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August 27, 2014
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September 2, 2014

Raising Alert

With the country’s mobile telephony user base growing by around 8 mn every month, there is growing concern over health risks due to electromagnetic emissions from base stations and handsets.

The Indian government has recently accepted the draft guidelines for ‘Mobile Towers and Phones’ submitted by the Telecom Engineering Center of the Department of Telecommunications. The government has decided to follow the International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) guidelines, which have been adopted by more than eighty countries around the world. The ICNIRP guidelines ensure that the level of emission does not exceed in relation to public exposure to electromagnetic waves from mobile phones and base stations.

Setting New Standards
Licensed in Germany, ICNIRP is an international non-governmental and independent scientific organization that provides guidance on health hazards of non-ionizing radiation exposure. The World Health Organization endorses the ICNIRP guidelines as well. The guidelines were developed based on evaluations of biological effects that have been established to have health consequences.

The guidelines mandate that all handset manufacturers state the specific absorption rate or SAR, which indicates the amount of radio waves absorbed by the body when using a mobile phone. According to ICNIRP guidelines, SAR is caped at 1.6 watt/kg of tissue in the US and 2 watt/kg of tissue in Europe. As of now there is no cap in India.

“The ICNIRP guidelines are accepted and followed by many countries, and we have also decided to follow it. The issue had to be addressed at the earliest since it was eroding the faith of the public in the government. We have decided to follow the self-certification model, where mobile manufacturers, as well as the service operator have to specify the level of radiation. We believe that self-certification will work since the manufacturer would know that he will be penalized if handsets are tested and found to be not conforming to the guidelines,” says RN Padukone, senior deputy director general, Telecom Engineering Center, the technical arm of DoT.

TEC also plans to form a Conformity Assessment Body or CAB to conduct random testing. “We have invited ‘expression of interest’ and July 31, 2008 is the last date. We have already received ten entries. The tests would be conducted on a random basis and we have to work out the sampling arrangement,” added Padukone.

While the test procedure for random testing of handsets will be written by TEC, the tests would be accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL). Earlier, TEC was considering displaying of SAR on mobile phones through the menu option. Cellular operators and manufacturers resisted and the option was eventually rejected.

“Most manufacturing units are ISO 9000 certified, and ICNIRP guidelines are part of the process. Most handsets available in the market have the SAR limit printed on the box. However, it has come to our notice that some spurious handsets, which do not conform to the ICNIRP guidelines, are also available. And these guidelines are being put in place to stop the sale of these handsets,” Padukone emphasized. When contacted, the handset manufacturers and service providers declined to comment on the issue.

While India has taken the first step by introducing the guidelines, it should be added that many European nations, notably Austria, have set safety limits lower than the ICNIRP limit. The Salzburg Resolution for Austria recommends safety limit many times lower (0.6 V/m=0.1 micro watts/cm2) for pulsed radiation. Whereas, the safety norms are much more stringent than the ICNIRP guidelines in China, Italy, and Sweden.

The Health Angle
It is believed that the human head absorbs parts of radio waves emitted by a cell phone. And the fact states that radio waves emitted by a GSM handset are typically more than the waves emitted by a CDMA handset. There is a growing concern in the Indian public around this, especially in the absence of any conclusive study.

Recently, health minister A Ramadoss called for a detailed study to assess how mobile phones are a health hazard. Women and Child Development minister, Renuka Chowdhary is toying with the idea of putting a ban on school-going children from using mobile phones. Sometime back there was also a protest by Shaktipunj Foundation, a New Delhi-based NGO, to create awareness about radiation safety at various places.

“Long term studies are still not available but researchers have warned about using cell phones, as effects might range from headaches, sleeplessness to various types of brain cancers. A thirteen-country World Health Organization “inter-phone” study suggests a link between long-term use and three types of brain tumors-Glioma, Parotid, and Acoustic Neuroma. Radiations may also break the protective blood brain barrier as seen in diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer or Parkinson,” says Dr SC Gera, consultant, Internal Medicine at Fortis Healthcare.

Gera, however, recommends a precautionary approach since there is not enough information. “Those in the industry argue against the risk of cancer. High frequency radiation like X-ray, Gamma, and ultraviolet rays are known to cause cancer at high doses. Mobile radiations are far less energetic to be able to break chemical bonds in the body,” says Gera.

