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Sri Lanka's mobilephobia and health
17 Mar, 2011 06:51:37
By Rohan Samarajiva
Mar 17, 2011 (LBO) - Recently, a student at a Sri Lankan university died. According to reports, he had gone to the third floor of a university residence hall in Belihuloya to make a call on his mobile.
I was asked by the media for a comment on the contribution made by the mobile phone to the student’s death. My response, based on the facts presented, pointed to the surprising proximity of a residential building to high-voltage transmission lines as the probable cause.

It was heartening to have my conclusion confirmed by the Minister of Power and Energy who stated that the building was an illegal construction (link)).

Why was I, not known as an expert on electrical transmission or electrocution, called upon for comments? It was because of the perception that the mobile that was being used had something to do with the death.

Fear of the new

In 2010 Sri Lanka claimed to have 16.3 million active SIMs for a population of 20 million. This is a stunning number in relation to the 430,000 connections that existed just ten years ago and the 2,600 in 1992.

It is common to call the man who plucks coconuts on his mobile; sometimes he answers from atop a tree.

The company that was the fourth entrant to the mobile market is today one of the largest companies by capitalization.

The scale of the transformation has, not surprisingly, led to a great deal of anxiety about the new technology of wireless phones. That anxiety has taken the form of concerns about negative effects on health from electromagnetic radiation associated with mobile networks, primarily from antenna towers and secondarily from handsets.

When I am asked about radiation dangers, I routinely ask whether the concern extends to electricity transmission lines of the type that killed the university student. Both mobile towers and electricity transmission lines emit radiation. The former attracts opposition while the latter do not. The physics is identical but the response is different. The reason is that one is new and the other is now familiar.

Health concerns

Something as natural as sunshine causes cancer. We should be concerned about carcinogenic agents in our environment. We should ask questions about all forms of electromagnetic radiation and take precautions. We should not build residential facilities too close to high-voltage transmission lines as in Belihuloya.

The World Health Organization has published fact sheets o radiation from electrical transmission (link) and from mobile network towers and handsets (link). These are careful assessments of scientific evidence.

Recently the Indian government published a report on the subject of the health implications of electromagnetic radiation from mobile network towers and handsets (Government of India, Department of Telecommunications (2011). Report of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on EMF Radiation (link).

The Indian report does not differ materially from the WHO’s conclusions:

• To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use.

• Studies are ongoing to assess potential long-term effects of mobile phone use.

• There is an increased risk of road traffic injuries when drivers use mobile phones (either handheld or "hands-free") while driving.

But the Indian Report is more detailed in its recommendations.

Informed use

With regard to what has perhaps the highest potential for harm, the handset, the Report makes detailed recommendations anchored on setting standards for the rate of radiofrequency energy absorption per unit mass of the body known as Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) and ensuring that customers are aware of the SAR levels of the handsets they purchase:

• Adoption of SAR level for mobile handsets limited to 1.6 Watt/Kg, averaged over a 6 minutes period and taken over a volume containing a mass of 1 gram of human tissue as per the FCC norms of United States.

• SAR value information is to be embossed and displayed in the handset.

• Information on SAR values for mobile handsets should be readily available to the consumer at the point of sale so that one can make sure of the SAR value of the handset while buying a cell phone.

• Mobile hand sets manufactured and sold in [the country] or Imported from other countries should be checked for compliance of SAR limit and no handsets of SAR value above the prescribed standard adopted should be [permitted].

• SAR data information of the mobile handsets should be available on the manufacturer’s web site and in the manufacturer’s handset’s manual.

• To bring awareness, the manufacturer’s mobile handset booklet should contain the following for safe use : a. Use a wireless hands-free system (headphone, headset) with a low power Bluetooth emitter to reduce radiation to the head.

b. When buying a cell phone, make sure it has a low SAR.

c. Either keep your calls short or send a text message (SMS) instead. This advice applies especially to children, adolescents and pregnant women.

d. Whenever possible, use cell phone when the signal quality is good.

e. People having active medical implants should keep their cell phone at least 30 cm away from the implant.

