The great Indian myth of mobile tower ‘radiation’

Radio frequency radiation from mobile towers and phones is minuscule—one-thousandth to one-millionth of an eV! It means mobile tower radiation is lakhs of times weaker than X-rays or UV rays, even visible light.

Radiation. The very word is like a bell tolling—ringing in irrational concern and conjuring images of Chernobyl or Fukushima. So, when we hear of mobile tower antennas transmitting radio frequency radiation, concerns arise in the common man. Luckily, nothing could be more inappropriate or bizarre than linking up mobile tower emissions with the former category of high energy radiation which includes frequencies beyond ultraviolet, i.e. X-rays, gamma rays, etc. Collectively, such high energy radiation is referred to as “ionising radiation” and, in large doses, these can damage matter, particularly living tissue. So, when there is concern about radiation and its possible harmful effects, the reference is clearly to high energy ionising radiation. In India, the concern in certain quarters about radiation from mobile towers arises from the highly flawed extrapolation of the fear of ionising radiation to the ultra-weak radio-frequency radiation from mobile towers and phones. This is the basic origin of the great Indian myth concerning mobile tower “radiation”.

Physicists use a very small unit of energy called electron Volt (eV) to measure radiation. X-rays have an energy level of the order of 100 eV to 1 lakh eV, whereas ultraviolet is of a much lower energy level of around 100 eV or less.

Visible light is about 1 eV. As against the above, the radio frequency radiation from mobile towers and phones are in the range as minuscule as one-thousandth to one-millionth of an eV! Thus, mobile tower “radiation” is lakhs of times weaker than X-rays or UV rays or even normal visible light. In fact, so low that they simply cannot cause any disturbance of electrons in the basic atoms of matter or living tissue. Hence, they are classified as “non-ionising radiation”.

Radiation is all around us and we are all actually submerged in naturally occurring ionising radiation reaching us from the outer space; even from radioactive elements and materials around us in the earth. This has been so ever since life began on Earth three-and-a-half billion years ago. Every day, at least a billion particles of natural radiation enter our bodies. Sunshine is one of the most familiar forms of radiation and delivers light and heat and good health and, therefore, welcomed and worshipped. The power density received on the surface of the earth from the sun is in the range of 250-1,000 watts per square metre. As against this level, with which we are all comfortable, the radio frequency radiation from mobile towers is, even a few feet from the antenna, hundreds of times lower. At normal distances from the tower or on the ground, the exposure is thousands of times lower.

Rowley and Joyner (2012) gathered together tower electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation data from measurement campaigns in 21 countries around the world spread over a few years. The database of over 173,000 individual data points shows that the global average exposure level from towers is as low as 0.73 milliwatt per square metre, which is over 5,000 times below the WHO-endorsed radiation norm for mobile towers for the frequency range considered, i.e. 4 watts per square metre at 800 MHz.

We are all comfortable and have no concern using mobile phones. And, rightly so. The radiation standard for mobile phones is referred to as the Specific Absorption Rate or SAR limit, and the standard good quality phones that we use generally operate several-fold below the SAR. It is of interest to note that the EMF radiation exposure that we have from towers is hundreds, if not thousands, of times even below that of phones. Some years ago, when this author attended a global meet of experts on electromagnetic safety and enquired of the group about latest research findings as regards mobile tower radiation, broad indulgent smiles and looks of amused tolerance greeted him. He was gently advised that they were all convinced there is no need to spend precious time and millions of dollars on research in this area since it was known to be of such ultra-low level of energy. They preferred to debate and research about radiation from other types of mobile services or products. In fact, WHO stated in 2013 that because exposure to radio-frequency fields emitted from mobile towers is more than a thousand times weaker than that from mobile phones, research has almost exclusively been conducted on the latter and not the former.

In India, in response to petitions from some parties, various courts have looked into the aspect of radiation from towers. Allahabad High Court set up a special Expert Committee comprising of 13 scientists, professors, doctors and technologists to examine the possibility of hazards from mobile towers and cell phones. The committee, in its detailed 55-page report, came to the conclusion that there is no evidence about dangers to human health due to the EMF radiation from mobile towers. A separate, suo motu study was carried out by a group of 25 distinguished professors and researchers from various IITs and IISc Bangalore. They came to the conclusion that the radiation limits set by DoT, government of India, and being followed are “based on the international best practices at this point and time” and are stringent enough to “avoid unnecessary panic and fear among the citizens.” Even the Kerala and Gujarat High Courts had come to the clear conclusion that there is no reason to worry about the EMF radiation from mobile towers.

The body of evidence is simply overwhelming. There is absolutely no need to have any concern whatsoever as regards the radio-frequency “radiation” from mobile towers. However, some vested interests are actively spreading myths and absurd stories to create concerns in the less aware citizens and seriously harming public interest as well as damaging the prospects of Digital India. As the great Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie beautifully stated, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Nothing could be truer in the context of the unwarranted Indian concerns as regards tower radiation.

In fact, the term “mobile tower radiation” is itself grossly misleading; the description “ultra-weak radio frequency emissions from mobile towers” is probably more accurate.

As published on The Financial Express

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