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Radiation A Risk In The Electronic Age
Australians are bathed in electro-magnetic radiation. It's in the office and in the home. It's coming at us from computers, television sets, fluorescent lights, refrigerators, cordless and mobile phones, power lines and even electric blankets.
Nobody knows if it will have a lasting effect on the human mind and body, but it's now part of 21st-century life in the maelstrom of the information revolution.
Checking its impact on community health is now "the largest biological experiment on earth," says Don Maisch, an environmentalist based in Hobart. "And we don't know the answers."
Mr Maisch was a member of the Australian Standards committee asked to examine the issue. He says a wide variety of effects, ranging from stress in the workplace to health problems in the home have been attributed to emissions - both chemical and electrical - from computer equipment and other electronic devices.
"The major exposure at the moment is among people who are heavy users of mobile phones," he says. A number of countries, including Australia, had undertaken ongoing scientific and medical studies into the effects of this type of radiation, but "as to its long-term effects, we just don't know".
Radiation comes from many sources, he says, some of them in the home and most unsuspected. Much less was known about the effects of prolonged exposure to these much lower levels of radiation.
Mr Maisch quotes examples of Melbourne residents who became ill due to prolonged exposure to electro-magnetic radiation from a refrigerator, an electric blanket and in waterpipes and power lines below the floor.
Several other cases involved health problems among workers sitting above electrical substations in the basements of buildings.
"These case studies are significant," he says.
"You can measure the levels and see an effect. When we fix the problem by inserting an isolating section in the water pipes or moving a bed away from a source of the radiation, the people tend to get better."
Discovering the presence of electro-magnetic fields is quite simple, he says. Meters were available in electronics stores, though interpreting the data they collected was not a job for amateurs.
"Prolonged exposure is the problem and the presence of radiation can go unnoticed in the home or the workplace," he says.
Studies in Sweden, one of the world's most computerised countries, indicate that the number of people reporting serious problems attributed to prolonged exposure to low-level radiation in the workplace and home is growing.
A report published by the Swedish clerical and technical workers union, SIF, suggests that between 1993 and 1996 the number of people complaining of serious problems linked to radiation from devices such as computers had doubled from 3.1 per cent of the workforce to 7.6 per cent.
However, the union paper concedes that opinions of scientists and environmental health experts differ greatly and that precise data is not available.
The report notes that "the amount of electrical equipment in the workplace has increased dramatically ... the concept of emissions is very important".
The report also notes concern over not only the electro-magnetic radiation emissions but "the efflux of chemical substances into the air" from the plastic casings and cables of computer equipment.
But, according to Mr Maisch, some information collected suggests that certain people are more sensitive to this type of radiation than others.
"We don't know how many people are sensitive. I know people who have lived for years under high tension power lines without problems. I would not do it, but they did and nothing happened," he says.
"It's very difficult to set effective standards. When it comes to things like mobile phone towers, that's very hard to quantify. If one was built next to my house, I would be a bit concerned, but it is difficult at the moment to say whether it is truly a hazard or not. Certainly, the effect of emissions from an antenna tower is many times less than from a mobile phone handset placed next to the head."
An expert group in Britain recently expressed concern about selling mobile phones to children. "That's a significant statement from a group of rather conservative scientists," Mr Maisch says.