Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Should You Be Snuggling With Your Cellphone?


WARNING: Holding a cellphone against your ear may be hazardous to your health. So may stuffing it in a pocket against your body.

I’m paraphrasing here. But the legal departments of cellphone manufacturers slip a warning about holding the phone against your head or body into the fine print of the little slip that you toss aside when unpacking your phone. Apple, for example, doesn’t want iPhones to come closer than 5/8 of an inch; Research In Motion, BlackBerry’s manufacturer, is still more cautious: keep a distance of about an inch.

The warnings may be missed by an awful lot of customers. The United States has 292 million wireless numbers in use, approaching one for every adult and child, according to C.T.I.A.-The Wireless Association, the cellphone industry’s primary trade group. It says that as of June, about a quarter of domestic households were wireless-only.

If health issues arise from ordinary use of this hardware, it would affect not just many customers but also a huge industry. Our voice calls — we chat on our cellphones 2.26 trillion minutes annually, according to the C.T.I.A. — generate $109 billion for the wireless carriers.

The cellphone instructions-cum-warnings were brought to my attention by Devra Davis, an epidemiologist who has worked for the University of Pittsburgh and has published a book about cellphone radiation, “Disconnect.” I had assumed that radiation specialists had long ago established that worries about low-energy radiation were unfounded. Her book, however, surveys the scientific investigations and concludes that the question is not yet settled.

Brain cancer is a concern that Ms. Davis takes up. Over all, there has not been a general increase in its incidence since cellphones arrived. But the average masks an increase in brain cancer in the 20-to-29 age group and a drop for the older population.

“Most cancers have multiple causes,” she says, but she points to laboratory research that suggests mechanisms by which low-energy radiation could damage cells in ways that could possibly lead to cancer.

Children are more vulnerable to radiation than adults, Ms. Davis and other scientists point out. Radiation that penetrates only two inches into the brain of an adult will reach much deeper into the brains of children because their skulls are thinner and their brains contain more absorptive fluid. No field studies have been completed to date on cellphone radiation and children, she says.

Henry Lai, a research professor in the bioengineering department at the University of Washington, began laboratory radiation studies in 1980 and found that rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation had damaged brain DNA. He maintains a database that holds 400 scientific papers on possible biological effects of radiation from wireless communication. He found that 28 percent of studies with cellphone industry funding showed some sort of effect, while 67 percent of studies without such funding did so. “That’s not trivial,” he said.

The unit of measurement for radiofrequency exposure is called the specific absorption rate, or SAR. The Federal Communications Commission mandates that the SAR produced by phones be no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. One study listed by Mr. Lai found effects like loss of memory in rats exposed to SAR values in the range of 0.0006 to 0.06 watts per kilogram. “I did not expect to see effects at low levels,” he said.

The city of San Francisco passed an ordinance this year that requires cellphone retailers to post SARs prominently. This angered the C.T.I.A., which announced that it would no longer schedule trade shows in the city.

The association maintains that all F.C.C.-approved phones are perfectly safe. John Walls, the association’s vice president for public affairs, said: “What science tells us is, ‘If the sign on the highway says safe clearance is 12 feet,’ it doesn’t matter if your vehicle is 4 feet, 6 feet or 10 feet tall; you’re going to pass through safely. The same theory applies to SAR values and wireless devices.”

The association has set up a separate Web site, Four attractive young people are seen on the home page, each with a cellphone pressed against the ear — and all four are beaming as they listen. By this visual evidence, cellphone use seems to be correlated with elation, not cancer.

The largest study of cellphone use and brain cancer has been the Interphone International Case-Control Study, in which researchers in 13 developed countries (but not the United States) participated. It interviewed brain cancer patients, 30 to 59 years old, from 2000 to 2004, then cobbled together a control group of people who had not regularly used a cellphone.

The study concluded that using a cellphone seemed to decrease the risk of brain tumors, which the authors acknowledged was “implausible” and a product of the study’s methodological shortcomings.

The authors included some disturbing data in an appendix available only online. These showed that subjects who used a cellphone 10 or more years doubled the risk of developing brain gliomas, a type of tumor.

