ICMR warns: ‘Keep mobile phones away from your body’

The country’s apex biomedical research is asking us to "use our phones on the basis of need and not as a hobby.”

BySreya Deb
ICMR warns: ‘Keep mobile phones away from your body’
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The buzz surrounding EMF radiation and its adverse effects on human health have been cited by many activists and social welfare organisations, and in some cases, even endorsed by Bollywood celebrities. But given the innate human psyche of treating our cell phones as an extension of our body, we tend to ignore these findings, simply so that we can “stay connected” with the rest of the world. 

Stepping in to clear the air about the ill-effects of EMF radiation is one of the oldest medical research bodies in the world—the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). In an exclusive conversation with its head Dr Radhey Shyam Sharma, we find that radio waves travelling from cell phone towers to your handset contain tiny doses of radiation that could be damaging to various aspects of your health. Recent findings have also proved that high levels of radioactivity can adversely affect the health of anybody living within a square kilometre of a cell phone tower.

Delhi currently houses over 8,000 cell towers (legal and otherwise) – an astounding number, considering that the hazards associated with EMR may be scientifically proved in due course.

Over the last four years, Sharma, along with other scientists at ICMR, have been conducting a prospective cohort study (a study with subjects having similar characteristics that may differ in certain factors in the scope of the findings) to ascertain how exposure to EMF radiation can have adverse effects on humans over certain periods of time. With subjects from all walks of life, they have come to fairly conclusive results about the health hazards posed by radiation from cell phone towers —mainly that they are not as harmless as we imagine them to be. Not only does EMF radiation take a toll on the reproductive organs of human beings, but it also causes irritability and lack of concentration. If you’ve been living in close proximity of a cell phone tower for some years now, chances are you’re already experiencing some of these symptoms.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

What is the scope of your study and how is the research being conducted?
“We have been conducting this study for four years now, and the preliminary results are quite clear. The subjects of the study are divided into three groups: those who use cell phones for less than half an hour a day, those who use them for 1-2 hours a day, and finally those that use them for a cumulative period of over 2-3 hours a day. The findings for each group are minutely different from one another by scale. We observe the effects it has on reproductive organs, as well as the cardiovascular and neurological aspects, among other things.”

In what way are reproductive organs affected by cell tower radiation?
“Well, for starters, men carry their phones in their pockets, which is very close to their testicular area. We have observed that the sperm count in their semen is decreasing by small amounts, the longer they are exposed to radiation. And the rate at which the sperm count is decreasing is higher for the third group of subjects than it is for the first and second. Not just that, the number of abnormal sperms has also increased. Studies in the US have actually proved that cell tower radiation has been the cause of breast cancer in women.”

What are some other health hazards that you have learned about from your research?
“Some of the most common ones are lack of concentration and irritability. Apart from this we have also noticed that the number of unwanted and damaged cells in the body is also increasing, which automatically requires the body to work twice as hard to eradicate them.”

Are we constantly in danger of being affected by radiation just because we have a phone in our hands?
“Phones are actually constantly radiating. When they are turned on, but inactive, the levels of radiation are much milder. However, when they are in active state, and become receptors for the cell towers, the levels of radiation become higher.
So keeping a phone in its active state close to the body does pose a danger for the future.”

How can this problem be tackled?
“The fact of the matter is, that India’s levels of radiation, while deemed to be safe, actually come across quite high. It’s currently standing at 0.92 W/m squared. Whereas for China, which is much more populated, the level is 0.4 W/m squared. Sweden stands even lower!”
“Countries like the US and Australia construct their cell towers away from habitations. They erect mega towers on the outskirts and minor ones in the populated regions which pick up signals from the man tower. In India, there are multiple cell towers, very close to human settlements, and they are channels for multiple service providers at the same time. That increases the radiation significantly. Better planning keeping in mind these factors would definitely benefit us.”

How do you suggest individual keep themselves safe?
“The best we can do is keep our phones away from our bodies when they are active and use our earphones when we take or make calls. And most importantly, use our phones on the basis of need and not as a hobby. The problem arises when people do not want to move out of their comfort zones even if it means a better quality of life.”

How much longer will you continue with this study?
“We aim to continue our efforts up to 2022. Perhaps we will reap more conclusive results within that time.”

Crux of the matter: Is radiation from cell phone towers harmful?

For the longest time, Apeksh Yadav could not make sense of his chronic headaches and his suddenly irritable nature. He runs a grocery store in the Saidulajab area of Saket and is a very busy man. Living with his wife, daughter and ageing father, Yadav is almost constantly on his toes, managing his family and business. Needless to say, the appearance of these afflictions has got him worried. He even consulted the family physician, who suggested that he was running himself into the ground and needed some rest.

