Updated report writes off radiation fears

Bonnie Tubbs
By Bonnie Tubbs, ITWeb telecoms editor.
Johannesburg, 03 May 2012

The contentious issue of cellphone technology and the effect on human health has once again been sparked with the recent release of a report suggesting cellphone-associated radiation poses no threat to humankind.

The UK's Health Protection Agency (HPA) last week concluded there is still no convincing evidence that cellphone technologies cause adverse effects on human health. An update on the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation's (AGNIR's) 2003 review, the HPA finding considers previous research on exposure to radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic (EM) fields produced by cellphone technologies and other wireless devices, such as WiFi and television and radio transmitters.

The report stipulates, in its “key conclusions”, that RF field exposure below guideline levels does not cause symptoms in humans, and that the presence of RF fields cannot be detected by people, even those who report being sensitive to RF fields. Furthermore, the report concludes, as cellphone technology has only been in widespread public use for a relatively short period of time, there is little information on risks beyond 15 years from first exposure.

The HPA's general statement with regards to the use of cellphones is: “There are thousands of published scientific papers covering research about the effects of various types of radio waves on cells, tissues, animals and people. The scientific consensus is that, apart from the increased risk of a road accident due to mobile phone use when driving, there is no clear evidence of adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones or from phone masts.”

Due to the widespread use of the relatively new technology, however, director of the HPA's Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, Dr John Cooper, says the group will continue to advise a precautionary approach and “keep the science under close review”.

Putting it in perspective

Strategy Worx MD Steven Ambrose says that, while radiation is an emotive subject and many have long felt that too much, or in fact any radiation at all, is harmful - cellphone radiation is comparatively low.

“Cellular radiation is [of a] very low frequency, and very low power in general, and for many, if not all usage scenarios totally benign to human health. There is more danger if you put your head too close to a microwave oven.

“To put things into perspective, the FM radio and TV transmitters, that sit within a few kilometres of most urban homes, send out radio frequencies of a [radiation] magnitude greater than most cellular phones.

“At full power a cellular phone may emit a maximum of two watts of power, while a TV transmitter will routinely put out 50 000 watts on a constant basis. Even at a few kilometres distance from the tower you are bathed in radio frequencies of a power exceeding that of a mobile device.”

Ambrose says it is early days for the industry and the true effects of radiation remain inconclusive, but on a risk to benefit ratio, cellphone radiation is very low on the list of things to be concerned about. “The benefits of mobile communication far exceed the miniscule risk of radiation causing cancer.”

Rival rejoinder

Tracey-Lee Dorny, chairperson of the Electromagnetic Radiation Research Foundation of SA (ERRFSA), says AGNIR produced a misleading report on behalf of the HPA and that the “guideline levels” it refers to are insufficient.

“They set a standard that is based on six minutes of thermal heating on an adult male, and the biological effects of 24/7 exposure of a myriad of frequencies on the public, especially children, the elderly and those whose immune systems may already be compromised [are not represented].”

Dorny has long been campaigning against the dangers of cellphone technology and radiation, and, in 2010, spearheaded an initiative to have an iBurst base station in Fourways removed after she claimed her family's health declined when the infrastructure was erected.

“No safe levels [of radiation] have been declared for children by any organisation in the world and none of the service providers can guarantee their equipment will not damage our health.” Dorny says the ERRFSA is particularly concerned about the effects of radiation on children, who are becoming increasingly familiar with mobile technology.

She refers to other industries responsible for exposing the public to harmful chemicals, drawing a parallel between the discrepancies - and what she terms lobbying - by, for example, tobacco and asbestos companies that “kept the dangers of their products quiet for years”.

Dorny further cites research that links decreased fertility in males, cancer, diabetes, mental illness, heart disease and respiratory disease to radiation exposure.

“[In addition to this, the report makes] no mention of the decision by the World Health Organisation to classify RF radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans, based on scientific evidence.”