You are circled by non-ionizing radiations! Health Concerns of ELF EMF and RF EMF (Includes Health Impact of mobile phones)

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Health Environment Foundation India International Centre, New Delhi

initiative on Environment and Health Series was focused on

You are circled by non-ionizing radiations!

Health Concerns of ELF EMF and RF EMF

(Includes Health Impact of mobile phones)

in its panel discussion on 09 December 2016, moderated by Dr. Naresh Gupta, Director-Professor, Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi and President, Health Environment Foundation.

The Keynote presentation was made by Dr. TK Joshi, a renowned consultant in Occupational and Environmental Health, followed by technical issues by Dr. RM Chaturvedi, DDG, Department of Telecommunications, and ending with Professor Naresh Gupta’s presentation.

It emerged that:

In the present era, we are truly encircled by radiations all the time and which has brought health concerns and research even into the Extremely Low Frequency Electric Magnetic Fields/ radiations (ELF EMF) besides the Radio Frequency Electric Magnetic Fields (RF EMF) from Mobile phones and their Base stations/ towers.

Radiations waves carry an electric filed and a perpendicular magnetic field, carrying a potentially transmissible energy upon contact. These are classified based on their frequencies as Hertz (Hz) per second, ranging from 1 to 1020 Hz. Higher the frequency, more the energy they carry… with more potential to cause damage. Thus those over 10/14 Hz i.e. over 1000 THz cause breakage of chemical bonds in tissues and may damage to the DNA of living organisms including humans resulting in life-threatening damages and cancers. These were the radiations in the nuclear bombs, hurled on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II. These are the Ionising Radiations, with spectrum lying beyond the visible light spectrum.

Anything lower intensity are the non-ionizing radiations, for they cause no damage to chemical bonds or the body DNA. This spectrum is huge, with higher frequencies coming from the sun as sunlight, satellite communications, microwave ovens, medical monitors, cordless phones, Wi-Fi, and the mobile cell phones and their base towers (station) emit frequencies, VHF/ UHF television and AM/ FM radio emit waves of frequencies ranging from few hundred KHz to MHz and upwards of thousands of GHz, that will constitute the Radio Frequency Electric Magnetic Fields (RF-EMF). These RF EMF have been a matter of health concern for several decades now. There is also  realisation regarding the health concerns from the lower spectrum (up to 100 KHz) of EMF These are the Extremely Low Frequency Electric Magnetic Fields (ELF-EMF). We are  grateful to Professor Morando Soffritti for bringing this aspect to our attention while planning the title for this panel discussion.

With this background, the panel discussion circled around all of them with a special focus on RF EMF from mobiles and base stations/ cell towers. Mobile cell phones operate at frequencies of 1.8-2.2 GHz. Wireless local area networks, Wi-Fi, are an increasingly common source of RF EMF radiation, typically operating at 2.4 to 2.5 GHz, going higher up to 5 to 6 GHz. However radiation exposure from Wi-Fi devices is comparatively lower than that from mobile cell phones

Analog and digital mobile cell phones operative in frequency range of 900-1,800 MHz. In India, the maximum permissible SAR for GSM at 1,800 MHz is 1 watt/Kg only- in realty, the average powers are less than a tenth of that. This is against a safety level of 10 watts/Kg- an ICNIRP recommendation based on avoiding thermal effects.

The mobile cell handset emits EMF all around to communicate with its base station/ cell tower, and has a higher EMF energy while initiating a connection or a call. If held close to the ears at this time, the EMF may penetrate up to 2 inches (5 mms) into body tissues. Since the exposures reduce dramatically with distance from the source, the impact of practical exposure from base stations/ cell towers is less than that from mobile unit. Base station SAR is about 0.001 watts/Kg. For sake of comparison, microwave has a SAR of 700 watts/Kg… which may bring in an 8 degree Celsius rise in temperature of the brain fluid! In case of mobiles, much of the EMF energy is absorbed by the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Clothes also retard it.