Fast forward a few weeks and Yadav found himself in conversation with one of his nephews. This was the first time he found out about electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from cell phone towers. He has lived for nearly a decade at a distance of about 3 km from the cell tower in Saket. Further, he spent approximately three hours on his phone every day, just receiving and making calls, and even more time surfing the Internet, watching videos and listening to music.

This got him thinking: Could this be the reason for his continuous dull headaches and inexplicable bouts of anxiety? To test out this theory, he consciously maintained a distance from his phone. He did not sleep with it next to him, nor did he feed his urge to use it for any other reasons unless absolutely necessary.

At the end of three weeks, he said, “Mujhe nahi pata ki yeh sab mere dimaag mein hai ya sach mein kuch badla hai. Lekin mera sir aur utna dard nahi karta. Kuch relaxed sa bhi lagne laga uske baad.” (I don’t know if I’m imagining it or something really has changed. But my headaches are not as frequent anymore and I feel more relaxed).

Yadav is not the only one in such a predicament. Ever woken up with a dull headache in the morning? Suffered tiny bouts of memory loss? Felt overly anxious at certain points during the day for no particular reason?

What seems like perfectly normal symptoms of 21st-century stress could actually be the byproduct of your phone’s radiation.

Prakash Munshi, an activist with the non-profit Environmental Health Trust, works to create awareness about EMR from cell phone towers. He exclaims, “Workers are not supposed to be around the tower for more than six minutes at a stretch. Radiation is affecting them because they work there for long time periods.”

The Environmental Health Trust found that the number of worker accidents has risen sharply over the last few years, majorly due to illegal construction and lack of safety regulations in place for the workers. The radiation affects them at a much higher rate than it does to the general public, obviously due to their proximity to towers.

Munshi has repeatedly approached the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) as well as Tarang Sanchar (an app launched by the DoT which allows us to measure and map EMF radiations from our phones) asking for information and clarifications but has been rewarded with very little. None of which has really served to answer any of the questions he posed.

We’re all familiar with the rule of never carrying Samsung Note7s on a flight. The phones often overheat, injuring the owners. After almost 100 incidents, a ban was issued by the US government and consequently enforced by leading airlines.

The problem is not just with the Samsung model. Videos and reports have surfaced of phones literally catching fire while in use. Though these caused quite a stir, people have all been alarmingly cavalier, valuing their precious mobiles above everything. And why not? They bring the world to our fingertips and are fun.

Nevertheless, medical professionals have advised users to not sleep with their phones next to their heads, to turn off their data connection when not required, and to be alert when they become too warm.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a study conducted over 30 years, had identified that low levels of EMR could not cause any harm to the health of humans, and animals. The study concluded in 2016. It was in 2011 that the WHO deemed EMR is “possibly carcinogenic”.

Studies by non-profit Safe Space Protection have shown that our generation is exposed to 100 million times more radiation than our grandparents were. And if that isn’t a terrifying thought, what is?

To dispel fears about the possibility of radiation being carcinogenic and causing brain tumours, the government’s Department of Communications introduced the portal Tarang Sanchar. It is supposed to help individuals to measure and map EMR in their own area.

At the time of its launch, Minister of State for Communications & IT Manoj Sinha had said, “This portal will hopefully dispel several myths and misconceptions that have been perpetrated. There have been no scientific studies that show that low-level radiations emitted by cell phone towers can have an adverse impact on our health. This website will empower the people to learn about EMF radiations and the emissions by towers near them.”

Tarang Sanchar tells you the number of cell towers existing in your area, whether they are 2G, 3G or 4G, as well as whether they are cooperating within the radiation norms. Vodafone is the larger cell service provider in India after the merger with Idea. The company’s cell towers in Delhi are said to be emitting 0.03626 W/m squared (Watts per metre), while the permissible safe limit as prescribed by the DoT is 0.44115 W/m squared.

For a physical on-site EMR exposure measurement, the DoT expects a payment of Rs 4,000.

Other government departments are also negligent. To deal with the illegal cell towers, the NDMC drafted a new policy this year, in agreement with the telecom companies. The policy decreed that the towers erected illegally between 2010 and 2014 should pay an installation fee of Rs.1.5 lakh and for those built post-2014, a fee of Rs 2 lakh. But there is no move to restrict the total number of towers.

Actress Juhi Chawla along with a few others has also recently filed a plea to the Supreme Court, asking for regulations and norms to reduce the health hazards posed by cell tower radiation. It was only in mid- November this year that the Supreme Court agreed to hear these pleas and others on this subject. Chawla had earlier moved the apex court to have her petition transferred from the Bombay High Court.

But will ordinary people, once aware of these hazards, choose long-term health over the convenience of cell phones? At the very least, we can start by keeping handsets away from our bodies as much as possible and using them minimally. Why wait for the government to act?

This story has been republished from The Patriot.

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