Dr Devra Davis, a well-known American epidemiologist, author and health activist, President of Environmental Health Trust, a non-profit organisation devoted to researching and controlling avoidable environmental health threats,  addressed a group consisting largely of Mumbai doctors on 19 October, at the end of a gruelling three-week tour that included visits to Delhi and Jaipur. This was in addition to three other talks in Mumbai alone.

Davis is the author of Disconnect: The Truth about Cell Phone Radiation, which has also been published by Jaico this year with a foreword by Juhi Chawla Mehta, the Bollywood star and philanthropist, who is one of Mumbai’s leading campaigners for safe use of such ubiquitous devices.

The author mentioned how proud she was as a first-time grandmother a decade ago to see her 10-month-old grandson crawl over to his father’s cell phone and switch it on. She marvelled at the toddler’s ingenuity. Only after much research some years later did she realise that the child was exposing himself to dangerously high levels of radiation. In her book, she refers to Korean kids, addicted to their phones, suffering from a form of brain damage known as “digital dementia”.

Dr Devra Davis [Pic from Youtube video]

Indeed, as a pamphlet she distributed in Mumbai regarding precautions to take while using cell phones stated, “children absorb more radiation than adults”.  Models of scans, courtesy of Prof Om P. Gandhi of the University of Utah and Green America, contrast the brains of a five-year old, a 10-year-old and adult. The potential absorption of radiation is very much higher the younger one is. As Dr Davis punned, this is a “no-brainer”.

Parallels with the microwave oven

The amount of radiation depends on the frequency and amplitude of the waves.  The device that is most harmful is that which draws the maximum power. By that token, microwave ovens, which use 1,000 watts, are the most dangerous, except that the exposure is limited to a few minutes a day.

The invention of microwave ovens came about accidentally, when scientists were working on how to use radar technology for peaceful use after the Second World War. During an experiment, a researcher found that the chocolate kept in his pocket had melted, making him aware that such exposure generated heat. This led to the domestic use of this appliance to heat or cook food.

The technology also had to be adapted to rotate, so that all sides of anything to be cooked could be covered.  What might otherwise have been referred to as “radar ranges” were renamed “microwave ovens”, which sounds more benign and customer-friendly.

Davis makes the frightening assertion that “cell phones are two-way microwave radios that were never properly tested for safety”.  Antennas for these phones are continually searching for signals to send and receive information. “The body or brain absorbs about half the radiation emitted from a phone at any time,” she points out.

She particularly cautioned against talking in a car due to the fact that the device constantly searches for signals from the nearest cell tower and draws more power to compensate for distance and mobility. Conversations in cars must account for one of the longest uses of the phone by the well-to-do in this country, considering the traffic snarls that grip every big city.

Radiation from cell towers, inefficiently monitored in this country – thanks in part to the effective lobbying of the phone industry and warnings that restrictions on towers can lead to poor connectivity – is very dangerous, especially because it is emitting 24x7 into homes that are too close for comfort.

Cell phones use less than 2 watts, but there can be prolonged exposure, particularly given the abysmal lack of knowledge among consumers here. We have been characterised as a “cell phone nation”, with some 900 million users. In fact, there are more phones than toilets or electricity connections. Davis hoped that the PM’s “Make In India” exhortation would also lead to the development of safe phone usage, which the rest of the world could learn from.

Pic: Victorgrigas/Wikimedia

The hazards involved

A recent advertisement for a mobile phone mentions that “every 7 seconds, someone upgrades to a Gionee mobile…And right here in India. In a little over a year, we have 3 million happy users. And with each passing day, we are touching more hearts, more rapidly.” The advertiser was supremely unaware about the literal connotation of the possibly inadvertent last sentence.

 According to Davis, those who use phones more than 30 minutes a day on average for a decade have a doubled or higher risk of contracting brain cancer.   Teenagers who start to use these phones – often inseparable companions, even kept under their pillows at night – have a 4-5 times greater risk of contracting such cancer.

Several studies have shown that prolonged exposure to cell phone changes the brain. If someone holds a phone to one’s ear for 50 minutes, there is a change in glucose metabolism, which Davis terms “the brain’s fuel”, in exactly those areas reached by cell phone radiation.

One reason why there is so little data on the ill effects of cell phone radiation is that it can take 40 years after such exposure to develop. This was conclusively shown in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when cancers in victims of the two atom bombs dropped by the US over Japan took this long to manifest.

Experiments on starving rats, which were trained to find their way through a maze by being fed at the end of it, showed that they were too disoriented after exposure to radiation to negotiate their way any longer.

A worrying development is the rise in breast cancers among women who stuff their phones in their bras. A Chinese-American 34-year-old in the US developed such cancer because she stored it there for four hours a day. Racially, she had genes which are not as a rule cancer-prone, and she was a regular runner to boot. In Turkey, women who store their phones under their chadors have also been found to be affected.

Men are by no means immune to the risk. Six years ago, Dr Ashok Agarwal, Director of Research at the Centre for Reproductive Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, found that men who use phones two to four hours every day have a 30 per cent lower sperm count than non-users. Those who spoke for more than four hours had a 40 per cent lower sperm count.

Prior to concerns about cell phones, and even subsequently, men used to wear them provocatively, in “gun-slinger” fashion – suspended from the belts around their waists, which was far too close to their reproductive organs. If nothing else, such findings, which impact males literally “below the belt” and can give rise to testicular dysfunction and impotency, should arouse awareness of the dangers of reckless use of phones.

Davis notes how the user manuals of cell phones – always couched in the tiniest of print – do specify warnings, which no one reads. The companies are merely meeting the letter of the law in doing this. Thus, for instance, Blackberry warns customers to keep phones an inch away from any part of the body whenever it is turned on, “including the abdomen of pregnant women and the lower abdomen of teen agers”. Apple cautions customers to keep its IPhone at least 15mm (5/8 of an inch) away from the body.

A Global Campaign for Safer Cell Phones lists several don’ts while using cell phones, which every person ought to be aware of. These include:

  • Do not hold the phone directly against your head or body; use the speaker phone or other hands-free device
  • Beware of a weak signal; your phone works harder and emits more radiation
  • Protect children, pregnant women and prospective fathers
  • Never sleep with your phone; keep it at more than an arm’s length
  • Only corded – not cordless – phones do not emit microwave radiation

Davis cites how tobacco companies obfuscated the dangers of smoking even though these were known half a century before restrictions came into effect. In her 2009 book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, she reproduces an advertisement showing a medic in a white coat with the text: “More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette”. Another shows a baby urging its mother to smoke.

She is invariably questioned what the alternative is, since people are loath to give up using phones. The answer clearly lies in observing all the necessary precautions and cutting the use to the minimum necessary. Prof Girish Kumar from the Electrical Engineering Department of IIT Mumbai, who was present for two of Davis’ talks, always mentions how he uses his phone for only 5 minutes a day to receive messages. He shuts it off for the rest of the time.

Cell phone companies should erect higher towers, well above the height of any buildings in the vicinity, and there should be more towers, each less powerful, which would obviously work out to be more expensive. However, Davis calculates that a minuscule charge to customers of Rs 2 per month on the use of phones would raise sufficient funds to provide all protective mechanisms necessary. 

Is anybody listening?