The use of mobile cell phones is ever increasing, currently estimated at 1 billion registrations in India and at 7.4 billions globally. The extended durations of exposure compound the issues of health effects related to RF EMF, effects from overuse of a technology, and the safety concerns from its neglected use. Symptoms such as fatigue, tiredness, dizziness, headache, sleep disturbance, tachycardia, his blood pressure to cognitive dysfunction of brain are the short-term health effects incriminated to these RF EMF from mobiles. In the long-term, Alzheimer’s and tumours of brain are attributed to it. Consistency and scientific proofs are lacking.

Cancers are considered multi-factorial, developing slowly over many years of initiating/ consolidating insults. Epidemiological studies and evidence for such cancers from low-grade exposure like the RF EMF are difficult, are so when the expanded use of mobile cells cam in only in the 1990s and the incriminated cancers are uncommon with low incidence. Such studies are more likely to elucidate associations with cancers manifesting within short time periods of exposure.

‘INTERPHONE’ was the largest retrospective case-control study on adults regarding the oncogenic potential of RF EMF, and was coordinated by IARC, International Agency for Research in Cancer. Data was pooled in from the 13 participating countries, and showed no increased risk of head and neck tumours (glioma or meningioma) with mobile use of over 10 years. There was however, an increased risk of glioma in the adults with top 10% cumulative use hours. Based on this, IARC panel of 31 expert scientists from 14 different countries concluded RF EMF emitted by cell phones should be placed in Group 2B cancer risk. It is noteworthy that even amongst this category, there was no linear consistency of glioma risk with increasing mobile use. The WHO accepted these findings. And set the ball rolling for heated debates and potential for more comprehensive research in an environment where there is a polarization of renowned experts on where it should or should not be accepted. The bias goes even further. A recent STAT News in May 2016 by Shiela Kaplan reported

“72% of industry-funded studies have failed to discern any biological effect

from cell phone radiation exposure”


“67% of independent studies (those not funded by industry) did find biological effects.”

The Curate’s Egg stays!

Meanwhile a large, very meticulously planned, 25 million dollar (USD), 10-year controlled scientific study was planned in 2009 under National Toxicology Program started by U.S. Government’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in 1978 and currently at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The study is meant to evaluate the carcinogenic effects of RF EMF on rats exposed to CDMA and GSM radiations for 9 hours daily for 2 years under controlled conditions and along with a separate control group that lived without RF exposure.

Interim results from this much-awaited study created ripples by reporting malignant glioma (a form of brain cancer) in 2-3% of the males rats the exposed to mobile type Radio Frequency EMF. These radio-frequency (RF EMF) radiation levels to these chronically exposed rodents were carefully calibrated designed to roughly emulate what humans with heavy cell phone use or exposures they could theoretically experience in their daily lives. In the study, none in the control group developed cancer. Interestingly, exposed female rats had far lower cancer rates than the males, nearly three-quarters lower. Such gender differences in cancers are not unusual finding in cancer research. Further, amongst the male rats exposed to the highest levels of cell phone radiation, 5-7% also developed Schwannoma (nerve cell tumour) in their hearts. Again none in the control group developed this cancer.

According to the authors, these brain and heart cancers were likely caused by whole-body (RF EMF) exposure to the cell phone radiation. No statistical difference between exposures from CDMA versus GSM modulations. These findings elevate the RF EMF concerns until the final results come in. This run the potential risk of upgrading the IARC risk category to group 2A. Nevertheless the onus would to prove the same risks in humans. Until then, it may be prudent to to adhere to measures under precautionary principles of protection.

Thus the concerns of potential for carcinogenesis from RF EMF are not fully dispelled as yet. Besides, their other short-term transitory health effects cannot be undermined. The overuse and over dependence of mobiles also have indirect health consequences. And unattended use of mobiles is fraught with physical accidents in everyday scenario. These also include accidents with railway trains at unmanned crossings or close by habitation.

Meanwhile the mobile communication technology is advancing fast, becoming safer. Further, the regulations on mobile handsets and base topers are becoming more stringent. Any handset in legal market in India meets the most stringent standards and amongst the safest anywhere. Likewise, the base towers are granted permission after a 12 page certification to their meeting these high standards.  Ten percent of the base towers- there are currently around 1.3 million in India- are cross checked for compliance by Department of Technology. Any failure attracts a penalty of INR one million!

