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So What's Got The Furniture Industry Spooked About Cellphone Radiation?
The Star
Journalist: Wendy Knowler
October 09, 2006

Put the words "cellphone" and "cancer" into an Internet search, and you could get close to 10-million results.

That says something about the controversy raging around whether the handsets most of us have come to depend on are "cooking" our brains or not.

Numerous studies have been carried out worldwide in an attempt to find answers, and whatever your standpoint, you'll find a study to back you up.

The cellphone industry, naturally, only quotes authorities and studies that claim little or no risk associated with either using cellphones, or living near a base station (cellphone mast).

A booklet called "Cellphones, base stations and your health", put out by Vodacom in August, asks the question: "What are the exposure effects of the waves coming in and out of my cellphone?"

The answer is a quote from the World Health Organisation (WHO): "Current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields (EMF). However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research."

(One of these gaps, incidentally, is how cellphones affect children, who have thinner skulls than adults and still-developing brains, which is why the WHO has advised that children under 16 should only use hand-held sets.)

Vodacom's Autumn 2006 issue of its magazine, Vodaworld, featured a report on the results of a four-year survey conducted by scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in London and three British universities, which "found no link between regular, long-term use of cellphones and glioma (the most common type of brain tumour)".

The "no added cancer risk" finding of this survey was said to be consistent with the findings of "most" studies in the US and Europe. The word "most" is key, as several studies have come to a conclusion rather less favourable to the cellphone industry.

Claims that cellphone masts have severely affected the health of many people who live near them are similarly dismissed by the various stakeholders.

So, with all this in mind, I was astonished to discover, quite by chance, a "special exemption" clause in an insurance policy offered by Relyant Insurance, part of the giant furniture group Relyant. (Beares, Geen & Richards, Savells/Fairdeal, Furniture City, Glicks.) Most customers who buy goods on higher purchase acquire Relyant Insurance policies, covering not only their goods, but also their death or disability as well.

The following is one of the exemption clauses: "Injury to, or illness or death of the Purchaser, arising from the use of a cellphone, or as a cause of radiation or electro-magnetic activity."

This doesn't refer to being mugged for your cellphone. It means you aren't covered if the cellphone itself - or your living near a cellphone mast - ruins your health or causes your death.

So what does the furniture industry know that the rest of us don't?

A Relyant Insurance spokesperson responded: "The clause was requested and inserted about three years ago by the consultants who assist in drafting our policy wordings.

"Cellphone usage is an unknown risk for insurers and consumers - there is contradictory 'scientific' evidence alleging that the use of cellphones is harmful and other 'scientific' evidence stating the opposite.

"Insurers, mainly in the US, have received claims involving billions of dollars in terms of liability for illness … arising from class actions founded on the mining, production and use of asbestos.

"At the time of the initial production of asbestos, and its widespread commercial and domestic use, the product was believed to be quite safe.

"Given … the possibility of some future link between an illness and the use of a cellphone, (we) wish to state quite clearly that we will not and cannot be held liable for any claims arising from the use of cellphones by an individual. The intention of the policy is basically to provide cover for the loss of the cellphone but not any liability arising from its use and certainly not any illness which may be related to cellphones."

Coming at a time of government, medical and industry denial about cellphone dangers, this is quite a bombshell.

Naturally, I wondered whether this "special exemption" had been slipped into other insurance policies in recent years.

Apparently not. Viviene Pearson, the SA Insurance Association's corporate affairs manager, said she'd asked the association's "big member companies" about the clause, and none had introduced it, or anything similar.

"But this case does illustrate how crucial it is to read every word of the small print of your insurance policies," she said. "You especially need to know what you are exempted from."

So is this just a furniture industry thing? Again, it appears not.

Johan Kok, chief operating officer of the JD Group, South Africa's biggest furniture group, said the company had no such inclusion in its insurance policy. "First time I've heard of this," he said.

And a spokesperson for South Africa's handset market leader, Nokia SA, predictably said consumer health and safety was paramount to the company, and that all the company's handsets conformed to international safety standards set by public health authorities.

South African lobby group E-MAG SA, which is concerned with health effects from all forms of electro-magnetic radiation, including power lines and cellphones, has an altogether different view about the dangers electro-magnetic radiation emitted by cellphones pose for humans, especially those prone to holding them against their heads for long periods.

"The fact that certain insurers are seeing fit to exclude cover on cellphone-related deaths is extremely significant," E-MAG spokesperson Karl Muller said in response to news of the Relyant Insurance exemption.

"It shows that at least some in the insurance industry believe it is possible to identify illnesses and deaths caused by cellphone use and other exposure to electro-magnetic radiation."

Muller said the group had repeatedly asked the cellphone industry in South Africa whether they carried health insurance on their products.

"In each case we have been told that this cannot be 'clarified' - a strange term to use.

"Underwriters at Lloyd's of London have refused for some years now to accept health cover on cellphone handsets, and this should give any consumer pause for thought.

"What do the insurers know about microwave exposure that the medical profession and government authorities don't?"

Can government play a bigger role?
What role does our government play in issuing guidelines on this issue?

Well, up until about four years ago, there were regulations covering radio-frequency emissions, but they have been suspended, with Health Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang saying that the cellphone industry was able to regulate itself.

Last September, IFP health spokesperson Dr Ruth Rabinowitz issued a press release calling on the government to take a stand regarding the impact of radiation exposure.

“South Africa has one of the highest ratios of cellphones to population in the world,” Rabinowitz said.

“British scientist Sir William Stewart has warned that the information on public exposure to radiation levels is limited and obscure. It may be on industry websites but one must be a computer operator to find out radiation levels, a physicist to understand it and have a PhD to analyse it.

“Governments must be pushed to take responsibility for introducing precautionary measures that limit or track the impact of radiation exposure.”

So should we be worried about that insurance policy’s “special exemption”?

Well, the insurance industry makes its money by looking at available information and assessing, or predicting, risk, and the cellphone industry makes its considerable fortunes out of, well, selling cellphones and airtime.

You decide.

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