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Is mobile phone safe? An insight
« on: July 23, 2011, 08:05:57 PM »

Is mobile phone safe? An insight

Subir Kumar Bhattacharyya


In dealing with the subject “Is mobile phone safe?”, I shall begin by reiterating an important fact as to why truth about cell phone radiation is hidden from public and thereafter state the science of cell phone radiation and refer to recent studies on the safety of cell phone.

The first point of my deliberation has in part to do with few comments on my previous write-up “Mobile-phones pose cancer risk” made by Mr. V. Sasi Kumar, Free Software Foundation of India. Two comments that “WHO’ s labelling of mobile phone radiation as a “possibility of its being carcinogenic” is probably generating apprehension among mobile phone users” and he thought, “this is a bit premature” and that “the popular media make it sound much more dangerous than it really is, and cause an unnecessary scare” need to be addressed. First, unlike various issues in physics, which are proven by mathematics and then experimentally verified, health science is far from perfect. Health science as of now relies mostly on statistical models based on experiments with animals and often times on trial and error. Why should pharmaceutical companies selling medicines and industrial enterprises marketing products reveal such research findings as provide ample evidence to establish that their products could cause health problems? Revelation of unbiased truth does not make commercial sense at all. In many cases, pharmaceutical companies are to market, with prior permission from their regulatory bodies, medicinal products that are likely to cause health problems and even in a few percentage of cases death to patients taking them, because those medicines cure diseases that are otherwise incurable. Doctors prescribing them always consider if the beneficial effects of the medicines outweigh possible adverse side effects. In case of industrial products, no such compulsion to use them exists if the products are hazardous.
Verily, cell phone is an integral part of modern civilization. We can’t part with it, but by taking some precautionary measures, exposure to radiation can be minimised. When there is apprehension about health risk, is it not necessary to take precautionary measures to avoid risk as far as practicable? Will it be prudent not to take any action and continue using cell phone without any precaution, particularly because some studies found no definite connection or link between cell phone use and cancer and other health problems? When our health is the issue, we must look at which organizations have conducted those studies and if the findings are conclusive. Are the companies marketing cell phones display any warning? Yes, they now incorporate a paragraph in users’ manual warning people not to make any body contact while using cell phones. Various companies record various safe distances ranging from 1 inch to 0.8 inch that users should keep cell phones away from their ear in order to minimise exposure to radiation to a level that may not be harmful. How many of us care to read manuals and find out if there is any warning? Human mind is not conditioned to look for warning sign from the jumble of users’ manual. Trillion dollar Telephone Industry is aware of this and as such it does not post warning sign on the product itself, but it does only in the users’ manual, which very few will care to read. Those who read and those who hear from others are least bothered to take warning seriously as they see no discernible health problems the users are suffering from in the short term. The bigger problem to ensure public safety is that, apart from public apathy to gain insight into hazards from environmental degradation and electronic gadgets, industrial enterprises, particularly the trillion dollar cellular phone industry deliberately hide from public domain many research findings that their scientists came up with.  How many of us know about Frey Effect named after the American Neuroscientist Allan H. Frey, which is a syndrome that manifests in audible clicks induced by pulsed/ modulated microwave frequencies? The clicks are generated directly inside the human head without the need of any receiving electronic device. The cell phone industry very well know two renowned scientists in the field of radiation- Om Gandhi and Franz Adlkofer who worked for the industry and did extensive research on the effects of radio frequencies on human health. These two scientists who worked for the industry later fell foul of the latter because they published a few papers, which the industry did not like and found deleterious to the promotion of cell phones. Cover-up of scientific truth is a strategy that many industries employ when they found that revelation of certain research findings might harm promotion of their products and even could implicate them in huge litigations in future. This happened to tobacco industry. Pharmaceutical companies also apply this strategy as and when necessary. Although, there are innumerable instances, I just wish to cite one.
As is widely known, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Plc. is a global multi-dimensional pharmaceutical and healthcare company, formed in 2000 through the merger and acquisition of a number of companies, Glaxo Plc being the parent company. It had invented and marketed ranitidine, a H2 blocker under the trade name zantac possibly in 1970s.The medicine was prescribed to treat peptic ulcers and other abdominal conditions in the upper GI tract. The medicine had been one of the best seller in the modern pharmaceutical history and generating considerable revenue for the company since it had been first marketed, until of course the arrival of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). In 1982, Dr. Barry John Marshall and Dr. J. Robin Warren of Perth, Western Australia found a bacteria later named Helicobacter Pylori (H. pylori) in the stomachs of patients with gastritis and gastric and duodenal ulcers and cured them with combination of antibiotics and acid reducers like H2 blocker, most effective being zantac at that time. The model the Australian scientists employed was to select a group of patients with peptic ulcer and another group with no symptoms and collect stomach tissue from both groups. The tissue cultures showed growth of H. pylori among almost all peptic ulcer patients, but among the other group, about half was free of the bacterium species and the rest had the bacterium in their stomach with no symptoms. They theorised that about half of general population might have the bacteria in their upper GI tract, but only a percentage of them would develop peptic ulcers and other abdominal problems like gastritis, dyspepsia and even cancer in the long run. But the theory might be difficult to withstand rigors of scientific scrutiny for various reasons, which are not covered here and not necessarily important for our deliberations. The two doctor-researchers failed to publish their research findings in prestigious scientific and medical journals in the UK, USA and other European countries because Glaxo influenced British press, which in turn influenced press of other western countries not to publish the research findings. Question naturally comes to mind-what the heck did Glaxo do? The answer is simple. The motive was driven by profit. If the H. pylori theory was correct and one-time use of antibiotics could cure peptic ulcers, there would be no need for peptic ulcer patients to swallow zantac for the rest of their life. In the past, a patient used to continue with zantac indefinitely as its withdrawal caused ulcer to recur.  