The cell phone industry has registered phenomenal growth in India. Cell towers have mushroomed all over the country and led to growing concerns about the health effects of radiofrequency radiation. Agents who masqueraded as ‘experts’ and started selling radiation ‘protective’ screens, fanned the fire. They told that cell tower radiation can cause “sleep disturbances, headaches, fatigue, joint pains, memory loss, increased heart rate.”

“...Prolonged exposure to cell tower radiation increases the risk of neurological disorders and cancer,” they said, creating a phobia among the public.

They did not agree that since the energy of RF radiation from cell phone towers is not enough to break chemical bonds in DNA molecules, it cannot cause cancer.

While most countries accepted the guidelines of the International Commission on Non Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), India enforced one tenth of the ICNIRP guidelines from Sept 1, 2012, based on the advice from an Inter Ministerial Committee. India's guidelines have a safety factor of 500. The over conservative approach of the IMC also helped to fan the fire.

Though it argued that safety standards should be rational and should avoid excessive safety margins, the IMC lowered the radiation levels on highly speculative reasons. The committee did a great disservice by listing selectively a number of reports which showed adverse effects while ignoring many reports which did not show any adverse impact. IMC unwittingly gave a handle to scare mongers who are now demanding lower levels as standard.

An agent claimed that Mumbai with too many cell towers is like an open microwave oven. He claimed that by accepting the ICNIRP guidelines we are accepting that a child can be safely kept in a microwave oven for 19 minutes a day! Actually, the possible temperature increase of a human body at ICNIRP level will be 0.1Deg C; at DOT levels, 0.01 Deg C.

They claimed that 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, they asserted .

Many reporters publicized these scary sound bites. A cell phone kept near the ear will cause a small increase in temperature in regions close to the phone. The more regulatory 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.

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 in an e-mail message to this writer stated that such interpretations are incorrect.

On January 4, this year The Hindu quoted the District Health and Family Welfare Officer (DHO) of Dakshina Kannada as saying: “enough” number of cases of cancer and mental retardation have been found among people residing within a 500-metre radius of cell phone towers.”

The WHO is aware of such misunderstanding and noted thus in its Fact Sheet No 304:

“Media or anecdotal reports of cancer clusters around mobile phone base stations have heightened public concern. It should be noted that geographically, cancers are unevenly distributed among any population. Given the widespread presence of base stations in the environment, it is expected that possible cancer clusters will occur near base stations merely by chance. Moreover, the reported cancers in these clusters are often a collection of different types of cancer with no common characteristics and hence unlikely to have a common cause.”

DOT levels are very safe and enforceable. If they are enforced effectively, there will not be any risk from cell tower radiation.

K.S. PARTHASARATHY

Former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board

(ksparth@ yahoo.co.uk)