Government-funded study shows radiation impact on male fertility, free radicals

An ongoing study on radiation from mobile towers and mobile phones at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has found that the exposure to radiation from mobile towers and mobile phones could have an adverse impact on male fertility and also pose health hazards by depleting the defence mechanism of cells.

Though these findings are based on experiments on male rats, Jitendra Behari, a professor in JNU's School of Environmental Sciences and lead researcher for the government-funded project, told The Hindu that the health implications were directly relevant to human beings too.

Prof. Behari and his team have been conducting tests on Wistar rats or lab rats, mainly focusing on two aspects of radiation — its effect on the reproductive system and on general health, particularly tumour promotion and genotoxic effects (causing damage to DNA). “We kept these rats in a simulated environment, creating similar levels of radiation as emitted by mobile towers and while using a mobile phone…and the results were alarming,” he disclosed.

“Chronic exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation [RF-EMW] caused double-strand DNA breaks in sperm cells. The tests showed that mobile radiation exposure can cause a statistically significant decrease in the sperm count and testes weight,” Prof. Behari explained.

Pointing towards similar tests by leading institutions in the West which showed almost identical results, Prof. Behari said the reports have concluded that RF-EMW from commercially available cell phones might affect the fertilising potential of sperms. “Other studies too have shown that use of cell phones adversely affects the quality of semen by decreasing sperm count, motility, viability and morphology, which might contribute to male infertility,” he added.

Similarly, talking about the impact of radiation exposure tests on general health, Prof. Behari said: “Human cells have their own set of antioxidant defence mechanisms to fight with free radical formation and to overcome the limit of damaging effects. Our studies have shown that microwave radiation may alter the level of antioxidant due to free radical formations.”

“Tests have shown significant increase in ROS [reactive oxygen species — a kind of free radical] level in radiation exposed rats…an increased ROS production can damage macromolecules [lipid, protein, DNA], thus causing threat of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and accelerate ageing. Electromagnetic field increases the concentration of free radicals which may enhance the probability of damage to the biological system,” he said.

Prof. Behari, who has been regularly submitting reports to the project sponsors – Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – and also apprising Department of Telecommunications (DoT) officials about his findings, is particularly concerned over the excessive and prolonged use of cellular phones as radiation levels from handsets could affect the brain. More usage of cellular phones means greater threat.

“Formation of free radicals in the brain is a matter of concern because of their potential toxic effects at high levels of brain function and its physiology and command on several other organs. It is well established that when there is an imbalance between free radicals and its neutralisation, it leads to oxidative stress. Such conditions can lead to tumour promotion,” he pointed out.

Present concern about mobile phone exposure to human beings is focused on brain. The effects of EMFs emitted by mobile phones on the central nervous system have become a particular focus of concern as mobile phones are kept near the head in talking mode and are in close proximity to the brain. During these operations, the antenna of a cellular phone emits radio frequency electromagnetic fields that can penetrate 4-6 cm into the human brain, he added.

Prof. Behari has further said that when a human body, which consists of 90 per cent water, is exposed to the electromagnetic field, it absorbs radiation. When food is cooked in a microwave oven, water in the food content is heated first. Similar is the case with human body. Microwave absorption effect is much more significant in body parts which contain more fluid-like blood or the brain.

Explaining how health could be affected as a result of radio frequency field exposure, Prof. Behari said there could be thermal effects caused by holding mobile phones close to the body and extended conversations over a long period of time. There could be possibly non-thermal effects from both phones and base stations whereby the effects could also be cumulative. Some people may be adversely affected by the environmental impact of mobile phone base stations situated near their homes, schools or any other place.