To convince the scientific world about their findings, Dr. Barry John Marshal, who had no H. pylori in his stomach, swallowed, in full view of the world, live cultured bacteria. After a few days, he developed serious symptoms of gastric ulcer and ultimately got rid of the disease by taking a regimen of two antibiotics (names of many effective combinations available in  Helico Foundation website), one PPI and colloidal bismuth subcitrate (De-Nol) (another medicine bismuth subsalicylate under the trade name Pepto-Bismol is available in America) for two weeks.
American press and WHO took the matter seriously and worked towards getting the truth accepted by the world community. Barry John Marshal migrated to the US and founded a charitable organisation under the name Helico Foundation dedicated to raising public awareness, treatment and eradication of the diseases by inventing vaccine. Both scientists won Nobel Prize in medicine in 2005 for their phenomenal work.
I now try to explain some of the features of microwave radiation (the industry sometimes use radio frequencies to include microwave also). Light spectra consist of the whole range of electromagnetic radiation from seven visible light spectra to invisible light waves such as infra-red, microwave and radio wave in the longer wavelength range and ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray in shorter wavelength range. Light rays are basically bundles of massless photons propagating transversely (kind of wave) at the speed of light c. Photons exhibit the properties of being both particle and wave at the same time. Light spectra is the manifestation of same photons in different energy-states. Various energy states can be identified by measuring either the wavelength or the frequency of radiation. The more energy the photons have, the more is the frequency and shorter is the wavelength. Similarly, the less is the photons’ energy, the less is the frequency and longer is the wavelength. The frequency range of visible light is between 4x10 to the power 14 and 8x 10 to the power 14. Infra red ray has longer wavelength and much less frequency than the range of visible light. Microwave has still longer wavelength and still much lesser frequency or number of wavelengths. Radio waves have the longest wavelength, but the least frequency or least number of wavelengths. A very short definition of frequency, wavelength and mode of propagation may not be out of place. Light propagates in the form of transverse waves having oscillations occurring perpendicular (or right-angled) to the direction of energy transfer. If a transverse wave is moving in the positive X-direction, its oscillations are in up and down directions that lie in the Y–Z plane. Sound moves in the form of longitudinal waves, the motion of which is parallel to the direction the waves are travelling. To put it more succinctly, successive sound waves move in state of condensation followed by rarefaction and repeating the cycle. Wavelength is the distance between two successive crests or two troughs or the distance from the start of a wave to the next starting point. Frequency is the number of wavelengths or cycles per second. Cell phones generally transmit pulsed signals in the frequency range between 824x10 to the power 6 Hertz or 824 MHz and 894 MHz. Hz is the SI unit of frequency named after German scientist Heinrich Hertz. Verily, cell phones emit low power radiation between 1 and 3 watt and that is why heat generated in the brain is not clearly discernible. However, continuous pulsed radiation for two/ three hours or more must be taken into account. If radiation is not transformed into heat, it must have been transformed into potential, kinetic or chemical energy as energy is always conserved. In fact, heat is nothing but vibrations and movements of molecules and atoms (inside molecules) or in other words increase in kinetic energy. Another important point to ponder is that neurons are the most basic structures found in the central nervous system for the purpose of information processing and the 3-pound brain has about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillions synapses, that is, connectivity among neurons, prominently among neighbouring neurons. The communication between neurons is done through connectors known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help neurons communicate in various ways, such as movement of chemicals or electric signals across a connecting synapse. Microwave radiation is sure to interfere in the signal communications causing some problems in the brain if exposed to over a long period of time. Science is clear that there has to be some increase in activity in the brain due to cell phone radiation, but is not clear enough what damage it is going to cause to human health. However, the odds are that use of cell phone close to or touching ear for more than two hours everyday over a long period of time cannot be safe under any circumstances, rather it will cause serious health problems including cancer.
In addressing the last point of my deliberation, I emphasise that contrary to assertions by the cell phone industry and common belief, recent studies point to probable health risk. Researchers from the US National Institutes of Health have found that less than an hour of cell phone use can speed up brain activity in the area closest to the phone antenna, raising new questions about the health effects of low levels of radiation emitted from cellphones. A recent study, published in the Journal of the American Association, is among the first and largest to document that the weak radio-frequency signals from cellphones have the potential to alter brain activity. Swedish researchers from Lund University have studied the effects of microwave radiation on the rat brain.
They found a leakage of albumin into the brain via a permeated blood-brain barrier. This confirms earlier work on the blood-brain barrier by Allan Frey, Oscar and Hawkins, and Albert and Kerns. Some national radiation advisory authorities, including those of Austria, France, Germany and Sweden have recommended measures to minimise exposure to their citizens. Examples of the recommendations are:

-    Use hands-free to decrease the radiation to the head.
-     Keep the mobile phone away from the body.
-     Do not use telephone in a car without an external antenna

Om Gandhi’s research showed that the brains of children and smaller adults had deeper radiation penetration than a big muscular adult. Henry Lai of Seattle, Washington and later Om Gandhi and few others, researching with rats, found that cell phone electromagnetic radiation damaged their DNA. Some of the studies conducted by national governments concluded that extensive exposure to cell-phone radiation due to continuous use for long hours over 10 years or more was responsible for increase in growth of glioma, meningioma, acoustic neuroma, parotid gland tumour and anaplastic astrocystoma. Some other studies conducted by university hospitals found that extensive microwave radiation could cause Anisotropy Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease that Stephens Hawking is suffering from, Alzheimer’s, low fertility in men as manifest in low sperm count or diseased spermatozoa and so on.  In March 2008, The Independent newspaper in the UK quoted leading neurosurgeon and cancer authority Professor Vini Khurana as predicting that mobile phones would kill more people than either smoking or asbestos. At that stage, three billion people used mobile phones, three times the number who smoked. And smoking, said Professor Khurana, kills five million worldwide each year.
An important drawback is that almost all ongoing experiments except a few (human model is used to show enhanced brain activity) to assess effects of microwave radiation are based on animal models because healthy human beings cannot be used as guinea pigs in experiments that may result in serious illness and even death. It became clear even in 2009 that at some point 3G networks would be overwhelmed by the growth of bandwidth-intensive applications like streaming media. Consequently, the industry began looking to data-optimized 4th-generation technologies, with the promise of speed improvements up to 10-fold over existing 3G technologies. The first two commercially available technologies billed as 4G were the WiMAX standard and the LTE standard, first offered in Scandinavia by TeliaSonera. The pace of technological progress, particularly cell phone technology, is so fast that it is imperative to determine conclusively the effects of cell phone use to human health over a long period of time and if it is detrimental, the possible measures to minimise the harmful effects. In the interim, manufacturers should be ordered to label warning sign on the products and appropriate public awareness campaign launched in such a manner as to disseminate facts, but avoid unnecessary scare.

The author is a popular
science writer and a former ambassador
Shahidul K K Shuvra


IT and Science Editor

The Independent