The Report makes separate, specific, recommendations on base stations:

• The RF exposure limits may be lowered to 1/10th of the existing level keeping in view the data submitted . . . and trend adopted by other developed countries. [India’s current reference levels as well as those of a host of other countries and international organizations are provided in the Report]

• To provide static continuous testing / measuring centers for online monitoring of radiation level at prominent places in metro/cities and the data to be sent to the central server for information.

• Apart from self certification for compliance of radiation norms on EMF exposure as is presently being done, the mobile service providers should also measure the radiation level of certain prominent places and display it for information of the general public. They should also have mobile unit for its measurement wherever necessary.

• [Government] should create a national data base with the information of all the base stations, their emission levels and display on public domain for public information. • Impose restrictions on installation of mobile towers near high density residential areas, schools, playgrounds and hospitals.

• For the future expansion of telecom network in the country use low power micro cell transmitters with in-building solutions in place of the present trend of using high power transmission over mobile towers / high rise buildings.


Most things in life are based on trade-offs and balancing of factors. Sunshine gives me vitamin D and makes me happy, but it can also cause skin cancer. So I have to decide how much time to spend in the sun and whether and when to wear sunscreen.

In the same way, mobiles which give us enormous benefits in terms of being able to coordinate our activities, call for help, seek information and increasingly to even engage in transactions, may also pose potential threats to our health. Not only can one use the mobile to get the coconuts plucked; one may soon be able to pay the nut plucker using the same phone.

The scientific evidence does not establish a threat, but governments such as India’s have proposed actions based on the precautionary principle. Other governments in the region may also consider following suit.

As consumers, we too must make trade-offs. We cannot both want the conveniences afforded by the mobile and not want the presence of base stations in our neighborhoods. The latter is the precondition for the former.

We have responsibility to buy safe handsets, even if they are a little more expensive than the Chinese knockoffs. And to check the information in the pack and not rely entirely on the government to address our health concerns. The radiation emitting device next to one’s ear (and therefore one’s brain) is potentially more dangerous than the radiation-emitting tower in the neighbor’s garden.

The government’s job is to make sure we are equipped to make informed trade-offs, not to make the trade-offs on our behalf.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.

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16. Mahisha Mar 31
@Rohan Samarajiva: thank you sir for the authoritative link - the story itself has more links. Sometimes, some of us have to spend time figuring out what is is authoritative and what is not - despite not having knowledge on that relevant field!

Off topic, for a non-sensationalized take on the nuclear issue in Japan, we can look at This is run by those studying at MIT - Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

15. Rohan Samarajiva Mar 31
Here is an article that appears to support the statement that radiation from handsets is more significant than from base stations:
14. Inham Mar 30
Although I don't have the formulas in hand right now, the transmit power of a signal drops in a logarithmic scale with distance.

The second (related) factor is the beamwidth (shape of the beam). It usually takes the shape of a dumbbell and when your headset is near to your brain, the highest amount of energy concentration is near your brain. It is quite possible that extensive exposure to a mobile phone could be more hazardous than exposure to a cellular tower.

(Source: I am a engineer)

13. Rohan Samarajiva Mar 30
@DanW, There is no specific mention in the WHO and Indian reports that I have given links to. It is a fact that South Asian minutes of use are considerably higher than elsewhere, so the phone is close to the brain more than one thinks. The entire discussion about SAR is focused on that aspect.

Mobile towers, unlike TV or radio transmission towers, are designed to work at low power. If the signal is too strong it leaks into other cells and causes problems. The Indian recommendation re encouraging even lower power base stations in cities addresses your concern. The Indians also recommend measurement of radiation levels and making the data available. That seems to address your concern as well.

12. DanW Mar 29
Is there a study that validates the following stated in the article? We are talking on phone for minutes, but we live/work/sleep for days.

"The radiation emitting device next to one’s ear is potentially more dangerous than the radiation-emitting tower in the neighbor’s garden."

