The Unspoken Risks of Cell Phones and Wireless Networks

By Glenn Ashton · 14 Apr 2010

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Picture: Hum Bug
Picture: Hum Bug

Africa has been catapulted into the electronic age over the past decade and a half by an almost incomprehensibly swift growth in telecommunications technology driven primarily by a massive rollout of cell phones and wireless technology throughout the continent. 

While few can deny the economic benefits that this growth has brought to a continent historically hobbled by a patchy telecommunications infrastructure, the physical risks of this explosive growth on the health of the people of Africa have neither been quantified nor are they being monitored.

Call the technology what you will – cell phones, mobile telephony, wireless networks – the reality is that these devices have changed the manner in which Africa communicates in ways completely unforeseen a decade ago. Goods are traded, banking and money exchanges facilitated and contacts with business and family networks are managed in previously impossible ways.

A decade ago three in a hundred people in Africa had access to telephony through landlines. Today one in three Africans have cell phones and the majority of Africa's people have access to telecommunications. Massive wealth has been created through the rollout of wireless networks. But while this industry creates and enables massive wealth transfers, what is it doing to our health?

The rollout of electronic communication devices has moved beyond mere mobile cell phone telephony, rapidly branching into wireless Internet connectivity and other high speed, high capacity data services. 

These require the installation of not only more powerful transmission systems but also technologies that utilise complex pulsed, modulated signals. For instance new wi-max devices use sophisticated 'beam formed' signals that are often positioned in high density residential areas, with little consultation, oversight or monitoring.

When concerns have been raised about the health effects of both cell phones and the base stations that enable the electronic networks, the industry is quick to claim the technology is safe. There is obviously a significant vested interest, which seeks to protect the astronomical profits this technology generates globally. 

This industry has demonstrated a propensity for being economical with any facts that may harm its bottom line. There have been several cases of the increasingly powerful cell phone industry acting against the public interest in order to maximise profits.

The cell phone revolution has immersed us in unprecedented levels of microwave radiation that not only swamp natural background radiation levels but, more importantly, have real and potentially serious health implications. 

We should remember that humans have historically been exposed to extremely low levels of such non-ionising radiation. Radio astronomers joke that if Neil Armstrong had taken a modern cell phone to the moon in 1969, it would have registered as the third most powerful source of microwave radiation in the universe, eclipsed only by the sun and the Milky Way.

An increasing number of studies from around the world clearly demonstrates how the increasing bombardment of people, animals, birds, plants, insects and other life forms by electronic transmissions does carry real risks.

These studies are emerging from a burgeoning body of published scientific research. While this research initially focused on how microwave radiation can endanger users through heating body tissues, this risk is now understood to be only of peripheral concern.

The ostensibly neutral body created by the United Nations World Health Organisation to inform it on the risks of cell phone and other non-ionising radiation, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, (ICNIRP) concentrated mainly on this aspect of the heating risk of microwave communication devices and found no clear evidence of damage of this. However this is far from the only risk associated with this technology.

It must be borne in mind that ICNIRP relied mainly on tests from the early generation cell phones, which have both a lower frequency (around 900 MHz) and wave complexity than the so called 3rd and 4th generation units (3G and 4G) that operate at far higher 1800 MHz bandwidth and transmission complexity. Other frequencies (2.4 – 2.6 GHz) are increasingly being utilised for the likes of wi-fi and wi-max for wireless broadband computer networks.

There are now dozens of studies which have found evidence of other risks such as interference with the blood brain barrier and neuronal activity, cardiological risks, impacts on the immune system, damage to the reproductive system, disruption of the endocrine system,  damage to genes and finally risks of causing cancer(carcinogenity). These and other impacts have been documented in published, peer-reviewed studies.

Besides the risks related to cell phone technology, the increasing use of wi-fi and other data networks has been shown to carry equal, if not higher, risks. Many schools, universities and even towns have banned or curtailed the use of so called 'hotspots' for wireless interconnectivity due to the perceived dangers related to the use of these frequencies. 

South Africa has at least one documented cluster of negative health effects arising near wi-max broadband antennae, with alarming related side effects, including rashes, dizziness, insomnia and tinnitus, inability to concentrate and headaches. It is notable that these symptoms have shown up across people of all ages and even in pets. 

This is only one of many cases around the world linked to negative health effects from wireless transmission masts of various types, in all of which similar negative health results are documented. Non-ionised radiation sensitivity has recently become a recognised and increasingly widespread medical condition.

While concerns have long been aired about cell phone masts, clear evidence is now emerging about the effects on both humans and animals. Young children have been shown to be higher at risk than adults, prompting many developed nations to advise limiting children's exposure to cell phones.

Wildlife studies have demonstrated proof of reduced reproduction in birds nesting near transmission sites. Rodent studies demonstrate statistically significant linkages between exposure and loss of fertility, as well as increased rates of cancer related to genetic damage. The publication of a new meta-analysis of the cancer risk of cell phones has been delayed by over 4 years due to strong disagreements between participants in the analysis of the data. 

The proliferation of wireless networks throughout Africa has largely been driven by the commercial imperative, which has succeeded where government funded telecommunications rollouts have failed.

