly wrong.

LIAM BARTLETT: With the warning signs already there for the mobile generation, long-term users like John Bryant may be just the first wave in a looming disaster. So, as long as you can remember your dad had a mobile phone?

BRYANT Absolutely, I think he was one of the first. My friends thought it was pretty cool because no-one had them.

JOHN BRYANT: You want to tell her, now it's not so cool.

BRYANT Well, absolutely, have a look at your head.

LIAM BARTLETT: With time running out, John is setting out for Sydney for emergency surgery. He hopes Doctor Teo can buy him precious extra months with his family by removing his tumour. Good luck, I'm sure you won't need it.

JOHN BRYANT: Yeah, but, you know.... Yeah, but I'm still strong so, you know... I've got a lot of trust in Teo, too, you know. I'll be alright, I'm still strong darling I'm still strong I can fight this one, easy.

MARGARET BRYANT: I'll see you in a few hours.

JOHN BRYANT: I love you.

LIAM BARTLETT: It's a 3-hour operation requiring pinpoint accuracy and very steady hands. So if you go 1mm or 2mm the wrong way, he'll be paralysed?

DR CHARLIE TEO: Oh, absolutely. See, see that brain right there? If I damage that brain right there he'd be paralysed. Like chopping off his leg or chopping off his arm. Oh, that's horrible.

LIAM BARTLETT: Is that all tumour, Charlie?

DR CHARLIE TEO: Yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: It's not pretty but take a good look. In the future, hundreds possibly thousands, of Australian mobile users could contract brain tumours every year.

DR CHARLIE TEO: Until we get our heads out of the sand and realise that something needs to be done then more and more young people are going to die from this terrible disease.

LIAM BARTLETT: Well, we're seeing more and more mobiles in use aren't we? So if you're right we're in a bit of trouble.

DR CHARLIE TEO: We're in a lot of trouble. A lot of trouble.

LIAM BARTLETT: But not everyone agrees. Do you think there's any link between mobile phones and brain tumours?

PROFESSOR RODNEY CROFT: Not at all. OK, we are going to connect this in here, up nice and tight much like a phone would be when you are using it.

LIAM BARTLETT: Professor Rodney Croft disputes the latest mobile phone findings. He's heading a national research project into the effects of electromagnetic radiation on our brains. He admits the radiation does get in. So, electromagnetic radiation is passing over the top and into my head now?

PROFESSOR RODNEY CROFT: Exactly, so the electromagnetic radiation from the phone is penetrating into your head. Not a lot of it, of course, but there certainly is some absorption by the brain and by the tissues around the head.

LIAM BARTLETT: But, critically, Croft assures me the radiation is so low I'm perfectly safe. And most of the scientific community agrees. So the mobile phone does make the brain heat up slightly?

PROFESSOR RODNEY CROFT: It does, about 0.1 of a degree centigrade. That's absolutely right. But that kind of level is not the kind of level which is normally needed in order to cause some sort of damage. People usually think so long as the brain doesn't increase by more than, say, one degree, we've got nothing to worry about.

LIAM BARTLETT: So, they've got it wrong? Vini Khurana's got it wrong? Charlie Teo's got it wrong?

PROFESSOR RODNEY CROFT: That's right. That's my opinion, yes.

LIAM BARTLETT: You think they've got it wrong?

PROFESSOR RODNEY CROFT: Yes.

LIAM BARTLETT: Try telling that to Brett Kelly, another of Charlie Teo's patients.

BRETT KELLY: I think this is what has killed me, or will kill me.

LIAM BARTLETT: Brett, do you honestly believe that these things have given you a tumour?

BRETT KELLY: Without doubt, 100%.

LIAM BARTLETT: Brett used to run a successful earth moving business in Western Sydney. And, just like John Bryant, his mobile was in constant use. So would it be safe to say three hours a day?

BRETT KELLY: Oh yeah, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: Two operations haven't been able to get rid of the tumour, but right now it's stable. Sadly, Brett knows it's only a matter of time before it starts spreading through his brain. How long do you think you've got?

BRETT KELLY: I think maybe six, seven years at my very, very best.

LIAM BARTLETT: Once brain tumours were a relatively rare cancer but not any more. And Charlie Teo's biggest worry is that their dramatic increase has coincided with a boom in mobile ownership.

DR CHARLIE TEO: There is now a true exponential rise in the incidence of brain cancer. And so we have got to be responsible about all the potential causes of that and at least make the public aware of those potential causes.

LIAM BARTLETT: That's my whole point, if you and your colleagues are right there's going to be literally thousands of people who will be affected at some point down the track.

DR CHARLIE TEO: Yes, absolutely. Now, again, not everyone who's used mobile phones because, again, not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer. But we believe that a lot of people are going to be affected.

LIAM BARTLETT: Do you own a mobile phone?

DR CHARLIE TEO: Yeah, I own a mobile phone and I actually, my children also own mobile phones but I insist that they limit their exposure. And the way they do that is I always, I almost always put it on speaker or hands-free. Hey, John, it's Charlie here, surgery's gone very well, good boy. Margaret things have gone very well.

MARGARET BRYANT: Good, that's wonderful. How'd you go?

DR CHARLIE TEO: Good, he's moving already and doesn't appear to be paralysed.

MARGARET BRYANT: That's wonderful.

LIAM BARTLETT: A few days later and John Bryant is up and about. For now, the surgery has worked. It hasn't saved his life, the cancer will inevitably return, but it has brought him precious time.

JOHN BRYANT: It's hard to believe that in a few days your body can just respond.

LIAM BARTLETT: It is hard to believe.

JOHN BRYANT: And you do, you just respond, and you feel totally different.

LIAM BARTLETT: Well, it's a good result for you mate. You can go home and give those grandkids a big hug, eh?

JOHN BRYANT: I will. I'll see you another day.

LIAM BARTLETT: Well done.

JOHN BRYANT: Thanks Liam, thank you.

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