A classic example of biased and unscientific study

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:19 am IST

Published - August 23, 2012 02:05 am IST

THE RECOMMENDATION: The mobile towers’ EMFexposure limit was recently lowered to 1/10th of the existing prescribed limit as a matter of abundantprecaution. Photo: Nagara Gopal

THE RECOMMENDATION: The mobile towers’ EMFexposure limit was recently lowered to 1/10th of the existing prescribed limit as a matter of abundantprecaution. Photo: Nagara Gopal

For the past several years, there has been growing concern about the health impact of radiation from mobile towers. In 2008, Government of India adopted the Guidelines developed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) for Electromagnetic radiation from mobile towers.The values chosen for the permissible Power Density are 4.5 W/Sqm for 900 MHz and 9 W/Sqm. for 1800 MHz.

Based on media reports and public concerns, the Government set up an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) of specialists on August 24, 2010. The Committee examined the environmental and health related concerns and indicated that most of the laboratory studies were unable to find a direct link between exposure to radio frequency radiation and health;and the scientific studies as yet have not been able to confirm a cause and effect relationship between radio frequency radiation and health. The effect of emission from cell phone towers is not known yet with certainty.

However, the IMC recommended lowering the mobile towers’ EMF exposure limits to 1/10th of the existing prescribed limit as a matter of abundant precaution. The Government accepted the recommendation and issued directions making the new norms applicable from September 1, 2012.

Among the inputs submitted to the Department of Telecom was a document "Report on Cell Tower Radiation" authored by Prof. Girish Kumar of the Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Bombay.

The report listed symptoms and diseases allegedly caused by electromagnetic radiation. The only items not included in it were jealousy and baldness! The author mined part of the scary data from "papers" of Arthur Firstenberg, the founder director of the "Cellular phone task force" which is “dedicated to halting the expansion of wireless technology because it cannot be made safe". Firstenberg filed and lost many suits against the spread of wireless technology.

Wikipedia, noted his claim that electromagnetic fields from his neighbour's cell phone are destroying his health and that he sued his neighbour seeking damages $ 530,000 for refusing to turn off her cell phone and other electronic devices!Firstenberg is a symbol of the collective schizophrenia against RF radiation.

Prof. Kumar uncritically accepted the Bio-initiative Report 2007 (BIR), a booklet well known for its lack of balance.

Advocacy document

The Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR), a technical committee of the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) noted that BIR is an advocacy document. BIR itself conceded that it was written “to document the reasons why current public exposure standards for non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation are no longer good enough to protect public health.”

Fourteen individuals under the direction of a 4-person organizing committee wrote BIR. “Most of its 21 sections are authored by single individuals or (in a few cases) pairs or trios of authors; the section ‘Key Scientific Evidence and Public Health Policy Recommendations’ was written by a pair of individuals and appears to reflect their views only,” COMAR clarified in a paper in Health Physics Journal. “There is no indication of how the members of the committee were chosen or how balance was provided in the group of contributors, a majority of whom have public records of criticism of existing exposure standards and guidelines.”

COMAR added that since appearing on the Internet in 2007, the BIR has received much media attention but, more recently, has been severely criticized by health organizations and scientific groups such as EMF-NET, a coordinating committee of the European Commission 6th Frame Work Programme, The Netherlands’ Health Council and Australian Centre for Radiofrequency Bioeffects Research

BIR report was slammed by these agencies thus: “written in an alarmist and emotive language and the arguments have no scientific support from well-conducted EMF research;” “There is a lack of balance in the report; no mention is made in fact of reports that do not concur with authors’ statements and conclusions. It is “not an objective and balanced reflection of the current state of scientific knowledge;” and “As it stands it merely provides a set of views that are not consistent with the consensus of science.”

In May 2010, The INTERPHONE Study concluded that overall, no increase in risk of brain tumours was observed with the use of mobile phones. “There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation", the authors added

The INTERPHONE study supported by WHO is the largest case–control study of mobile phones and brain tumours conducted to date, including the largest numbers of users with at least 10 years of exposure and the greatest cumulative hours of use of any study. Thirteen countries including UK, Sweden, France and Germany collaborated.

"Interphone study in 2010 mentions that excessive use of mobile phones has doubled to quadrupled brain tumor risk. However, they claim that for an average user, increase in cancer cases is not significant," the Prof. Kumar’s report says. By this assertion, the report is misinterpreting the lucid conclusion provided by the study

Prof. Kumar argued that the allowable power level must be brought down in India. "A number of adverse health effects have been documented at levels below the FCC guidelines, which include altered white blood cells in children; childhood leukemia; impaired motor function, reaction time, and memory; headaches, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, and insomnia etc", the report said, possibly based on the much criticized Bio-initiative Report 2007 .

Prof. Kumar had cherry-picked many references to substantiate such claims. International agencies such as the WHO and national agencies have not accepted such preposterous claims.

A newspaper reported that in a building in Mumbai four cases of cancer were linked to radiation from a mobile phone tower. Based on this, Prof. Kumar estimated the power level at the building to be about 0.1 W/ m 2 and claimed that the tower was the cause of cancer in “several” people in 2-3 years’ time!

He also measured a power level of 7,068 microwatt/m 2 in the home of a cancer patient who allegedly developed cancer within an year of installation of a mobile phone tower, and links the cancer to radiation from the tower!

Arriving at a conclusion based on studying one or two individuals is not how epidemiological studies are conducted.


Former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board


The article has been corrected for a factual error .

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