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Technology and Health

Chhota ‘B’ must perhaps be told that promoting the use of cellphones is not such a good idea—especially for the well-being of bees. A new study at Panjab University, Chandigarh, has established that electromagnetic radiation from cellphones is wreaking havoc on the homing instinct of bees. Unable to reach home, the bees remain alone in the open and perish since they are able to sustain themselves only in the social hierarchy of their hive. The findings—by Neelima Kumar, of the zoology department, and Ved Prakash Sharma, of the department of environment and vocational studies—were published last week in Current Science. Bees orient themselves through the interaction between tiny paramagnetic particles in their bodies and the magnetic field of the earth. “But any other magnetic radiation causes interference with this mechanism,” says

Neelima. Exposing a colony of bees to radiation from two mobile phones for just 30 minutes twice a week for three months had disastrous consequences. The number of homing bees fell from 36 before radiation to 28 after. Their pollen foraging efficiency, too, fell—from an average of 6.3 to 4.6 worker bees returning with pollen loads per minute. And their honey stores—measured in sq cms of hive space—fell from 3,200 to 400. While the study did not investigate how radiation affected the physiology of bees, it did find that exposure to radiation impaired the egg-laying capacity of the queen bee. A queen bee that was studied produced 144 eggs per day under exposure to the radiation, quite a fall from the average of 545 per day. Any drastic fall in the number of bees is sure to have dire consequences on agriculture, given the vital role they play in pollinating crops. “Around 80 per cent of our crops are pollinated by bees,” says Neelima. “So there is that risk, even if in the long term. What we tried to show is that the benefits of cellphones come with certain risks—just like with DDT. So their use has to be regulated.”

Other sources of radiation—such as cellphone communication towers, high-tension electricity cables—have the same impact on bees, and possibly other life forms too. Neelima and Sharma’s findings are very much in line with the growing belief that exposure to radiation from cellphones and communication towers could have killed off sparrows, hardly seen in some cities these days. In fact, another study by Sharma, who has just finished a thesis on the impact of cellphone radiation on animals and plants, found that exposing hens’ eggs to four hours of cellphone radiation increased the mortality of chicks by over 40 per cent. This was because the development of the heart and brain was severely impaired in the embryonic stage. In Sharma’s studies, even seeds exposed to radiation have reported stunted growth.

All this throws up the next big question—what impact is radiation from wireless communication towers and cellphones having on humans? The Cellular Operators Association of India maintains there is none, but doubts are being allowed more space now. On May 31, the Delhi High Court asked the Centre to set up an expert committee to examine potential health hazards from communication towers. Last August, the Union ministry of environment & forests cited the lack of any published long-term research studies that conclusively show the adverse impacts of cellphone towers on birds, including sparrows, as an impediment to any meaningful intervention. But now that the evidence is beginning to be available, will something be done before it gets too late?

"Outlook magazine, 14th June 2010"