  • As of 2016, there are an estimated 7.4 billion mobile connections worldwide including 1 billion in India.
  • RF EMF emissions from mobiles are the source of energy exposure
  • Happily, the mobile phones emit only non-ionizing radiations, which produce the thermal effects. These thermal effects are the most studied; more research is needed in biological effects
  • There is no consistency or consensus on ill health effects from mobiles,
  • Rapidly expanding mobile use brings in other indirect health issues, social, and safety concerns including the ‘accident Injuries’
  • Rapid changes in mobile technology keep bringing in better standards
  • Nevertheless it is best to adopt precautionary approach (vide infra)


Extremely Low Frequency, ELF (ELF-EMF) refers to the lower end electromagnetic spectrum in the range of 1 Hz to 100 KHz. It occurs naturally from tropical thunderstorm and geomagnetic properties. Its anthropogenic sources are high power transmission lines, power grids, electrical cables, electronic gadgets, electrical wiring, and many an electrical appliance such as household electric appliances microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, shavers, hair dryers, and electric blankets. These come primarily from the 50- to 60-hertz power lines that power these devices. India also has large power grids network and also the power transmitting lines at 750-800 KW- amongst the top globally. It is ubiquitous and every one of us is truly surrounded by them. These appliances emit ELF EMF at field intensities ranging from 17.44 to 164.75 μT, measured from 5 cm away. The intensity of magnetic fields decreases dramatically with increasing distance from the source, the corresponding range of magnetic field intensities at 20 inches (50 cm) is reduced to 0.12–1.66 μT.

ELF EMF were reported in epidemiological studies to be associated with an increased risk of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, with doubling of childhood leukaemia in young boys (BioInitiative report). The ELF EMF were classified in 2002 as a possible carcinogen to humans by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). No mechanism by which ELF EMF could cause cancer has been elucidated. Being non-ionizing, these radiations may bring in some changes in the milieu interior of body cells to cause biological effects. Reduction in the hormone melatonin has been one of the one of the postulated targets for the carcinogenic potential. However, in absence of confirmation of this association, the question is still unresolved.

There are also reports of an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and the Motor Neuron Disease (ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) in some occupational studies, which still awaits clarification on the role of electric shocks versus magnetic fields. Until further confirmation, precautionary principles may be safe. It is unclear whether electric shocks rather than magnetic fields are involved in the development of ALS. Thus, the question whether extremely low frequency magnetic field, ELF EMF, exposure could cause Alzheimer’s disease or ALS is still not resolved.

No mechanism by which ELF-EMF or radiofrequency radiation could cause cancer has been identified. Unlike the high-energy (ionizing) radiation, EMF in the non-ionizing region of the electromagnetic spectrum cannot damage DNA or chemical bonds in cells directly. Some scientists have speculated on other mechanisms, such as by reducing levels of the hormone melatonin, for the ELF-EMF to cause cancer.  There is some evidence that melatonin may suppress the development of certain tumors.

For household electricity-driven appliances and devices (such as smart meters), the EMF levels are highest near the source and decrease precipitously as you move away. Thus at a distance of about one foot (30 cms) from most appliances, the exposure is extremely low.



  • Mobile phones are low-powered RF transmitters, operating at 450 -2700 MHz with peak powers in range of 0.1 to 2 watts.
  • The mobile handsets transmit power when it is turned on
  • The RF EMF exposure falls off rapidly with increasing distance
  • A person using a mobile phone a foot (30 cm) away from their body will have a much lower RF exposure. This is the scenario during texting or when using a ‘hands free’ device.
  • Limiting the number and the duration of calls also reduces RF EMF exposure from mobiles.
  • Using the mobile phone in areas of bad reception also increases exposure as the phone transmits at enhanced power.
  • The use of commercial devices claiming to reduce RF EMF field exposure is not shown to be effective.


Best Wishes
Naresh Gupta, M.D.

Health Environment Foundation

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