Better safe than worry - TechCentral

Better safe than worry

Karl Muller

[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


  1. If we had to apply the precautionary principles Muller advice, we’d better stop all modern industry including transport, electricity generation and every other thing we call modern as these things all have a measurable effect on the environment including some insect species.

    Clearly this is absurd and we should thus attempt to strike a balance. However, Muller seems to advocate the complete switching off of all systems that radiate. Telecommunications as we know it will cease to exist and South Africa (and most of the world) will be plunged into the dark ages.

    Muller might be happy to live in cave but I, for one, for sure have no such desire.

  2. The phone industry are un-elected officials who forcefully and undemocratically ignore the wishes and concerns of local communities. Many people are suffering health effects to this form of radiation worldwide. There are many ordinary people committed to fighting for justice.

    I would encourage you to read the Bioinitiative report. An international working group of scientists, researchers and public health policy professionals (The BioInitiative Working Group) released its report on electromagnetic fields (EMF) and health. They reviewed over 2000 research papers and document serious scientific concerns about current limits regulating how much EMF is allowable from power lines, cell phones, and many other sources of EMF exposure in daily life. This is one of many reports raising concerns for public health.

    T-Mobile in Germany commissioned ECOLOG to review over 220 pieces of peer reviewed and published papers and they found evidence for: Effects on the central nervous system, Cancer initiating and promoting effects, Impairments of certain brain functions, loss of memory and cognitive function. Ecolog called for the ICNIRP guidelines to be reduced immediately. The Ecolog report was released in the year 2000. However, the report was never translated into English until H.e.s.e. UK recently uncovered it six years later.

    Governments should be called to provide evidence demonstrating this form of radiation is safe before forcing the public to live near untested and unregulated radiation. I developed breast cancer at the age of 38 and discovered that I was living in a cancer cluster. I was living 100m from a phone mast. I now realise that we are not alone and there are many similar situations worldwide.

    Take a look at the enclosed pie chart which was highlighted at a workshop at the EU Commission in Brussels; the chart was taken from the WHO website.

    To date FOURTEEN epidemiological studies on mobile telecommunication base stations have been published and are referenced either on the EMF WHO database and/or on PUBMED.

    10 studies (70%) DID find significant increases in the symptoms being analysed.

    A new peer reviewed Swiss study by Frei has shown that mobile phone masts exposure resulted in 32% exposure and mobile phones amounted to 29%, Dect cordless phone base stations 23%. This new study is very worrying as it demonstrates mobile phone masts expose the public to more radiation than mobile phones. Researchers from Bern and Basel universities said individuals are responsible for generating much of the radiation themselves and recommend that people cut down on calls from their mobile devices and buy phones with cords for home use to reduce exposure..”
    Download the following report for more information:

    Please find enclosed information about the campaign in the UK; you will find the short film on my story contained in the eMagazine,

    View my PowerPoint presentation for the European Commission, Feb 2009.

    See details for a copy of my paper Base Stations and Health concerns paper

    And PowerPoint presentation
    My personal story PowerPoint presentation for the Royal Society, London event

    This mass experiment is a violation against human rights and will go down in history as one of the biggest mistakes ever made against mankind!

    Kind Regards,

    Eileen O’Connor

  3. What I am noticing is a new trend where they actually come to your home and check how much radiation is emitted by your electrical appliances. I don’t know who offers such a service here. What they basically recommend is to turn off all appliances at night and then keep the alarm clock at least 6 feet away. What I don’t get it why the radiation emitted by this enough to cause worry but we are still constantly subjected to extremely high levels from devices designed to cause radiation.

    No there’s no reason to go back to the stone age yet but I don’t see why every network must have their own transmitter in every area to bombard us with millions of times more radiation than we have naturally become accustomed to. I also don’t see why there should be super fast wireless communication at all. If the guavamint did their job in the first place we would all have landlines and be switching to fibre optics that emit practically no outside radiation at all. Something has got to give and it shouldn’t have to be our safety.

  4. It’s all so theoretical. Would you live next to a power line? Probably. Ever hear of electro-magnetic induction? Probably not. I wouldn’t live next to one if I had the choice, the same applies to cellphone masts.