However government oversight of this new industry has been limited to economic regulation of the growth in state revenue through taxation and through sale of sections of the electromagnetic spectrum to cell phone and Internet companies by governments.

Governments must responsibly and transparently regulate wireless transmission systems, which. These are often placed in the densest – which are often the poorest and least empowered - neighbourhoods. While the health costs may be deferred, the risk remains the burden of the state, an externalised cost of this business model. A precautionary approach seems sensible, at least.

Nations, which maintain accurate statistical data, such as Sweden, have shown remarkable negative impacts on health and absenteeism rates after the installation of these new generation data transmission systems. Consequently limitations have been placed on where base stations are located and the types of electromagnetic emissions that are permitted in various locales.

In Africa and most of the global south there is little such oversight. Even supposedly technologically sophisticated nations like South Africa rely on outdated and largely irrelevant data to regulate this industry. That ICNIRP has inadequately interrogated critical aspects of electromagnetic radiation and its effects on living organisms remains ignored by health officials and oversight bodies.

Regulators across the continent need to be properly informed about this complex issue. Unbiased data must be made available and digested by both the public and decision makers.

Just as the second half of the 20th century was epitomised by the growth and impacts of the chemical revolution, so the first decade of the 21st century is epitomised by the growth and impacts of the electronic and electromagnetic revolution. Just as chemical companies opposed (and continue to fight) regulation of their toxic products, so too the cell phone and data transmission industry will resist any threat to their profitability.

The facts must be carefully examined from all possible perspectives. Only when we have fully satisfied ourselves as to the safety of these devices can we permit the continued unregulated growth of this industry. 

Yes, the wireless revolution may make our lives easier. Yes, it may make the business of business more efficient. But if this comes at the risk and the cost of our collective health, then the costs and benefits must be borne and regulated accordingly.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Willem Basson
21 Apr

Another Side to the Coin

I am eagerly following the development of Netsukuku, described on one of their websites as an 'anarchical parallel internet.'

Wikipedia describes Netsukuku as 'the name of an experimental peer-to-peer routing system, developed by the FreakNet MediaLab (Italian), born to build up a distributed network, anonymous and censorship-free, fully independent but not necessarily separated from Internet, without the support of any server, ISP and no central authority. It does not rely on a backbone router, or on any routing equipment other than normal network interface cards.'

'Netsukuku aims to build a fully distributed network that doesn't rely on single points of failure as the actual Internet. The main idea is to build a system that can be built and be maintained autonomously. It is designed to handle a very large number of nodes with minimal CPU and memory resources. This mesh network can be built using existing network infrastructure components such as Wi-Fi.'

And herein lies the rub: The successful implimentation of Netsukuku is a vital component in the battle to ensure that the Internet continues to be free and open and accessible to all people at all levels of society, and for that it needs the continued existence of Wi-Fi connectivity.

My common sense tells me that the large cellphone companies and other internet service providers of the world are not going to take the arrival of Netsukuku lying down, for Netsukuku software enables one to communicate completely free of charge by simply relaying the electronic data from desktop/laptop/cellphone with Wi-Fi connectivity to another, and with nearly complete privacy as it is impossible to retrace the sender of a message once he/she has logged off. Combine that with encryption and goverments will be completely unable to monitor or control who says what to whom anywhere in the world. And what is even more beautiful about Netsukuku is that it is Open Source, So you don't have to pay as cent for your own acquisition of it!

Now large corporation have been known to manipulate scientific research and findings, for instance the tobacco companies. DuPont is another example. They were instrumental in the banning of the cultivation of hemp, a highly useful and profitable plant, on the grounds that the it belongs to the cannabis family, even though it has no use as a hallucinogenic. They did this in the 40's (I think) of the previous century, just when they were putting their newly developed synthetic fibre, Nylon, on the market.

The same has just happened with aspartame. Just as the patent rights on it has lapsed and the product becomes ubiquitous, we are suddenly informed that it leads to Alzheimers and all sorts of other nasty thingies.

So pardon me if I approach a sudden flood of 'papers' and 'studies' claiming 'possible' detrimental effects of cellphones signals, and particularly Wi-Fi signals, coinciding with the run up to the release of Netsukuku, with a great deal of suspicion.

Noam Chomsky has written at length about the way Big Government and Big Business manifactures public consent through the media for their own nefarious ends and one has to examine this case with great care so as not to fall in the same trap this time round.

But then again, maybe I am just being paranoic. But 'just because I am paranoic.' the saying goes 'does not mean that there is not somebody out there trying to get me'...

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Beth Steenekamp
1 Feb

Cell Phone Mast Erection

The school alongside my brothers house in our street has erected a Cell C cell phone mast this past weekend. The mast is on the street in the parking area of the school and about 20m to 30m away from my brother's house and those of neighbours. Not only is this very unsightly, I imagine the property has decreased in value immensely. All this without a single notification of it's pending erection to the surrounding neighbours. I cannot beleive that a mast of this nature can be built so close to where residents, not only have to look at its unsightliness, but also have all the usual fears of such an obstruction. My brother tried in vein, once hearing that it was going up, to object to it. But his objection fell on deaf ears. Surely people should be sent letters, etc. in order for them to be able to object?

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