A new Tamil film starring actor-politician Rajinikanth claims cellphones and cellphone towers emit radiation that could harm humans. This is dangerous for many reasons – but not because we know such radiation is completely safe. The more accurate answer is that we don’t know.
In Tamil Nadu, actors have often used cinema to introduce their political views before their entry into politics. For example, Joseph Vijay poured criticism on the Centre’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime through his 2017 film Mersal.
Mersal was accused of getting its facts wrong. This was considered pernicious because the state was already tense at the time. (The Supreme Court had banned jallikattu and Madurai was simmering with anger over the Vedanta copper plant.)
It is not clear if 2.0 will similarly add to the chaos, but it seems like it might.
Another reason the film is a problem: the Supreme Court, which has propagated the idea that we do have something to worry about. In April 2017, the court asked BSNL to remove a tower in Gwalior because a resident alleged it had given him Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Private companies have also attempted to cash in on the uncertainty. Many products in the market claim to protect users from ‘harmful radiation’, including devices to help speak on a smartphone without bringing the antenna close to the face. Industry lobbies have only made the problem worse, attempting to pay off scientists and trying to block reports they believe might harm business.
Using lower quality studies
Ultimately, certainty in this context is not good because we don’t have the resources to make that decision. Until we do, it is important to harbour doubt and keep ourselves able to take a proper course of action as soon as it becomes available.
Cellphones emit non-ionising radiation, which cannot alter the chemical composition of atoms (including in DNA). So this radiation cannot cause cancer on its own. But it’s possible there are other mechanisms at work.
The essential obstacle to figuring this out is that the most reliable method – randomised control trials (RCTs) – is not an option. Reason: it is very difficult to set up a control group of people who don’t use cellphones.
Instead, most research uses less reliable methods to study link between cellphone radiation and cancers.
For now, the safest conclusion, based on data from observational, case-control and cohort studies – most funded by governments and not industry – is this: We don’t have the right data to come to conclusions.
An RCT with rats and mice, which ended earlier this year, did find a causal link between cellphone radiation and certain cancers. But it had too many caveats to be taken seriously by itself.
In all, it looks like maybe radiation from cellphones and towers doesn’t cause cancer. But we definitely need more studies.
There is also the big-picture question. The use of cellphones and the number of installed towers have exploded in the last two decades. But age-adjusted cancer rates have fallen in the same period. If one causes the other, why are we seeing an inverse correlation?
Scientists have also asked if non-ionising radiation causes diseases apart from cancers. For example, there is better data on the effect of cellphone radiation on reproductive organs. A review of ten studies was described by Vox: “The authors found a consistent effect … that cellphone radiation leads to decreased sperm motility and viability, but not a decrease in overall concentration.”
Yet the authors couldn’t decipher whether this radiation was the sole culprit or if it simply combined with other stressors. Vox also noted, “the effect of mobile phones on egg health, and women’s fertility, is a much less studied area.” It found too few human studies and no “good-quality reviews on the subject.” One review concluded, like the others, that “we need to conduct better-quality studies”.
The question then is how best to act in the absence of scientific safeguards.
Supported by some of the country’s premier research institutes, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) have maintained that cellphone radiation is not harmful. However, the environment ministry has in the past asked the DoT to install towers such that they cause minimal harm to humans.
According to The Mobile Indian, the DoT has adopted the ICNIRP standards for “limiting exposure to time-varying” electromagnetic fields. The amount of radiofrequency radiation the human body is exposed to from cellphone use has also been capped at 1.6 W/kg (of body mass).
Where does that leave us? Beyond these industry-level exercises, what is conspicuously missing is a set of guidelines addressed to common people. These guidelines should:
- Communicate what we do and don’t know in accessible language
- Describe efforts by the government to address the issue and mitigate any harmful outcomes
- Provide access to physicians, telecom engineers and others to people who have more questions
- Describe efforts being undertaken to push back against those spreading misinformation on the subject
- Provide a well-maintained portal where concerned citizens can lodge and track complaints against offenders, and
- Ensure that the document containing all this information is easily findable, accessible, shareable and updated.
The policy will be to build more towers. So when someone wants to know if a tower is increasing her cancer risk, she could consult the guidelines. For example, they could outline the safety limit, explain why the government has adopted it and how. If she is not satisfied, she could consult a doctor or write to the corresponding officers.
This would be better than to let people grapple with unknown-unknowns and act simply based on what others are doing.
If cellphone radiation is found to be more harmful than expected, we shouldn’t have to look back and regret doing nothing. Nor should we preemptively demonise technology that has abundantly improved our quality of life. Guidelines like these could help eliminate the information asymmetry and serve as a unified response protocol to save us from ignorance-fuelled panic.
2.0 wants to wade into this swamp, but in doing so, it could compromise our ability to respond sensibly to future findings. What if scientists find evidence that cellphone radiation is less harmful than it was thought to be? Will those who are swayed by 2.0 today change their minds or just distrust scientists in the future?