"Be Mobile Without Risk"
TIMES OF INDIA - Milind Deora, Apr 3, 2010
A young boy was killed recently when the electronic discharge from his cellphone came in contact with a high-tension overhead wire. Tragic as it was, the incident brought into sharp focus a related issue we've been silent on for too long: cellphone radiation exposure may well be a serious health hazard. After preliminary inquiries, i urged the telecommunications ministry to make it mandatory for all cellphone companies to clearly communicate the potential dangers of cellphone radiation exposure. Both the radiation from handsets and tower-based antennas carrying the signals are already the subject of numerous studies linking prolonged cellphone use to brain tumours, genetic damage and other serious conditions.
Disconcertingly, children and young adults below 18 who constitute a major chunk of the cellphone market are especially vulnerable because their thinner and more porous skulls make it easier for radiation to penetrate the mid-brain. By the time they reach their 20s and 30s they would have exposed themselves to enough radiation for the effects, if any, to show.
Ultimately, research must continue to determine whether or not radiation emitted from cellphones and phone antennae causes brain tumours. But everyone agrees that when the endpoint is a cancer that can take decades to form, we are talking about waiting 10 or 20 years for an answer. I find that unacceptable, especially with lives on the line. So let's turn this around, err on the side of caution and take pre-emptive policy measures now before we cross the Rubicon and have an unprecedented potential health crisis on our hands.
It is not my intention to stir up a hornet's nest and cause undue alarm; we desperately want our cellphones to be safe. Our lives are so thoroughly integrated with wireless technology that we don't want to think about the impact. I will still use my cellphone after having written this and i suspect everyone else will after reading it. But my fear is that, just as with cigarette smoking, if there is indeed a cumulative risk to using a mobile phone, it is possible that users won't be aware of it until it's too late. The science may be inconclusive but that doesn't mean the threat isn't real.
Have we seen enough red flags to justify public warnings even as we wait for the science to evolve? International precedent ought to be instructive here. Governments across the European Union have enacted new safety standards related to electromagnetic radiation. The French government warns against excessive use of mobile phones, especially by children. Germany advises its citizens to minimise cellphone and Wi-Fi use, and the European Environment Agency wants exposures to be reduced. Several other nations have recommended measures to minimise exposure and advise limited use for children.
Here in India, the Telecom Engineering Centre (TEC, the technical arm of the department of telecommunications) proposes that manufacturers display the specific absorption rate or SAR level of their cellphones in the handset menu and comply with global emission standards. The TEC also proposes that cellphone ads not feature children and pregnant women. I welcome these preliminary guidelines but i think we may need to go beyond them. SAR levels can vary widely and, in any case, the jury is still out on whether that is the right metric to measure cellphone safety. Cellular damage, it seems, can even occur at low temperature levels that would not register on the SAR scale.
The cellphone industry must share the responsibility of risk communication and management. It is critical to do so in a domestic market projected to reach 600 million cellphone subscribers in a year's time including huge swathes of unaware and illiterate consumers in rural and remote corners that manufacturers have successfully penetrated. It also has to be said that insensitive practices of industry in siting base stations within sight of schools and hospitals and whose antennas appear to be aimed directly at buildings where people live, is unacceptable and bound to raise a public outcry.
By the same token, government in conjunction with the scientific community must evolve a credible communications strategy and give the public a sensible assessment of safety and risk.
It is time we had an honest and robust debate about this both in Parliament and in the public square and find creative solutions to address public fears and mitigate the risk. This will require a sustained and joint effort by all stakeholders including industry, government and the public.
The choices are difficult but the costs of action and inaction could be a game changer. No one can know what the "right" decisions will be, but i do know that policy must decide that question. This is a job for democratic politics, informed by, but not shackled to, an insightful but imperfect scientific enterprise. We need to find ways of making cellphone use safer and limit usage by children certainly but we'll never get to that stage if we don't acknowledge the potential dangers first. In the meantime, i'm going to take a cue from the nearest teenager: texting and tweeting is safer than talking.
( The writer is a member of Parliament.)