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Cell Phone Radiation, a Nagging Concern
The Toronto Star, May 27, 2002
difficult to agree with China on many things, considering its blatant
disrespect for human rights and its lagging environmental protection
But on Friday I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the world's most
populous country was seriously considering the most stringent standards
for the amount of radiation that can be emitted from wireless devices.
Now, we all know what the wireless industry says about cell phone
radiation, and we all know what users of wireless phones deeply fear.
"Don't worry about it," say major companies such as Nokia and Ericsson,
who collectively highlight the lack of evidence to suggest cellphones
Their claims are backed up by several major studies, including a Danish
report released last February. The report, based on a survey of 400,000
wireless phone users, didn't rule out other nasty diseases such as
Alzheimer's, but generally concluded there is no link between the
radiation from cellphones and incidences of brain tumours, leukemia or
other forms of cancer.
No link does not equate with no risk. This is where I have problems
with the "don't worry about it" stance that's coming from the major
manufacturers of wireless phones and providers of wireless service.
"Don't worry about it" has failed us too much in the past — with
tobacco, with pressure-treated wood, with cheap window blinds and with
water in Walkerton.
There are about a billion wireless devices currently in use around the
world. The numbers are going to continue to grow. As wireless prices
come down, as people become more dependent on mobility, and as service
providers push wireless service as an affordable replacement for home
phone lines, the amount of time we spend on our wireless devices will
And this is where past studies have failed, focusing instead on
short-term use and not taking into account the effects of long-term
exposure that sells more airtime minutes and generates more revenues.
This excludes the fact that mobile phones are becoming more powerful
and versatile every day, requiring more energy to operate.
Ultimately, regardless of what the evidence suggests today, we're
dealing with an issue of perception and trust that will have a lasting
impact well into the future and, if not tackled soon, could ultimately
cripple the wireless industry.
We must ask ourselves: Why is China, which hasn't taken such matters so
seriously in the past, planning to take such a hard line with radiation
A Chinese government committee proposing the new standards claims it
has research that supports the stricter rules, but to date it has not
disclosed such data. Could it be an attempt by China to indirectly
erect trade barriers against Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola and a host of
other handset makers from Europe and North America?
Following higher standards could cost many billions of dollars in
product re-engineering, making life difficult for an industry already
in the midst of a telecom drought.
It's too early to tell what China's motives are, but personally — being
a person more concerned about health and safety than mobility and
convenience — I think what they're proposing is a good idea, as long as
it is phased in over several years to give manufacturers enough time to
evolve their R&D and product processes. Otherwise, a quick switch
would agreeably be disruptive.
Where the empirical evidence concerning the harm of cellphone radiation
may be lacking, the anecdotal evidence for me is compelling enough.
My best friend's father-in-law, a high-ranking IBM executive who relied
on cellphone communications, died quickly from a malignant brain tumour
that developed on the side and location where his handset was placed.
Coincident or not, it's still freaky and scary.
A friend of the family who is a nurse at a Toronto hospital says she
regularly gets people coming into the emergency unit complaining of
major headaches, nausea and disorientation after using their wireless
phones. Many of these people, she says, are teenagers who take
advantage of unlimited evening and weekend packages for long
gab-sessions with friends.
Myself, I get the odd headache and what I like to call brain spikes —
shots of pain — when using my wireless phone.
Evidence does suggest that some people are more prone to headaches and
nausea when using cellphones, and that limited brain-cell damage and
changes do take place, particularly with younger people whose brains
are still in active development.
But cancer? That's the wild card — one that's still in the deck. And in
the game of perception, a card laid is a card played. In other words,
people will cling to urban legend, personal experiences and other
stories until they're convinced otherwise. Sure, we keep on using these
devices and have a ferocious appetite for more, but subconsciously I
think we're all kind of waiting for bad news to drop.
That's not science. This is the spinning wheel of paranoid minds in a
health-conscious society. It's a reality the wireless companies have to
confront head on. We, the paranoid, are your customers. Listen to us.
Since cellphones were only introduced to Canada in 1984, and it takes
some cancers decades to develop, the effects of long-term usage are
understandably difficult to study. Sure, research into the effects of
low-level radiation have been ongoing for half a century, but holding a
device that emits radiation directly against one's head doesn't have
such a history.
All the more reason to focus R&D on lowering radiation levels
today. If you can do it, why not do it? If Nokia can spend huge amounts
of money developing colour browsers and long-lasting batteries, why not
tackle the radiation issue? Surely, there are more important things
than the novelty of downloading MP3s on a smartphone.
Perhaps the Chinese know something the rest of us don't in wanting to
cut the absorption rate of cellphone radiation to 1 watt per kilogram,
half of current European and U.S. standards.
The reaction here and in neighbouring countries has been a commitment
to print radiation-absorption levels on handset packaging, as if people
would know what the heck they mean. I guess, over time, we can evaluate
them like calories on Pop-Tarts, and those manufacturers that strive
for the lowest levels could promote this to gain a competitive edge.
But absorption rates aren't enough. Just as we're warned about safe
levels of sun exposure and time exposed, wireless manufacturers should
explain whether the risks of talking on a wireless handset for 2 hours
a day are higher than talking for 30 minutes a week. Again,
perceptively, I'm quite confident there is a difference. The good news
in all of this is that hands-free phones and ear buds, which increase
the distance between phone and user, have grown more popular. Clearly,
more people are choosing the safe routes, even if the evidence of risk
is lacking. More importantly, the industry is offering these safer
options, even if they are sold under the banner of convenience.
One final word of caution: Cellphones emit more energy when a signal is
weak. So when you're trying to get a signal in cottage country or where
network coverage is weak, do yourself a favour and keep the call a
And those little tabs that go on cellphone antennas to block radiation?
Don't use them — they're not proven to work. Because they force your
cellphone to work harder to find the signal, they may actually boost
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