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Talk is cheap, but dangerous?

"My ear starts burning when I use my mobile phone...," actress Kareena Kapoor, Airtel's brand ambassador, said at a recent news conference

india Updated: Feb 28, 2003 18:16 IST

"My ear starts burning when I use my mobile phone. I prefer to message instead," actress Kareena Kapoor, who is Airtel's brand ambassador, said at a recent news conference. She is not alone with this problem. Ask cell users, and some will surely complain about a burning sensation and a buzzing sound in the ear. With more and more people going mobile, the issue is growing in importance.

So, does the constant use of your cellphone dramatically affect your health? It depends on whom you believe. Yes, say several consumer protection advocates, citing several cases across the world. No, the effects are negligible, say cellphone manufacturers.

There is a third category of people who peddle different kinds of mobile phone radiation guards, and say that protection is necessary to ward off the ill effects of prolonged mobile phone usage. Visit the website rfsafe.net, and you will see a ticking clock that offers a $1 million reward to anyone who can prove that exposure to cellphone radiation does not cause biological changes in the human body.

Radio frequency energy
Cellphones are essentially two-way radios. They receive and transmit radio signals and are therefore low-powered radio frequency (RF) transmitters, emitting maximum power in the range of 0.2 to 0.6 watts. Other types of handheld transmitters such as walkie-talkies may emit 10 watts or more.

Radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes light, x-rays, microwaves among others. Every electrical device, from television sets to battery powered toys, emits a certain amount of electromagnetic radiation. The scientific term used for the radiation emitted from cellphones is called RF energy. There have been several studies on the damaging effects of electromagnetic radiation on human tissue.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), several issues must be kept in mind when evaluating the possible health effects of RF fields. One is the frequency of operation. GSM mobile phone systems operate at frequencies between 800 and 1800 MHz. Even CDMA phones emit radiation.

It is important not to confuse such RF fields with ionising radiation, such as x-rays or gamma rays. Unlike ionising radiation, RF fields cannot cause ionisation or radioactivity in the body. Because of this, RF fields are called non-ionising.

However, unlike tobacco, where we can directly draw a connection between increased smoking and chances of lung-related ailments, with electromagnetic waves the situation is more complicated.

Says Sanjay Srivastava, a radiologist based in Mayur Vihar: "We know of international studies saying that prolonged use of a mobile phone can cause inner ear cancer. If you place the phone on your breast pocket, it can also interfere with your heart rate," he says, and adds that while a lot of research has been carried out in the West over the issue, he isn't aware of any published studies with specific reference to this subject in India.

No conclusive evidence
People like Sidharth Saldana, a marketing director with Indo-American.com, a retailer of radiation guards, say there are serious ill-effects associated with mobile phone usage. But according to most cellphone operators and vendors, there is no conclusive evidence yet that increased cellphone use can dramatically affect your health.

However, it is true that certain older cellphones did emit very strong and potentially damaging RF energy. Companies do not contest the fact that the devices emit waves. These waves can penetrate your skull, and damage the soft-tissue of the brain, says Saldana.

So can sitting next to a computer monitor all the time, says the other side.

The current generation of digital phones uses digital amplifiers inside the phone, which enhance the signal, meaning that they both emit and receive far less radiation than before. The same does not apply for analog devices, which were made before 1997. These emitted far higher levels of radiation.

In the US, the Federal Communications Council and Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) have come up with standards on the amount of radiation that can be emitted by mobile phones. handsets in the US sometimes come with indicators of how much emission they radiate. However, in the FDA website, the following note is carried. "If there is a risk for these products - and at this point we do not know that there is - it is probably very small."

First Published: Feb 25, 2003 18:39 IST