Where public health, government and business need to connect
Chitra Subramaniam | The News Minute | August 30, 2014 | 12.31 pm IST
What if this is the first message you get when you switch on your new cell phone - Statutory Warning: Spending more than an hour on this instrument may lead to brain cancer.
Is it true, the evidence about cancers and tumours from cell-phones and telephone towers?
Epidemiological studies and scientific data about the hazards associated with cell phones are under constant revision and the precautionary principle is increasingly gaining credence. Europeans are more conservative than Americans.“Until the jury is in people especially children have to be taught about the harmful effects of abusive cell-phone use and emissions from telecom towers – I think there should be some kind of statutory warning,” Bollywood actor and activist Juhi Chawla told The News Minute.
There are warnings on plastic toys and bath products, kitchen gadgets and foods. Informing cell-phone users about the harmful effects of abusive use is a step in that direction. Celebrity voices to public health are common in the United States where people from arts and entertainment have turned the tide on HIV/AIDS research to tobacco control.
“As a parent and a citizen, I am very worried about the electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation from telecom towers and mobile phones,” she said. “Why do we have to wait to find out the harmful effects which could include cancers and tumours till it is too late,” she added.
With that Chawla, a successful Bollywood film actor and the most known face of public health advocacy raising policy and prevention issues related to EMF radiation has placed her finger on the nerve centre – why wait till it is too late?
The battle in India is vast and multi-pronged. At any given point in time, someone is either buying selling or repairing a telephone in a country that has some 900 million mobile telephone connections. According to some studies over 80 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people can access mobile telephony.
Sensing public discontent and the gaping holes in the implementation of its own rules and an aggressive industry, the government is slated to launch a National EMF portal which will respond to questions from citizens. The Indian portal is based on an existing European model and is currently being tested in a few cities across the country.
But the history of public health advocacy is replete with issues where the failure to walk the talk from data to decision has resulted in tragedy including deaths. The EMF debate has all the ingredients that make for very robust advocacy – it has a strong industry, an engaged government, an alert media and a watchdog public interest group to which Chawla has lent her voice and support. Her concerns come even as the next-generation of cell-phones hit the Indian market inviting unsuspecting children and adolescents to ditch the old for the new and shiny.
In 2012, the government re-looked at the EMF from mobile towers and lowered it to 1/10th of the existing International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) exposure levels. Currently radiation levels emitted by cellphone towers in India are 0.92 watt per square metre (w/m2). There is a monitoring cell and there is a punitive fee for non-compliance.
The government has also ruled that all new design handsets must comply with a Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) value of 1.6 watt per kilogram (w/kg) which averages over 1 gram of human tissue. August 31 2014 was the deadline set for all non-compliant handsets to be phased out or eliminated. There are also rules for where a telephone tower may be installed.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) – an industry body - stops just short of calling concerned citizens bigoted and ignorant. According to an official who spoke to TNM on conditions of anonymity, the public health responsibility of this issues lies with parents and the government.
“The COAI should stop misleading people and the government – we will fight this till we succeed,” says Prakash Munshi who works with Ms. Chawla and other concerned citizens who keep a watch over what the government is doing as well as what the industry is not doing.
Compliance, rules, laws are largely unknown words in this sector as there is no punishment. In fact whoever says compliance in India in public health also says who cares or worse, we have problems that are far worse than EMF. This is where the EMF struggle closely resembles the tobacco control one as it is very common for people in India to say why worry about smoking while people die of other diseases. It took over fifty years of advocacy based on science, economics and a galloping death rate and a final court battle in Minnesota for tobacco companies to acknowledge that tobacco kills. Tobacco kills one million Indian annually.
However, the big difference between tobacco and cell phones is that while there is no safe way to smoke a cigarette, there’s a safe way to use a cell-phone. “My pediatrican shares my concerns. There’s a lot of pressure on children to acquire the latest phones, spend hours on it – we have to teach them to use these products in a way that does not damage their health,” Chawla says.
People are increasingly hesitant to allow operators from installing towers on their terraces or near their homes. But for one person who says no, there may be 10 who say yes. India is a poor country and temptation is real.
Read government guidelines here