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South Africa: Cellphone Signal Concerns Raised Again

Posted by smeddum on August 17, 2008

South Africa: Cellphone Signal Concerns Raised Again

24 July 2008
Posted to the web 24 July 2008
Lesley Stones

FRESH concern is being raised about the potential dangers of cellphone usage – especially as SA begins to roll out higher-power broadband technologies.

The radiation generated by cellphones and base stations has been under scrutiny for years. But for every report proclaiming a health risk, another proves inconclusive or dismisses previous research as scare-mongering.

Now the local branch of the Electromagnetic Action Group (Emag SA) has collated studies from around the world and is calling on network operators and Icasa, the industry regulator, to recognise and minimise the risks.

“This proliferation of broadband wireless is going to cause absolutely catastrophic health problems,” says Karl Muller of Emag SA’s managing committee.

The operators care more about getting a good signal than they care about public health, he says.

Emag SA has expressed its fears to the national operator, Neotel, which plans to use broadband WiMax wireless technology on its network. “WiMax is a disastrous technology that will do incalculable harm to the health of South Africans,” Muller claims.

Handsets communicate with base stations via low-power radio signals, and some of that energy may be absorbed by the body, with potential harm caused by the heating effects. Health authorities have set exposure limits to ensure that energy absorption is far below the level where harm could occur.

Neotel says its equipment complies with the most stringent guidelines so radio wave exposure is well below the limits. Even so, it would be advisable to keep about 60cm away from a base station, its website says.

Neotel’s chief technology officer, Angus Hay, says all its equipment is fully tested to be entirely safe to people. “This is one area that the South African Bureau of Standards and Icasa are very careful about,” he says.

Emag SA has spoken to lawyers regarding class action lawsuits, and expects future litigation to be rife.

“Given that we have no choice about being irradiated by masts, and that most of the world’s population now uses cellphones, our estimate is that this will be much, much, much bigger than tobacco,” Muller says.

Yet the World Health Organisation (WHO) is unconvinced. Radio frequency exposure from base stations and wireless networks in public areas, including schools and hospitals, is thousands of times below international safety standards and so low that it does not affect human health, it says.

“None of the recent reviews have concluded that exposure to radio frequency from mobile phones or their base stations causes any adverse health consequence.”

In fact, the body absorbs up to five times more energy from radios and TVs than from base stations, WHO says. If people are concerned, they can limit their exposure by making shorter calls, or by using hands-free kits to keep the phone away from their head, WHO says.

The GSM Association, which represents the industry itself, naturally loathes the incessant scaremongering. No ill-effects have been detected from the higher-speed technologies that have rekindled fears among bodies such as Emag SA, says Dr Jack Rowley, its director of research and sustainability.

“There is a concern in some scientist and activist communities that particular signals are more biologically active. Thirty expert reports say there is no scientific rationale to say that. In fact, handsets using newer technologies actually generate less power,” Rowley says.

He also denies that health scares will prove well founded in a decade or so. Radio frequencies have been used for communications for more than 100 years, and more research has been conducted on them than on most chemicals. “Studies over five to 10 years of use haven’t shown any increased risk. The balance of evidence is that if we comply with WHO standards there is no scientific basis on which to believe there is any risk.”

Much of the concern about broadband is based on frightening findings by Prof Franz Adlkofer, who warns of genetic damage and a higher risk of cancer because broadband wireless radiation is 10 times more toxic than ordinary cellphone radiation. Adlkofer heads the European Union’s Reflex project, which studies genetic damage caused by cellphone radiation.

He also says there is a higher risk of brain tumours after several years of cellphone use, as the cancerous effects may not become apparent for 10 years.

Yet in May this year, the Medical University of Vienna said one of its laboratory technicians had confessed to fabricating data supposedly showing that cellphone radiation caused DNA breakage.

“The data were not measured experimentally, but fabricated,” the university said in a statement asking for the researchers to withdraw their publications.

Undeterred, Emag SA says numerous studies worldwide show increased illnesses around base stations, including sleep disorders, headaches, chronic fatigue, muscular weakness, attention problems, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, mood swings, depression, infertility, lowered immunity, lingering flu, increased allergies and higher cancer rates.

“We have observed this entire spectrum of illnesses around masts in Johannesburg, and also noted that symptoms improve as soon as people move away,” Muller says.

Vodacom says radio wave exposure from base stations in public sites is thousands of times lower than the permitted limit.

Its website allows users to click on a map to review the measurements taken at various sites around SA, and to assess the amount of energy their model of handset exposes them to.

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