11. chamij Mar 28
Very interesting article.I was waiting for an article like this.Good work Prof. surely this will be the issue most of the telcos will have to face in nother few years time.As the society is concerning more on green and people appreciating green companies. I am hoping for many more articles in this field and much more debate in the society over this issue.
10. D. Sen Mar 22
What's interesting is that we have a Sri Lankan University student who does not know enough to stay away from a high tension line!

Yes, they walk among us and breed too!
More interesting the media would have called Prof. because he seems to know everything. Can we not have such a person as the Education minister instead of ex ....

9. Rohan Samarajiva Mar 20
My objectives were twofold: first was to illustrate the need for trade-offs and choices in relation to a current news story; the second was to show how proper public policy is done.

It appears that some of my readers want me to do other things while also complaining about the length of the column. Difficult to keep it short and also cover the waterfront in terms of all the possible misfortunes that may befall a person using a mobile, no?

That too is a trade-off.

8. meerkat21 Mar 19
The opportunity to point out the fact that a mobile user is far more likely to get killed by using a mobile phone in an inappropriate way-- more than by the radiation emitted by the unit--was missed completely by the author in this long winded article (albeit very informative one)

Here are some dangerous ( physical dangers) associated with the use of mobiles:

1. While driving a vehicle, riding a motorbike or a pedal cycle.

2. Walking along a highway- one can get knocked down, robbed or even raped- don't see the impending or oncoming danger whilst distracted on the phone . Motorcycle gangs are specifically targeting young women to rob neck chains and handbags.

3. In a petrol station close to the pump- the signal can cause a fire in the presence of fumes- petrol spilled on the ground.

4. During lightning- can get a strong shock due to induction.

5. Crossing the road with the mobile plastered to the ear - distraction plus cannot hear oncoming vehicles

6. Sitting on the railway line and talking or listening to music.( yes they do that too!!)

7. Magnetic radiation can interfere with a pacemaker implant if the implant is on the left side of the chest and the mobile is kept in the left shirt pocket.

8. Texting while driving( The cause of many major accidents including a rail crash that killed over a hundred people in Australia)

9. Using a mobile near medical equipment that are not shielded( older equipment) can alter their programs-especially in intensive care units.

10. Can get assaulted by an irate passenger if used in a bus or an airliner. This happens to someone everyday in US and UK!!

7. paul Mar 18
Good article, but the headset should be wired and shielded (small magnet at base of cord near phone does this nicely) and wireless base stations should not be allowed on rooftops.
6. meerkat21 Mar 17
For more than 40 years, the tobacco industry and the authorities, denied that there is any association between smoking and lung cancer, when doctors were seeing cancer of the lung almost exclusively in smokers. Similarly, when at least one member of families working in asbestos mines developed mesothelioma-a type of cancer of the lung, it took about 30 years to prove statistically that asbestosis is the main cause of this cancer. Again the industry and the authorities hid all data and information from the public.

The fact is industry and governments have a poor record of safeguarding the public.

I agree that there is a downside to everything we do as humans. And I also agree that guns don't kill people - Idiotic, insane people kill people. Likewise mobile Phones don't kill people- inappropriate use of mobile phones kill people.

Suddenly- it seems - that even toddlers and grandmothers can't survive without a mobile . Walk and Talk seems to be the motto- even when they are crossing the road!! One wonders what in the world are they talking about so much?. I suspect 90 % of the calls are unnecessary. Welcome to the new high tech world where time wasting has been turned into a fine art!! Facebook anyone?

5. Mahisha Mar 17
Informative article - thank you. Nice to see (and not surprised) about links to other - authoritative- sources. Wish LBO could have provided the hyperlink function though, just for sake of perfection.

Sir, you may also like to know that there is a person who sells Vade (using his cart) who now calls a colleagues office in advance of is arrival - this phone of his, undoubtedly helps him increase sales...