  5. Just to answer some of the points here.

    Look at the Landau study on bees for yourself, it’s available on the net. The researchers looked at how many bees returned over a 45-minute period. Bees are busy, you know, they perform a shuttle operation. Researchers found honeycombs in the radiated hives were at least 20% smaller than in the controls. They took care to look at the “best case” scenario, and still found significant problems.

    Elsewhere, I have strongly advocated a massive rollout of fibre optics, as in Australia, so we can have massive bandwidth to each home. This would also help “limit the proliferation” of masts I call for. For this kind of thinking, I get called a caveman. I love good technology, want decent communications, was obsessed with wireless even as a kid. I am just certain that blanketing the landscape with microwaves is going to have incalculabe environmental consequences.

    Finally, just so you can see what a proper precautionary warning looks like, this is a recent statement from the Russian government’s radiation protection authority:

    Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection


    Moscow, Russia 14 April 2008

    For the first time in history, we face a situation when most children and teenagers in the world are continuously exposed to the potentially adverse influence of the electromagnetic fields (EMF) from mobile phones.

    Electromagnetic field is an important biotropic factor, affecting not just a human health in general, but also the processes of the higher nervous activity, including behavior and thinking. Radiation directly affects human brain when people use mobile phones.

    Despite the recommendations, listed in the Sanitary Rules of the Ministry of Health, which insist that persons under 18 years should not use mobile phones (SanPiN 2.1.8/ point 6.9), children and teenagers became the target group for the marketing the mobile communications.

    The current safety standards for exposure to microwaves from the mobile phones have been developed for the adults and don’t consider the characteristic features of the children’s organism. The WHO considers the protection of the children’s health from possible negative influence of the EMF of the mobile phones as a highest priority task. This problem has also been confirmed by the Scientific Committee of the European Commission, by national authorities of the European and Asian countries, by participants of the International scientific conferences on biological effects of the EMF.

    Potential risk for the children’s health is very high:
    ─ the absorption of the electromagnetic energy in a child’s head is considerably higher than that in the head of an adult (children’s brain has higher conductivity, smaller size, thin skull bones, smaller distance from the antenna etc.);
    ─ children’s organism has more sensitivity to the EMF, than the adult’s;
    ─ children’s brain has higher sensitivity to the accumulation of the adverse effects under conditions of chronic exposure to the EMF;
    ─ EMF affects the formation of the process of the higher nervous activity;
    ─ today’s children will spend essentially longer time using mobile phones, than today’s adults will.
    According to the opinion of the Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, the following health hazards are likely to be faced by the children mobile phone users in the nearest future: disruption of memory, decline of attention, diminishing learning and cognitive abilities, increased irritability, sleep problems, increase in sensitivity to the stress, increased epileptic readiness.

    Expected (possible) remote health risks: brain tumors, tumors of acoustical and vestibular nerves (in the age of 25-30 years), Alzheimer’s disease, “got dementia”, depressive syndrome, and the other types of degeneration of the nervous structures of the brain (in the age of 50 to 60).

    The members of the Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection emphasize ultimate urgency to defend children’s health from the influence of the EMF of the mobile communication systems. We appeal to the government authorities, to the entire society to pay closest attention to this coming threat and to take adequate measures in order to prevent negative consequences to the future generation’s health.

    The children using mobile communication are not able to realize that they subject their brain to the EMF radiation and their health – to the risk. We believe that this risk is not much lower than the risk to the children’s health from tobacco or alcohol. It is our professional obligation not to let damage the children’s health by inactivity.

    On behalf of members of Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection

    Chairman, professor

    46, Zhivopisnaya Str., 123182 Moscow, RUSSIA

  6. Oh my god. Karl Muller. Writing an article on techcentral.

    It doesn’t get worse than this.

  7. The Rodent, unfortunately it seems you folks at mybroadband and iburst are going to have to try a lot harder to discredit karl muller.

  8. @TheRodent
    Your comment would be worth something if you took the time to explain what you disagree with.

    I understand you are friendly with the iBurst/Mybroadband forum coalition and recently won an expensive prize there (a PS3) in a random competition. (Congrats).