The World Health Organization recommends a “precautionary approach” as well, which stipulates, “… a precautionary approach to the use of this communication technology should be adopted until more scientific evidence on its effects on health becomes available. Such an approach includes restricting exposure (according to existing guidelines and the European Union directive) and providing the public with information and options.”

Karmajyot Sewa Trust had filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in August 2005, for control of radiation and norms for putting up mobile towers. The trust also claims that in India, nearly 270 mn customers use cell phones, and there are over three lakh towers that emit electromagnetic radiations. Hence, applying to the ICNIRP norms would be a boon for people.

“We are very happy that the government has decided to issue the guidelines, but we feel that guidelines are not enough, and it should become a law. We would be giving a memorandum to the telecom minister soon regarding this,” says Prabha Kiran, president, Shaktipunj Foundation. Shaktipunj Foundation is working with a group of NGOs that are lobbying with the government for stringent norms to reduce the level of emission from mobile towers and handsets.

While there is no conclusive study that links the impact of mobile phones to some health symptoms, many consumers do complain of headaches, insomnia and loss of concentration. “As part of my job, I have to attend long calls over the phone. This has resulted in headache, irregular sleep, and loss of concentration and hearing. Now I have switched to the speaker phone/hands free and find things to be a lot better,” says US-based Ranjan Juneja, onsite engineering manager, Persistent Systems.

Many believe that radiation is especially harmful for people working in BPOs and those working long hours on laptops and desktops. “As per the research from different organizations, there are conclusive proofs that radiation affects brain, fertility and might also cause impotency. There is a strong need to clarify the impact of radiation by policy-makers and the industry to safeguard the interest of masses,” says Zafar Haq, CEO at Cogent EMR Solutions. The company claims to offer a number of products to safeguard the radiation area, for instance, a pouch, which creates a barrier between the handset and the body, thus protecting the person from radiation.

The Other Side
The industry, on the other hand, alleges that RF radiations emitted by mobile communications systems lie in the non-ionizing part of the electromagnetic spectrum and, thus, do not have enough energy to cause any genetic damage. Sources in the industry say that RF emissions from mobile phones and base stations are some 50,000 times lower than the levels at which the first health effect begins to be established. Apart from that, the output power of mobile phones is in the range of 0.2 to 0.6 watts, which is far lower than the emission levels that emanate from the microwave or even the radio.

“We are not against the guidelines being issued by the government. I heartily welcome the ICNIRP guidelines. In fact, our members already follow them. I would also like to add that there exists a general misconception that electromagnetic radiations emitted from mobile systems are a potential source of health hazards,” says TV Ramachandran, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India. He adds that as the network is increasing, the cell sites are coming closer and the radiation emitted from them is decreasing. It is in fact much lower than the permissible limit.

“Long term studies are still not available but researchers have warned about using cell phones, as effects might range from headaches, sleeplessness to various types of brain cancers”

Dr SC Gera, consultant, Internal Medicine, Fortis Healthcare

“There exists a general misconception that electromagnetic radiations emitted from mobile systems are a potential source of health hazards”

TV Ramachandran, director general of Cellular Operators Association, India

Most handset manufacturers declined to comment. “Although there is a lot of discussion on the effect of radiation on human health, we have not come out with any study in India so far. Our products are compatible with international standards, and we will further follow the guidelines issued by the government,” says Devinder Kishore, director, Marketing, Nokia.

While the ICNIRP guidelines are welcome, they may not be the last word, especially with the advent of new technologies like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and WiMax, which might further increase the risk of mobile radiation.

“ICNIRP guidelines are at least four years old, and these guidelines may not be effective when a new technology is developed or is put to use without a study of its radiation emission levels and safety norms. This is a grey area,” says Zafar of Cogent. The company has recorded an increase in interest in their products after the radiation controversy started some time back.

The Indian government has taken a step in the right direction by issuing the ICNIRP guidelines, but a lot more remains to be done to protect the public from the harmful effects of cell phone radiation. Many believe that guidelines themselves are not enough and it should be made into a law to further protect the public from the harmful radiation emitted from mobile towers and handsets. It further remains to be seen how the guidelines would be finally implemented.

Gagandeep Kaur and Jatinder Singh 
gagandeepk@cybermedia.co.in

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