In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

After birds and bees, will mobiles do us in?

Posted by seumasach on June 26, 2010

J.B. Monteiro


26th June, 20120

We went to an animal fair,
The birds and bees were there…

These are the first two lines of a popular nursery school song which may not ring true in years to come because radiation from mobile communication towers, and mobiles, is progressively killing birds and bees, especially the smaller birds like sparrows. Such sparrows used to abound on a tree outside our flat in Bombay and we would wake up to their low decibel chirping. When we shifted to our cottage at Bondel in Mangalore ten years ago, sparrows had built their nests in the hollow of the ceiling fan bushings below the hook. Many advised us to let them be because they are harbingers of babies.  With both of us retired, that would be hoping against hope. Since they messed up the place we had to chase them away. But, there were plenty of them around, especially outside the corner kirana store, gorging on spilt grains. Now I don’t see them any more either at Bondel or Bombay.

The little bee returns from evening’s gloom,
To join her comrades in the braided hive,
Where housed beside their mighty honey-comb
They dream their polity shall long survive.

– Charles Tennyson Turner, English poet (1808-1879).

Today, instead of dreaming, bees should be dreading about their survival. The dim prospects about the survival of bees, and birds, have been brought about by our ubiquitous and ever-increasing mobiles (cell-phones) and the radiation-radiating communication towers that make them functional. Their damaging impact on living beings has long been suspected – like my own anecdotal account above – but now evidence is surfacing to confirm the suspicions – the latest being a study at Panjab University, Chandigarh, by Neelima Kumar, of Zoology Department, and Ved Prakash Sharma, of the Department of Environment and published in Current Science.

The new study has established that electromagnetic radiation from cell-phones is wreaking havoc on the homing instinct of bees. Unable to return home, the bees remain alone in the open and perish since they are able to sustain themselves only in the social hierarchy of their hives. Bees orient themselves through the interaction between tiny paramagnetic particles in their bodies and magnetic field of the earth. “But any other magnetic radiation causes interference with this mechanism”, says the study. Exposing a colony of bees to radiation from two mobile phones for just 30 minutes twice a week for three months had disastrous consequence. The number of homing bees fell from 36 before radiation to 28 after. Their pollen foraging efficiency, too, fell – from an average of 6.3 to 4.6 worker bees returning with pollen loads per minute. And their honey stores – measured in sq. cms. of hive space – fell from 3,200 to 400.

While the study did not investigate how the radiation affected physiology of bees, it did find that the exposure to radiation impaired the egg-laying capacity of the queen bee. A queen bee that was studied produced 144 eggs per day under exposure to radiation, quite a fall from the average 545 per day.

Any drastic fall from the number of bees is sure to have dire consequences on agriculture, given the vital role they play in pollinating crops. “Around 80% of our crops are pollinated by bees,” says the study. “So there is that risk, even if in the long term. What we tried to show that the benefits of cell-phones come with certain risk – just like with DDT. So their use has to be regulated.”

Other sources of radiation – such as cell-phone communication towers, high tension electricity cables – have the same impact on bees, and possibly other life forms too. The findings are very much in line with the growing belief that exposure to radiation from cell-phones and communication towers could have killed off sparrows, hardly seen in some cities these days. In fact, another study by Sharma, who has just finished a thesis on the impact of cell-phone radiation on animals and plants, found that exposing hen’s eggs to four hours of cell-phone radiation increased the mortality of chicks by over 40%. This was because the development of the heart and brain was severely impaired in the embryonic stage. In Sharma’s studies, even seeds exposed to radiation have reported stunted growth.

All this throws up the next big question – what impact is radiation from wireless communication towers and cell-phones having on humans? The Cellular Operators Association of India maintains there is none, but doubts are being allowed more space now. On May 31, 2010 the Delhi High Court asked the Centre to set up an expert committee to examine potential health hazards from communication towers. In   August 2009, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests cited the lack of any published long-term research studies that conclusively show the adverse impacts of cell-phones on birds, including sparrows, as an impediment to any meaningful intervention. But, now the evidence is beginning to be available and is being acted on.

On June 15, 2010, the mayor of San Francisco, USA, called for a vote for imposing roughly the same cautionary standards for cell-phones (mobiles) as for fatty food or sugary soda, requiring all retailers to display the amount of radiation each phone emits. The law came despite a lack of conclusive evidence showing that the devices are dangerous, and amid opposition from the wireless telephone industry, which views the labeling ordinance as a potential business-killer precedent. Under the law, retailers will be required to post materials next to phones, listing the specific absorption rate, which is the amount of radio waves absorbed into the cell-phone user’s body tissue. The so-called SAR rates can vary from phone to phone, but all phones in the US must have a SAR rate no greater than1.6 watts per kg. – according to the Federal Communications Commission.

A major study of cell-phone use in 13 countries published online in May 2010 found no increased risk for the two most common type of brain tumors. In the most extreme cell-phone users, there was a small increase in a type of cancer that attacks the cells that surround nerve cells, though researchers found that finding inconclusive. In San Francisco, officials cautioned that the new law

Incidentally, according to the accounts of survivors of the Mangalore air crash in May, the passengers en mass switched on and used their mobiles as the plane was approaching the runway for landing. The jury is still out if that had anything to do with the aircraft’s communication distortion and crash. If the answer is yes, it would be the first case of mass murder by mobiles – against the slow and silent murder discussed above.

That brings us to the lawyer who collapsed in court while arguing a case and died on the spot. His epitaph read: “Her lies one who lied in court”. What would be the epitaph for the one dies from excessive use of mobiles? Perhaps: “Here lies one who hugged the mobiles to death”!

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