Sri Lanka’s mobilephobia and health

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: http://www.slbc.lk/index.php/component/content/article/1-latest-news/5933-the-minister-of-power-and-energy-attributes-electrocution-accidents-to-negligence-of-the-people-).

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 and from mobile network towers and handsets. 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.

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
    • Use a wireless hands-free system (headphone, headset) with a low power Bluetooth emitter to reduce radiation to the head.
    • When buying a cell phone, make sure it has a low SAR.
    • Either keep your calls short or send a text message (SMS) instead. This advice applies especially to children, adolescents and pregnant women.
    • Whenever possible, use cell phone when the signal quality is good.
    • 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.

Trade-offs

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.