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Indian Report, at Odds With Mainstream, Raises Mobile Phone Concerns

4 February 2011 2:18 pm
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NEW DELHI—In a report that departs from the scientific mainstream, an Indian government panel is warning that radio emissions from cell phones may pose a hazard to public health. One member of the group has written that Indians may be more vulnerable to such radiation than Europeans because they live in a tropical climate and, on average, have a lower body fat content. These views contrast with an exhaustive review by the World Health Organization that concluded last year: "To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use."

The 58-page Indian report was released this month by the Department of Telecommunications here. The authors, eight Indian experts ranging from health specialists to telecom engineers, reviewed the international literature on electromagnetic frequency emissions and described more than 20 case studies in which a health hazard from mobile phone usage has been documented. They did not carry out any studies. The report suggests that there is cause for concern about the low-energy signals that mobile phones use to communicate with broadcast towers--and one author says that Indians face greater risks than other populations.

R. S. Sharma, a public health specialist on the panel from the Indian Council of Medical Research, writes in the report that, "the hot tropical climate of the country, the low body mass index; low fat content of an average Indian as compared to European countries and high environmental concentration of radio frequency radiation may place Indians under risk of radio frequency radiation adverse effect." But Sharma admits that the evidence is not clinching. That's one reason why the Indian health ministry has initiated a 5-year study to gather more scientific evidence on the potential effects of electromagnetic radiation.

Arvind Duggal, a member of the authoring panel representing the Department of Biotechnology here, told the daily business newspaper The Mint on 4 February that, "there were some studies that suggested links between various health disorders and cell phones and towers, but they are inconclusive. So it was decided—on a precautionary principle—that some steps can be taken to reduce exposure to radiation."

For this reason, the committee has recommended that the permissible level of radiation emitted from mobile phone towers be reduced by one-tenth the current value and that India adopt the U.S. standard for the permitted amount of radiation exposure from handsets. The Indian panel also recommended that manufacturers display on each handset the potential radiation exposure it may cause.

Rajan Mathew, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India here says, "this report is a compilation and not conclusive," but industry will adhere to any guidelines that emerge from the government's review, provided they are based on proven evidence.

The government will try to gather more evidence on whether Indians are really more vulnerable to mobile usage. In the interim, the report recommends simple precautions like using a hands-free device, keeping conversations short, and using land-line phones whenever possible.

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