There are more than one billion mobile phone subscribers and around 130,000 mobile phone towers worldwide.
The power levels of these towers are relatively low, the antennas are mounted high above ground level, and the signals are transmitted intermittently, rather than constantly.
Mobile phones connect with nearby mobile towers mainly through radiofrequency (RF) waves. Like FM radio waves, microwaves, visible light and heat, they are forms of non-ionising radiation.
This means they do not directly damage the DNA cells, which is how stronger (ionising) types of radiation such as x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet (UV) light are thought to cause cancer.
Because the human body consists of 70 per cent fluid, it absorbs electromagnetic radiation. Recent studies also confirm that mobile phone radiation can drastically affect male fertility.
In 2006, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine reported that use of mobile phones by men is associated with a decrease in semen quality, sperm count, motility, viability and normal morphology.
Studies have found a 30 per cent sperm decline in those who use a mobile phone excessively.
Electromagnetic fields have been shown to affect the brain. Using a mobile phone before bed, delays and reduces sleep, causes headaches, confusion and depression.
People living near mobile phone base stations are at risk of headaches, memory loss, nausea, dizziness, tremors, muscle spasms, numbness, tingling, altered reflexes, muscle and joint paint, leg/foot pain, depression, and sleep disturbance. More severe reactions include seizures, paralysis, psychosis and stroke.
Heavy use of mobile phones can cause cancer. Use of mobile phones for more than 10 years increases the risk of brain cancer. The risk is highest for the side of the head where the mobile phone is held.
Children and teenagers are five times more likely to get brain cancer. It is possible that today’s young people may suffer an “epidemic” of the disease in later life.
A study in Germany found that cancer rates more than tripled among people living within 400 metres of mobile phone towers or antennae.
Those within 100 meters were exposed to radiation at 100 times normal levels. A study done in Israel found the risk of cancer quadrupled among people living within 350 metres of a mobile phone transmitter — seven out of eight cancer patients were women.
Non-thermal effects of radio frequency radiation accumulate over time and the risks are more pronounced after several years of exposure.
Electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones and towers also affect the environment.
Radiation decreases egg production in bees. Sparrows and other small birds exposed to the radiation suffered from reproductive and co-ordination problems and they also became aggressive.
Dr G.R. Neel is at the Department of Biotechnology, INES Ruhengeri