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A new national standard that would increase the legal threshold of mobile phone radiation emissions may be ratified before the end of the month.
The draft standard contains a series of limits for human exposure to radiofrequency radiation including mobile phone and base station emissions. It would allow significantly higher emissions from new handsets than from existing ones.
At a Senate inquiry earlier this year, the proposed changes were supported by the Coalition and Labor MPs and opposed by the CSIRO and the committee chair, Democrat Senator Lyn Allison.
The draft has also drawn criticism from John Lincoln, the convenor of the Electromagnetic Radiation Alliance of Australia (EMRAA) and Dr Andrew Penman, the chief executive officer of the Cancer Council of NSW.
Lincoln emphasised that the lower limit on emissions imposed by the present standard would prevent the use of third-generation (3G) mobile technology when it becomes available in Australia late next year.
Available only in Tokyo, where NTT Docomo has launched these advanced services, 3G offer users high-speed access to multimedia content such as video, audio and photographs through mobile devices.
Hutchison Telecom, known for its Orange mobile network, plans to be the first to launch 3G services in Australia. Hutchison alone will invest $3billion in 3G in Australia.
"This begs the question; is the motivation behind the draft standard economic advantage rather than public health?" Lincoln said.
He is also concerned with the method of calculating exposure to radiation from mobile phones. Under the draft standard, average exposures over time and across mass of body tissue can be used.
Rather than pinpointing the level of exposure at a specific time or at a specific point on the body, these measurements average out the amount of radiofrequency radiation to which a person is exposed across six-minute periods and 10gram cubes of body tissue.
"This assumes that continuous exposure to a smooth signal has the same effect on the body as random signals with sharp bursts of radiation," EMRAA secretary Lyn McLean said.
"It is like saying you can put a bullet through someone's heart and calculate the effect as an average over six minutes," Lincoln said. "The damage has been done in a microsecond."
Lincoln argues that in the same way, a less reliable result is obtained by averaging the absorption of mobile phone emissions over a larger area of human body tissue.
The present standard has a constant limit on emissions, regardless of the frequency of the phone. The draft allows an increase in emissions for higher-frequency phones. This departure also concerns Lincoln.
But, according to Michael Bangay, technical specialist in radiofrequency and electromagnetic radiation for the Australian Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), the changes do not weaken the standard.
Bangay said, "At higher frequencies (such as those used by newer mobile phones), the fields outside the body can increase but the absorbed dosage will not increase."
The temperature variations caused by mobile phones are superficial and are within the range of the skin's normal daily fluctuations from exposure to such things as sunshine and open refrigerators, Bangay said.
Brendan Elliott, the spokesman for ARPANSA, said the suggestion that changes are being made to pave the way for 3G technology are "ludicrous".
"It is time this country had a standard that reflects standards around the world," he said. "It is not being done to serve the interests of industry."
Australia's interim technical standard expired in April, 1999, when, after nine months of discussions, a Standards Australia committee was unable to come to an agreement on a revised standard and the responsibility was passed to ARPANSA.
In the meantime, Australia's public exposure limits have been set by the Australian Communications Authority and based on the lapsed interim standard.
The new standard was drafted by a working group convened by ARPANSA with representation from industry, unions and Occupational Health and Safety. Lincoln represented the community.
It is modelled on the 1998 guidelines of the International Commission on Non-Iodising Radiation Protection, recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Opposing the proposed increase in the threshold for emissions at the Senate inquiry, the CSIRO observed that the 1985 Australian Standard, which was lower than the 1998 one, was in place for more than 12 years and did not impede the introduction of new technologies. It suggested that lower standards could encourage technological excellence.
In a letter submitted to the working group, the Cancer Council of NSW's chief executive officer, Dr Andrew Penman, also opposed implementation of the draft standard until more definitive long-term research on the effects is available.
"The Cancer Council's stance is that, although there are no proven harmful health effects from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic energy, there is considerable uncertainty about the effects of low-level exposure which is sufficient to warrant a cautionary response," Dr Penman said.
"Public anxiety about this issue is reflected in the number of phone calls we receive from people on our Cancer Helpline.
"These changes will almost certainly cause more apprehension. Simply from a consumer point of view, ARPANSA should rethink its position," he said.
A regulatory impact statement outlining the likely consequences of adopting the standard is available for public comment on ARPANSA's website (www.arpansa.gov.au) until November 23.
ARPANSA's Radiation Health Committee will decide on the standard after this date.