The right call?
ELECTROMAGNETIC radiations from mobile phones and towers have been a source of health scare for some time now. But the Indian government has been slow in tightening the noose around cell phone manufacturers and operators’. In the absence of adequate checks, people are unaware of how to protect themselves. Cashing in on this insecurity are companies that promote technologies promising protection from radiation (see ‘Radiation barriers’).
WHO in 2011 classified electromagnetic radiation as a possible carcinogen after finding some linkages between exposure and brain tumours. In the light of this classification and a slew of cases in the court, the Department of Telecommunications (DOT), under the Union Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, revised the norms for radiations from cell towers and phones on September 1. The norms reduce the power density—intensity of radiation emitted by towers—to one tenth of the levels previously allowed. This means that for two different technologies used in mobile—CDMA and GSM—that work on 900 MHz frequency, the allowable power density is now 0.45 W/m2. For GSM phones that work on 1,800 MHz frequency, the power density is 0.9 W/m2.
For handsets, the limit of energy absorbed per unit mass of human tissues has been reduced on the basis of their effect on different parts of the body. For example, for the head, which touches the cell phone and absorbs maximum radiation, the current rules allow a maximum of 2W/kg of tissue. It has now been reduced to 1.6W/kg tissue. The Indian authorities have copied the standards of the US and have only recently bought in the device that can track radiations emitted by the phones. All the handsets manufactured in or imported to India will comply with this limit and existing handsets which do not comply with the new norms will be phased out by August 2013.
The standards set by DOT are not on the basis of any evidence. An inter- ministerial committee, which was set up in 2010 to examine the health hazards of electromagnetic radiations, recommended this value as a precautionary measure. The reduction might not help, say experts. Girish Kumar, professor of electrical engineering at IIT Bombay, says the new rules are just “eyewash”. He points out that power densities from 95 per cent of the cell towers are already below the new proposed levels.
Similarly, the mobile phones being manufactured already meet the new standards.
The way to reduce the levels of radiation from the cell phone towers is to increase the number of towers in the country and reduce their power. The power density is inversely proportional to the square of distance, so people living near the towers are the most vulnerable, says V P Sandlas, former scientist with Defence Research and Development Organisation. “Operators prefer towers with high power densities just to cover larger areas,” he adds. There were 540,000 cell towers and 934.09 million mobile subscribers in India in 2010.
Mobile phone operators are reluctant to install low-power towers. They say if power densities are reduced it will cause connectivity problems. This is hard to believe because many countries, including Russia, China, Hungary and Switzerland, have adopted much lower radiation levels without facing connectivity problem. For example, Austria has a power density of 0.001W/m2, while in China it is 0.4W/m2 at 1,800 MHz.
Experts say the high cost could be the reason for operators unwillingness to increase the number of towers. It is also the reason operators are not interested in using technologies that improve connectivity in low power densities—distributed antenna system (DAS) and femtocells can magnify the signals. DAS consistsÃ”Ã‡Ãªof a tower with multiple antenna sets while femtocells are low power transmitters. DOT, however, says the technologies are not feasible as apart from cost there is lack of space. Besides, there are 13 operators in the country and each family uses various mobile networks; different femtocells are required for each operator.
The only option available to people is to put their faith on products available in the market. Radiation protection chips, curtains, paints and pouches have flooded the market but the technology used in some of them is still a mystery. Chips are the most popular. Levin Healthcare Pvt Ltd, a company based in Uttar Pradesh, which manufactures the chips, refused to divulge details about how it works, maintaining that they use an “innovative” technology. They are fake, says Sandlas. Curtains and pouches that may work are only a temporary solution. “The only way out is to reduce power density,” he adds. But regulators are adamant. “It is impossible to reduce power densities. These demands are being made to promote radiation-safe products,” says P K Panigrahi, senior deputy director general of DOT.