Editorial: Talk less, text more

Published in the Hindu on February 7, 2012

Mobile phone. - R. Prasad

Seven months from now, all mobile phone handsets sold in India, including the imported ones, will have to meet stringent electromagnetic emission limits. The yet to be notified regulations will make mobile handsets relatively less harmful to use compared with the ones sold prior to September 1. The decision to reduce the specific absorption rate (SAR) — the amount of radio frequency energy absorbed by the body when using a phone — is a prudent one. India has taken a leaf out of the United States Federal Communication Commission (FCC) by adopting a stricter SAR limit of 1.6 watts per kilogram averaged over a volume of 1 gram of tissue for the head. The SAR value currently in effect is 2 watts per kilogram averaged over a volume of 10 gram of tissue. Another significant aspect is the requirement to compulsorily mention the SAR value on every handset so that consumers are aware of it. Until now, companies have been tucking this information in the handset manuals or their websites. But the worse culprits are the cheap phones sourced from a few countries that have much higher emission levels than the currently permitted SAR limit. It is quite unlikely that even the mandatory requirement of having the SAR value embossed on every unit will prevent such gadgets from being sold.

The solution, therefore, is to spread and increase awareness of the possible risks of long-term exposure to radio frequency radiation. Radiowaves, unlike X-rays and gamma rays, are non-ionising in nature and do not have the energy to damage cellular DNA. Several studies, including a 2001 and 2006 follow-up Danish study, found no link between long-term use and risk of cancer. However, a 2009 Swedish study found such a link in those people who had used mobile phones for at least ten years, especially those below 20 years of age, even though the precise mechanism by which the cancer is caused is not known. Hence it is wise to adopt a precautionary approach to minimise radiation risk as there has been increased usage and for a longer duration. The percentage of children, including younger children, using mobile phones is also rising. It is a fact that close contact of the phone with the ear heats up the tissues after prolonged use. This can be eliminated and the risk greatly minimised by using mobiles only for short calls, using texting options, and relying on hands-free modes for communication. Needless to say, younger children should be discouraged from using cellular phones as their skulls are thinner than adults and the cells are likely to be more sensitive to mobile phone radiation as they are still in a growing state.