31 Jan, 2013, 01.15AM IST,
Myths about radiation risks from cell tower
By K S Parthasarathy
Recently, a section of the press in Mumbai reported that some residents wanted to relocate themselves to homes away from cell phone towers. Evidently, some agents masquerading as “experts” are scaring the gullible by telling them that cell tower radiation causes many health-related problems.
In 2008, India adopted the guidelines developed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) for electromagnetic radiation from mobile towers. Based on the recommendations of an inter-ministerial committee (IMC), the department of telecommunications (DoT) lowered the permissible levels to 1/10 of ICNIRP limits with effect from September 1, 2012, “as a matter of abundant precaution”.
The IMC ignored the fact that there is already a safety factor of 50 in the ICNIRP limits. “There is absolutely no known health benefit from lowering the limits… All expert reviews have indicated that no adverse health effects exist below the ICNIRP limits,” Dr Mike Repacholi, chairman emeritus at ICNIRP, replied to this writer’s query. He sent quotations from 100 references from specialist bodies from UK, France, Sweden and Germany, among others, to buttress the point. The overconservative approach of the IMC fanned the fire. The scary messages that continued originate from Cell Tower Radiation Report, submitted to the DoT by Prof Girish Kumar of IIT-Mumbai.
This report is a classic example of a biased and unscientific study. With cherry-picked references, the report listed many symptoms and diseases allegedly caused by electromagnetic radiation. Mercifully, it did not include jealousy and baldness! The report mined data of Arthur Firstenberg, founder-director of the “cellular phone task force” that is “dedicated to halting the expansion of wireless technology because it cannot be made safe”. Firstenberg, a symbol of the collective schizophrenia against RF radiation, filed and lost many suits against the spread of wireless technology.
A company takes the gullible for a ride by selling a measuring instrument that complies with the ridiculously low, permissible levels of radiation, recommended by the BioInitiative Report, 2007, an advocacy document roundly slammed as unscientific by responsible specialists. This company’s owner sells protective shields and screens and surreptitiously spreads the myth that women run the risk of health problems such as hormonal imbalances, miscarriages and breast and ovarian cancer as they tend to spend more time at home and are exposed continuously, though the WHO does not accept these effects. Mixing myths and half-truths cleverly and using telling jargon, these activists frighten the public while real specialists stand helplessly, leaving the mess to the cell phone operators to clear.
The activists conduct seminars, arrange private talks and employ every trick under the sun to sell their products. “Living in Mumbai is like living in an open microwave oven! The public exposed to EM radiation from cell phone towers is getting cooked!” they say. Reporters obligingly spread the spicy stories. At DoT levels, what will be the temperature increase in the body? Responding to queries from this writer, Dr Mike Repacholi stated that temperature increase in the human body exposed to electromagnetic radiation at the level of ICNIRP standards could not exceed 0.1° C. At DoT levels, it will be 0.01° C! The most glaring disinformation propagated by activists is that the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) limit for cell phones — a safety standard of 1.6 Wper kg — is actually for six minutes per-day usage! Do not use for more than 18-20 minutes daily, they assert.
This dramatic sound bite, though wrong, got wide publicity. A cell phone kept near the ear will cause a small increase in temperature in regions close to the phone. Thermoregulatory mechanisms such as blood flow remove the heatestablishing equilibrium in about six minutes. Thereafter, there will not be any increase in temperature. The six-minute interval is the time the body’s defence takes to reach equilibrium temperature. So, it is absurd to say that using a phone longer multiplies the risk.
Dr Kari Jokela, member of ICNIRP and research professor at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, Finland, in an email message stated that Dr Girish Kumar’s interpretations of ICNIRP guidelines are incorrect. The studies thus far are reassuring. More research is needed to reduce the uncertainties. This writer trusts the safety standards for electromagnetic radiation prescribed by the ICNIRP, which is formally recognised by the WHO, the International Labour Organization and the EU. Sixty-three countries accepted ICNIRP limits. Our limits are 10 times lower. Have we to lose sleep over the alleged risks of cell tower radiation?
(The author is former secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board) firstname.lastname@example.org