The 737 minutes that we talk on cellphones monthly, on average, according to the C.T.I.A., makes today’s typical user indistinguishable from the heavy user of 10 years ago. Ms. Davis recommends keeping a phone out of close proximity to the head or body, by using wired headsets or the phone’s speaker. Children should text rather than call, she said, and pregnant women should keep phones away from the abdomen.
The F.C.C. concurs about the best way to avoid exposure. It is not by choosing a phone with a marginally lower SAR, it says, but rather by holding the cellphone “away from the head or body.”

It’s advice that I find hard to put into practice myself. The comforting sight of everyone around me with phones pressed against their ears, just like me, makes the risk seem abstract.

But Ms. Davis, citing unsettling findings from research in Israel, France, Sweden and Finland, said, “I do think I’m looking at an epidemic in slow motion.”




Hewlett-Packard helps build Kenya e-waste plant
San Francisco Business Times - by Steven E.F. Brown
Date: Wednesday, November 10, 2010, 12:54pm PST

Computer and printer maker Hewlett-Packard Co. is helping build an electronic waste recycling plant in Kenya along with an Irish nonprofit, Camara Education Ltd.
Palo Alto-based HP (NYSE: HPQ) and Dublin’s Camara are putting this plant in Mombassa, on the coast, where there aren’t any such facilities right now (only the capital, Nairobi, has any significant e-waste recycling, and it’s expensive to truck discarded junk more than 300 miles by road, which takes up to six hours. Train trips take 13 hours between the cities.). They hope to open the plant by the end of the year.
Having a port facility also makes it easier to ship recycled material overseas for sale or further processing.
Computer use is growing in Kenya, but the use of mobile phones is growing even faster, and they generate a great deal of electronic device waste.
Kenya’s government said cell phone connections grew by 34 percent between 2008 and 2009, hitting 17.4 million.
Refrigerators, televisions, computers, printers and phones make up most of the e-waste generated in Kenya, according to the United Nations.
Camara is a charity that seeks to improve education in Africa through technology. It has two main businesses -- education and computer reuse. People and companies in Ireland donate used computers and Camara wipes them of data, loads up new software, and uses them in Africa.

Read more: Hewlett-Packard helps build Kenya e-waste plant | San Francisco Business Times


Dear Toby,

This morning, we released our newest Story of Stuff Project movie - The Story of Electronics - a look at the 'design for the dump' mentality so prevalent in the electronics industry.

This movie couldn't come at a better time: this November, Americans are expected to spend over $8.5 billion on consumer electronics, motivated by enticements to buy gizmos we don't really need or to replace gadgets that are still working with slightly newer versions.

The thing is, making all these devices takes an enormous environmental and public health toll: mining the metals trashes communities from Congo to Indonesia; assembling them uses huge amounts of water and energy and exposes workers to a host of toxic chemicals; and getting rid of them when we're on to the next, newer, better model creates mountains of e-waste.

The good news is that while the production, consumption and disposal of short-lived, toxics laden electronics are a really big problem, the solution is pretty simple: Make 'em Safe, Make 'em Last, and Take 'em Back.

We're releasing The Story of Electronics today to send a clear message to the electronics industry: it's time to send that design for the dump mentality to the dump where it belongs and start making less toxic, longer lasting and more easily recyclable products.

Our goal is to get a quarter of a million people to watch The Story of Electronics by Black Friday, just over two weeks from now.

You can help us reach this goal by:

Watching The Story of Electronics;

Sharing the movie with your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, fellow students and anyone else you think might be interested;

Reading Annie's Huffington Post piece about the movie, and then commenting on it, liking it or sharing it; and

Working with our partners at the Electronics TakeBack Coalition to tell two of the largest electronics manufacturers-Acer and Lenovo-to "Make 'em Safe, Make 'em Last, and Take 'em Back!"
Every time we release one of our movies, we're floored by the way our community jumps in to spread the message. We know this time will be no different.
So, thank you, and we hope you enjoy The Story of Electronics!


Annie, Michael, Allison, Christina and Renee

The Story of Stuff Project Team

P.S. It costs a pretty penny to produce and distribute our movies. You can help offset the distribution costs we're racking up this week with a secure, on-line donation to The Story of Stuff Project. Thank you!