4. Mac Kull Mar 17
Everyone know cellphone radiation is harming people and all anyone has to do is just a little bit of research on the Internet to find information proving cellphones cause health problems. Example:

Watch Video (12 Minutes): This video of a Canadian TV report exposes the warning cell phone companies give, but hide inside their user manuals: (Source: )

Watch Video (43 Minutes): Cell Phone Radiation and Your Health - Dr. Devra Davis (Source: )

Watch Video: (14 minutes): What Does The Cell Phone Industry Tell You?, Lloyd Morgan, B.S., Senior Science Fellow, Environmental Health Trust and Member, Bioelectromagnetics Society (Source: )

Watch Video: (21 minutes): Biological Effects (DNA Damage) of Cell Phone & EMF Dr. Martin Blank, PhD Speaks At Commonwealth Club 11-18-10 (Source: )

Watch Video (10 Minutes): U.S. Senate Hearing: "Cell Phones and Cancer" (Source: )

Watch Video: (12 minutes): Electro-Hypersensity and EMF: Dr. Olle Johansson, PhD, Associate Professor and head of the Experimental Dermatology Unit, Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, and Professor, The Royal Institute of Technology Speaks At Commonwealth Club 11-18-10 (Source: )

Watch Video: (15 minutes): Cell Phones and Brain Tumors What Does The Science Show Dr. Joel Moskowitz, PhD, Director, Center for Family and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley Speaks At Commonwealth Club 11-18-10 (Source: )

Watch video (10 Minutes): Cell Phones, DNA Damage & Kids - Dr. Martin Blank, PhD, Dept. of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics, Columbia University) (Source: )

Watch Video (9 minutes): Cellphone Health - Part 1; Dr. Ronald Herberman, MD - Former Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (Source: )

Watch Video (9 minutes): Cellphone Health - Part 2; Dr. Ronald Herberman, MD - Former Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (Source: )

Watch Video (10 minutes): Evidence for Cellular Stress-Heat Shock Protein Activation, Part-1; Martin Blank, PhD, Columbia University. Source:

Watch Video (10 minutes): Evidence for Cellular Stress-Heat Shock Protein Activation, Part-2; Martin Blank, PhD, Columbia University. (Source: )

Watch Video (38 Minutes): (Norwegian Broadcasting Co.) Radiation Exposure War (Source:

Watch Video (2 Minutes): "Cellphones and Brain Cancer" Dr. Devra Davis' (Source: )

Watch Video (38 Minutes): THE BIOINITIATIVE REPORT - Interview with Cindy Sage (Source: )

Watch Video (8 Minutes): Cigarettes and Cell Phones (Source: )

Watch Video (6 Minutes): Australia's Dr. Khurana, Brain Surgeon-Cell Phones/EMF (Source: )

Watch Video (20 Minutes): ABC News Australia--Very Informative (Source: )

Watch Video (6 Minutes): Teens Talking To Teens (Source: )

Watch Video (4 Minutes): "The Cell Phone Song" Even the Hip-Hop crowd gets it! (Source: )

3. doch1500 Mar 17
Agree with Prof. Seriously !!! this death could not have attributed to the use of a mobile. Most people go on DUM mode when they use a mobile – take the roads for example … I’ve had people walk across oncoming traffic simply looking the other way on a phone call. She had absolutely no care for all the honking I did .

Luckily drivers are compelled to stop. No so lucky for this guys as the power cable would have come in to contact with him.

The building was anyway too close to the power line from the pictures shown on TV.

2. ihi Mar 17
I think it also the responsibility of telcos and advertising firms to pass the "safety" message. i have even seen telco adverts where they show "a girl talking on mobile while standing on the steps of a train" and "a man talking over phone and tryin to fly while standing on edge at Sigiriya". Another ad shows a boy falling down some stairs while watching movies on mobile ? i am curious what is the message these adverts pass anyway ?
1. Dinesh Mar 17
Interesting article. Out of curiosity, did the student come into physical contact with the electrical line, or does electricity somehow "jump" when someone gets too close?