‘Risks from cell tower/phone radiation are negligible’
K S Parthasarathy, March 18, 2013
Cell phone use has registered a phenomenal increase over the past few years. People have begun attributing all types of major and minor diseases and symptoms to the highly visibly cell towers. A document titled ‘Report on cell tower radiation’ submitted to the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) by the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay was particularly scary. It is freely accessible.
Using cherry-picked references, the report invented countless risks and exaggerated a few. The World Health Organisation (WHO) or other specialist institutions such as the National Institute of Cancer do not support them.
This writer sent excerpts from the IIT report to Dr Kari Jokela, a Member of the International Commission on Non Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and research professor at the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, Finland. ICNIRP is the standard setting body for non ionizing radiation. Dr Jokela promptly showed that the IIT report’s interpretations of ICNIRP guidelines are incorrect.
Most countries enforce ICNIRP Guidelines. On a recommendation from an Inter Ministerial Committee (IMC), India is enforcing a radiation limit of one tenth of the ICNIRP guidelines, nation-wide.
The member scientist, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) persuaded the committee to reduce the values. He argued that Indians have lower body mass index, lower fat content etc. Factors such as low body mass index, potentially higher thermal sensitivity in certain population groups, such as the frail and/elderly, infants and young children extreme weather conditions besides several other variables are already included by the ICNIRP. (ICNIRP guidelines for limiting exposure to time varying electric and electromagnetic fields (up ot 300GHz ) Health Physics 74(4) : 494-522; 1998).
Lowering the guidelines for cell tower/phone radiation is a symbolic gesture because ‘people’ wanted it. It appears to be a bad precedent as matters in which specialists participate must be decided on scientific merit and not on popular sentiment.
The IMC noted that measured radiation levels even in metro cities are hundreds of times lower than the ICNIRP reference levels. It asserted that safety standards should be rational and should avoid excessive safety margins. In spite of these sound arguments and the fact that the ICNRIP guidelines themselves have a safety factor of 50, the IMC lowered the radiation levels on highly speculative reasons. With the new stipulation, the safety factor in DoT guidelines is 500.
The IMC did a great disservice by listing selectively many reports which showed adverse effects while ignoring many reports which did not show any adverse impact. IMC did say that there is no conclusive proof of harm from cell tower radiation. Scare mongers are now demanding lower levels. The committee unwittingly gave a handle to them.
Some agents organised ‘workshops,’ made presentations in metro cities, and fanned the fire. They cited anecdotal evidence of vague symptoms such as joint pains, sleeplessness and cancer among those who resided near cell towers.
Unlike x-rays or gamma rays, cell tower radiation has a million times less energy. It cannot damage the cells in the body to change some of them into rogue cells with no rules or its own rules to multiply uncontrollably to form cancer. It may just warm up the tissue. Physically, cell tower radiation is not capable of inducing cancer in human body. Never mind there is no scientific evidence. In the guise of saving persons suffering from a laundry list of diseases, agents masquerading as experts started selling expensive shields and screens against radiation!
The IIT report wrongly claimed that the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) limit for cell phones — a safety standard of 1.6 W per kg — is actually for six minutes per-day usage! so do not use phones for more than 18-20 minutes daily, the report cautioned. With large clusters of cell towers erected everywhere, the report’s author claimed that Mumbai is like an open microwave oven!
Many reporters uncritically publicised the dramatic but wrong sound bites from scare mongers. 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 heat establishing 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 patently absurd to say that using a phone longer multiplies the risk.
What is the increase in temperature of a person exposed to cellular radiation at the level of ICNIRP limit? In response to this writer’s query, Dr Mike Repacholi, Chairman, Emeritus, ICNIRP stated that temperature increase in the human body exposed at the level of ICNIRP standards could not exceed 0.1° C. At DOT levels, it will be 0.01°C! Obviously, Mumbai is not an open microwave oven!.
The review of levels measured nationwide shows that though highly conservative, the DoT levels can be enforced effectively. Internet contains all types of information. But trust only those from authentic sources such as the WHO. You should not listen to scare mongers and lose sleep over the alleged risks from cell tower radiation.
(The writer is a former secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board)