Tuesday, November 9, 2010


India: Land of many cell phones, fewer toilets
By RAVI NESSMAN The Associated Press
News Fuze
MUMBAI, India—The Mumbai slum of Rafiq Nagar has no clean water for its shacks made of ripped tarp and bamboo. No garbage pickup along the rocky, pocked earth that serves as a road. No power except from haphazard cables strung overhead illegally.
And not a single toilet or latrine for its 10,000 people.
Yet nearly every destitute family in the slum has a cell phone. Some have three.
When U.S. President Barack Obama visits India Nov. 6, he will find a country of startlingly uneven development and perplexing disparities, where more people have cell phones than access to a toilet, according to the United Nations.
It is a country buoyed by a vibrant business world of call centers and software developers, but hamstrung by a bloated, corrupt government that has failed to deliver the barest of services.
Its estimated growth rate of 8.5 percent a year is among the highest in the world, but its roads are crumbling.
It offers cheap, world-class medical care to Western tourists at private hospitals, yet has some of the worst child mortality and maternal death rates outside sub-Saharan Africa.
And while tens of millions have benefited from India's rise, many more remain mired in some of the worst poverty in the world.
Businessman Mukesh Ambani, the world's fourth-richest person, is just finishing off a new $1 billion skyscraper-house in Mumbai with 27 floors and three helipads, touted as the most expensive home on earth. Yet farmers still live in shacks of mud and cow dung.
The cell phone frenzy bridges all worlds. Cell phones are sold amid the Calvin Klein and Clinique stores under the soaring atriums of India's new malls, and in the crowded markets of its working-class neighborhoods. Bare shops in the slums sell pre-paid cards for as little as 20 cents next to packets of chewing tobacco, while street hawkers peddle car chargers at traffic lights.
The spartan Beecham's in New Delhi's Connaught Place, one of the country's seemingly ubiquitous mobile phone dealers, is overrun with lunchtime customers of all classes looking for everything from a 35,000 rupee ($790) Blackberry Torch to a basic 1,150 rupee ($26) Nokia.
Store manager Sanjeev Malhotra adds to a decades-old—and still unfulfilled—Hindi campaign slogan promising food, clothing and shelter. "Roti, kapda, makaan" and "mobile," he riffs, laughing. "Basic needs."
There were more than 670 million cell phone connections in India by the end of August, a number that has been growing by close to 20 million a month, according to government figures.
Yet U.N. figures show that only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine, leaving 665 million to defecate in the open.
"At least tap water and sewage disposal—how can we talk about any development without these two fundamental things? How can we talk about development without health and education?" says Anita Patil-Deshmukhl, executive director of PUKAR, an organization that conducts research and outreach in the slums of Mumbai.
India's leaders say they are sympathetic to the problem.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist credited with unleashing India's private sector by loosening government regulation, talks about growth that benefits the masses of poor people as well as a burgeoning middle class of about 300 million. He describes a roaring Maoist insurgency in the east—which feeds in large part on the poor's discontent—as the country's biggest internal security threat.
Sonia Gandhi, chief of the ruling Congress Party, has pushed laws guaranteeing a right to food and education, as well as a gargantuan rural jobs program for nearly 100 million people. But as many as 800 million Indians still live on less than $2 a day, even as Mumbai's stock exchange sits near record highs.
Many fear the situation is unsustainable.
"Everybody understands the threat. Everybody recognizes that there is a gap, that this could be the thing that trips up this country," says Anand Mahindra, vice chairman and managing director of the Mahindra & Mahindra manufacturing company.
Private companies have tried to fill that gap, and Tata sells a 749 rupee ($16) water purifier for the poor. Mafias provide water and electricity to slumdwellers at a cost far higher than what wealthy Indians pay for basic services.
"For every little thing, we have to pay," says Nusrat Khan, a 35-year-old maid and single parent who raises her four children on less than 3,000 rupees ($67) a month and blames the government for her lack of access to water and a toilet.
The government is spending $350 million a year to build toilets in rural areas. Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, estimates the country needs about 120 million more latrines—likely the largest sanitation project in world history.
