Better safe than worry
[By Karl Muller] A fair degree of heat has been raised recently over the possible hazards to health and the environment posed by cellphone and broadband wireless masts.
In all of this, only one thing is certain: no-one knows what the long-term effects are of bathing the landscape in digitally pulsed microwave radiation at levels millions of times above the natural cosmic microwave background.
Prof Leif Salford of Lund University in Sweden describes the proliferation of cellphone technology as “the single biggest experiment ever carried out on the human race”. Salford found and recently confirmed permanent brain damage in rats exposed to just two hours of cellphone radiation at levels comparable to those found near base stations.
Salford’s research findings — along with thousands of other scientific studies — indicate that there may be severe risks to microwave exposure. But no-one knows what the ultimate results of this “experiment” will be.
What does one do in such a situation, where there is evidence of possible harm, but no certainty?
There is, in fact, a very deep moral, political and legal principle that has been developed over the years to meet exactly this contingency.
It’s called the precautionary principle (PP), and in some legal systems — such as the European Union — it is a general and compulsory principle of law.
Its legal origins date back to the concept of “duty of care” in English common law of the late 1800s. This says that where a person undertakes an activity that might cause damage, “a duty arises to use ordinary care and skill to avoid such danger”.
In everyday life, this principle is expressed in terms such as “better safe than sorry” and “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”.
Perhaps the most relevant statement of this concept in the SA context is principle 15 of the Rio Declaration of 1992, the UN “Earth Summit”, which says: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
This embodies a pragmatic attitude which takes account of the different capacities of states to take action, but where precaution prevails over the necessity for full scientific proof when preventing possible harm to the environment.
SA was not only a signatory to this declaration, but hosted the next World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 in Johannesburg — so we have a special responsibility to try and implement these internationally agreed policies.
With regard to health policies and electromagnetic radiation, the government of SA has deferred completely to the World Health Organisation. What is the WHO’s attitude towards the precautionary principle and electromagnetic radiation?
In 2003, great excitement was generated when the WHO released a draft position paper that called for the PP to be applied both for power line and radio frequency fields. But as reported in Microwave News of May/June 2003, the WHO then did a major “flip-flop”, with Michael Repacholi, director of the WHO’s International EMF Project, saying the organisation had decided not to invoke the PP: “We have not changed our minds, and have not made a 180-degree turn, but rather we have developed a comprehensive risk management framework in which precaution plays a role at every stage, thus there is no need to evoke it.”
Repacholi later went on to say, “Precautionary policies should not be applied to electromagnetic fields”, and told MW News: “It is not WHO’s job to be recommending ‘prudent avoidance’ to national governments.”
He also argued: “The lower the limits, the greater the public concern.”
This last argument is one which industry has played upon: they say that invoking the PP will “alarm” the public, and this should be avoided. It seems that governments, the WHO and industry would far rather put your life in possible peril, than — God forbid! — “alarm” you.
The WHO has so successfully avoided “evoking” the PP that — to the best of my knowledge — not one word of warning or any hint of precaution has been made by any authority in SA.
Governments in Russia, the UK, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Israel, France, India and other countries have all issued warnings, especially regarding exposure of children to cellphone radiation.
Looking specifically at the environment, several studies have found that microwave radiation affects insects, birds, amphibians and trees. The Skrunda radar station study in Latvia, for example, found that pine trees were stunted in the beam of the mast, and tree rings showed that this stunting started with the radar’s operation.
In SA, the Oppenheimer family has funded a million-rand research project into the effects of cellphone radiation and other factors on insect life.
The first results were presented by Dr Max Clark in March 2008 at the Oppenheimer’s Brenthurst home.
The most significant initial finding was a 10% decline in ant species in areas with high cellphone radiation levels at both 900MHz and 1 800MHz. These are entire species disappearing from the landscape; a one-in-ten reduction is literally a decimation of ant species.
I asked Prof Shirley Hanrahan, head of zoology at Wits University and a world-renowned entomologist, who was at the presentation, whether this was of evolutionary significance. “Yes of course”, she replied.
Dr Clark also referred to research at the University of Landau, which showed that just 7% of bees exposed to digital cordless phone radiation found their way back to the hive, as opposed to 40% of non-radiated bees.
He concluded that although there was much research to be done, there was enough evidence from these insect studies to call for the precautionary principle to be invoked.
No-one can accuse bees and ants of displaying “hysterical”, psychosomatic symptoms; and even ant species that are for some reason sensitive to microwave radiation have a right to exist. No-one can tell what will happen when we start removing a range of species from the ecosphere because they are not “microwave compliant”. Remember, extinction is forever.
It’s time we observed the most basic duty of care to our environment, and found ways to limit the proliferation of masts across the landscape.
What do you think? Should we be concerned? Leave a comment below.
- Muller is a journalist and former physics lecturer