A day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned of the possibility of mobile phone handsets causing cancer, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said on Thursday that there was “no reason to panic” as a study conducted in the Western countries could not be extrapolated on the Indian population.
“The people are genetically different, the technology in India is different, so are the environmental conditions,” R.S. Sharma, a senior scientist of the ICMR and chief coordinator of the ICMR's study on health impacts of radiation from mobile phone towers and cellular phones, told The Hindu.
He said the ICMR would examine the WHO's report and also go through the findings of its own ongoing study before reaching a final conclusion.
However, an ongoing study of radiation from mobile phone towers and cellular phones at Jawaharlal Nehru University has found that the exposure to radiation could adversely affect male fertility and cause health hazards by depleting the defence mechanism of cells.
Though these findings were based on experiments on male rats, Jitender Behari, professor of JNU's School of Environmental Sciences and lead researcher for the government-funded project, told The Hindu earlier this year that the health implications were relevant to human beings, too. He and his team are conducting tests on Wistar rats or lab rats, mainly focussing on two aspects of radiation — its effect on the reproductive system and on the general health, including tumour promotion and genotoxic effects (causing damage to DNA).
The study has shown that the use of cellular phones adversely affects the quality of semen by decreasing sperm count, motility, viability and morphology, thus contributing to male infertility. Similarly, microwave radiation may alter the level of antioxidant owing to the free radical formations, Dr. Behari's experiment concluded.
In January this year, a high-level inter-ministerial committee called for revision of radiation norms to suit Indian conditions and environment in the wake of serious concerns at electromagnetic radiation from mobile phone towers and handsets.
Installation of towers
The committee called for strict restrictions on the installation of towers near high-density residential areas, schools, playgrounds and hospitals.
Recommending the use of hands-free and earphone technologies, the committee said these technologies could minimise the contact of head with the phone. Stating that the radio frequency exposure limits in India could be lowered to one-tenth of the existing level, the committee pointed out that India's hot tropical climate, the low body mass index and the low fat content of an average Indian, compared to European countries, and the high environmental concentration of radio frequency radiation may place Indians at a high risk of adverse effect, and the level of susceptibility of an average Indian may be different.
India now follows the WHO-approved International Commission on Non-ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) guidelines. But Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Russia have adopted stricter guidelines.
Though the Department of Telecommunications has fixed Rs. 5 lakh in penalty for each mobile phone tower emitting radiation above the prescribed norms, it has failed to implement these guidelines.
Last year, its Telecom Engineering and Resource Monitoring Cells started a campaign to ask all tower operators to give self-certification. But it is yet to get full compliance report from them. There are more than 5.6 lakh towers in the country, and the number could go up to seven lakh in the next couple of years owing to the rapid expansion of mobile telephony.
The Ministry of Commerce has decided to notify that imported handsets should bear self-certification by manufacturers that they meet radiation standards. Indian manufacturers have also been asked to follow similar guidelines.
However, the lack of awareness among users of the dangerous levels of radiation emitted by handsets has been a major cause for concern.