"Those in power, only they can change the situation," says Pathak, who claims to have helped build a million low-cost latrines across India over the past 40 years. "India can achieve this—if it desires."
In the slums of Mumbai, home to more than half the city's population of 14 million, the yearning for toilets is so great that enterprising residents have built makeshift outhouses on their own.
In Annabhau Sathe Nagar, a raised latrine of corrugated tin empties into a river of sewage that children splash in and adults wade across. The slum in east Mumbai has about 50,000 residents and a single toilet building, with 10 pay toilets for men and eight for women—two of which are broken.
With the wait for those toilets up to an hour even at 5 a.m., and the two-rupee (4-cent) fee too expensive for many, most people either use a field or wait to use the toilets at work, says Santosh Thorat, 32, a community organizer. Nearly 60 percent have developed piles from regularly waiting to defecate, he says.
Conditions are far worse in Rafiq Nagar, a crowded, 15-year-old slum on the lip of a 110-acre garbage dump.
Most of the slumdwellers are ragpickers who sort through heaps of trash for scraps of plastic, glass, metal, even bones, anything they can sell to recyclers for cash. A pungent brew of ripe garbage and sewage blows through the trash-strewn streets, as choking smoke from wood fires rolls out the doorways of windowless huts. Children, half clothed in rags, play hopscotch next to a mysterious gray liquid that has gathered in stagnant puddles weeks after the last rainfall.
Just beside the shacks, men and women defecate in separate areas behind rolling hills of green foliage that have sprung up over the garbage. Children run through those hills, flying kites.
Khatija Sheikh, 20, splurges to use a pay toilet in another neighborhood 10 minutes away, but is never sure what condition it will be in.
"Sometimes it's clean, sometimes it's dirty. It's totally dependent on the owner's mood," says Sheikh, whose two young children use the street. Her home is less than five feet from an elevated outhouse built by a neighbor that drops sewage next to her walls.
Since there are no water pipes or wells here, residents are forced to rely on the water mafia for water for cooking, washing clothes, bathing and drinking. The neighborhood is rife with skin infections, tuberculosis and other ailments.
A large blue barrel outside a home is filled with murky brown water, tiny white worms and an aluminum drinking cup. To fill up two jerry cans costs between 40 ($.90) and 50 ($1.10) rupees a day, about one-third of the average family's earnings here.
"If the government would give us water, we would pay that money to the government," said Suresh Pache, 41, a motorized rickshaw driver.
Instead, it has issued demolition notices throughout the slum, which sits illegally on government land. Pache, whose home was razed 10 times, jokes that the destruction is the only government service he can count on.
Yet the world of technology has embraced the slumdwellers with its cheap cell phones and cut-rate calling plans that charge a sliver of a penny a minute. Pache bought his first phone for 1,400 rupees ($31) four months ago. Since then, his wife, a ragpicker, found two other broken models as she scoured the garbage dump, and he paid to have them repaired.
He speaks with fluency about the different plans offered by Tata, Reliance and Idea that cost him a total of 300 rupees ($6.70) a month. Now, when his rickshaw breaks down, he can alert his wife with a call. She uses her phone to tell the recyclers where she is in the dump so they can drive out to her, saving her the time and effort of dragging her bag of scraps to them.
Mohan Singh, a 58-year-old bicycle repairman, says his son uses their 2,000 rupee ($45) Orpat phone to play music and talk to relatives. Thorat, the community organizer, shows photographs of his neighborhood and videos of a pre-school he started on his Nokia cameraphone, while his second phone rings in his pocket. Sushila Paten, who teaches at the pre-school, organizes a phone chain with her Samsung to instantly mobilize hundreds of people in the streets when violent thugs show up demanding "rent" from the squatters.
In fact, the spread of cell phones may end up bringing toilets.
R. Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons, one of India's most revered companies, says the rising aspirations of the poor, buttressed by their growing access to communications and information, will put tremendous pressure on the government to start delivering.
People already are starting to challenge local officials who for generations answered to no one, he says.
"I think there are very, very dramatic changes happening," he says.