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Mobile towers and cancer: DoT report says no link, but doubts remain

By Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Shankhayan Chowdhury

Strange indeed are the ways of the government. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) in the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology recently conducted a so-called pilot study in a locality in Mumbai on the impact of electro-magnetic radiation on people living in close proximity to mobile telephone towers.

The DoT study, if at all it can be called that, was based on answers given by respondents to a simple questionnaire with general questions. To the answers were added a few readings of radiation levels at specific locations.

Not very surprisingly, the DoT's study did not come up with any conclusive evidence on the carcinogenic effects of radiation from mobile towers. The government has curiously chosen to keep these findings under wraps.

The study, details of which are being revealed for the first time here in (see attachment), was in response to complaints from residents of a particular building complex in Borivali, Mumbai.

 Mobile towers and cancer: DoT report says no link, but doubts remain

Do mobile towers really affect all living things in its vicinity. Reuters

The study was conducted by the office of the deputy director general of the Telecom Enforcement Resource & Monitoring (TERM) wing of the Mumbai Circle of the DoT. A report based on the study that was prepared in February, was quietly pushed under the rug without being publicised even though it did not present conclusive proof of health hazards from mobile phone towers.

The TERM wing in Mumbai has been receiving complaints from citizens about high radiation levels from mobile towers for some time now. While sifting through these complaints, DoT officials came across a residential building, Jawan Nagar Society in Borivali (West), where six individuals from five different families had been diagnosed with cancer over the past five to six years. Five out of these six individuals had died.

A team from TERM led by DDG M. Biswas visited this complex and observed that the occupants of five flats in the residential building complex were exposed to radiation from two Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) situated on top of two shopping complexes – Indraprastha Shopping Centre and Siddhartha Shopping Complex.

Using broadband monopole antennae and a spectrum analyzer, radiation levels were measured inside two of these flats and a terrace that is regularly used by the residents. These were found to be within the prescribed norms of the DoT.

Despite these findings that are inconclusive and based on a very small sample, there is growing concern in the world and in India about the adverse effects of radiation from cellphone towers on humans.

The famous statement made by Dr Magda Havas, associate professor of environment and resource studies at Trent University, Canada, who has been conducting research on the impact of radiation on humans since the 1990s, namely, that "mobile phones are like cigarettes of the 21st century", still resonates in the minds of many.

After people became aware of the harmful effects of smoking, it took several decades to gather sufficient data to prove it. The use of mobile phones have been widespread across the world and in India for over a decade. Studies on the effect of radiation from mobile phones and cellphone towers are being conducted in many countries and by international agencies. The links between radiation and cancer cannot be ruled out.

On 21 March, on the eve of World Water Day, the United Nations put out a disquieting statistic: more people on earth have access to mobile phones than toilets. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the world has more than six billion mobile phone users among its population of seven billion.

The Geneva-based ITU calculates that around 2.4 billion people are internet users, though there is a wide disparity in internet usage between developed and developing nations. The raging discourse on the threats of radiation from communication technology on the human body is being played out against this backdrop.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had in its 2006 fact sheet on "electromagnetic fields (EMF) and public health" stated that “international exposure guidelines have been developed to provide protection against established effects from RF (radio frequency) fields" by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) in 1998 and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in 2005.

The WHO added that “national authorities should adopt international standards to protect their citizens against adverse levels of RF (Radio Frequency) fields”. Based on the WHO recommendation, different countries have adopted their own EMF norms. This is where one enters a grey area.

Harsaran Bir Kaur Pandey in her book The Radiation Threat – An Emergency In The Making (published by Vikas) that was released in Delhi on 24 July points out that “all safety standards have to be prescribed with the support of the related industry, which must be ready to accept them”.

After repeated complaints were made by Jaipur-based Sudhir Kasliwal, who had two mobile towers close to his residence, the city municipality sealed both of them. But not before he lost one brother to glioma, a form of brain cancer. Another brother is afflicted with the same disease and fighting for his life.

Kasliwal, who runs a jewellery business out of the capital of Rajasthan, told Firstpost that what was a scary coincidence was when he and his family members discovered that their pet dog had also died on account of a brain tumour. This incident stirred up a controversy in Jaipur.

After the Hindi daily, Rajasthan Patrika, published a series of articles on the topic, mobile phone companies stopped advertising in the publication, the newspaper's news editor Shipra Mathur said in an interview. She said her publication had received complaints from over 130 individuals in 2011 and 2012.

More people have access to mobile phones than toilets. Reuters

More people have access to mobile phones than toilets. Reuters

The media outrage following this episode provided support to a petition filed by Justice (retired) I. S. Irani and Nirmala Singh in the High Court of Rajasthan on 24 February 2012 against the indiscriminate installation of mobile towers in schools and other public places citing the right to life as a fundamental right.

On 27 November 2012, a division bench of the court headed by Chief Justice Arun Mishra and Justice NK Jain Senior held that radiations from BTSs are “hazardous to children and patients”. In a judgement that could have eventually have a nationwide impact, the court ordered the relocation of mobile towers from educational institutions, hospitals and playgrounds in the state within two months.

The order of the bench running into more than 200 pages cited a May 2012 report of an inter-ministerial committee of the Union government stating that radiations emitted from mobile phones and mobile base towers are "hazardous to children and patients". The court also asked all mobile companies with towers in Rajasthan to relocate these from a periphery of 500 meters from prisons and those falling within a 100-meter distance of ancient and archaeological heritage monuments.

Earlier, on 7 September, the Supreme Court had refused to interfere with the Rajasthan High Court's interim order to the state government to remove mobile phone towers from near schools, hospitals and densely populated localities.

The bench emphasised that electromagnetic radiations emitted from cellphones as well as mobile towers have both thermal and non-thermal effects, that is, these waves cook human tissues just like a microwave oven would if a body is exposed to these radiation for long.

Mathur of Rajasthan Patrika pointed out that the Madhya Pradesh government's new Nagarpalika Act places restrictions on erecting mobile towers in public places.

Associations of mobile phone operators, including the Cellular Operators Association of India, have challenged the implementation of the judgement of the Rajasthan High Court all over India in the Supreme Court.

In Kasliwal's case, after he wrote several letters to government bodies and sought information under the Right to Information Act, a team from DoT's TERM finally turned up to investigate his allegations.

"Radiation levels measured by TERM revealed maximum radiation on the first floor of the building where I live," he said.

"Two siblings, both living on the first floor barely ten metres away from mobile towers being affected with cancer is definitely not an usual situation," Kasliwal said.

The method of calculating radiation levels is another contentious issue. Kasliwal alleges that TERM has no equipment to measure radiation levels and use machines provided by cellphone operators.

"It is like asking the perpetrators of a crime to regulate themselves," he claimed.

Amidst allegations of operators violating norms laid down by the DoT, Kapil Sibal, Minister of Communications and Information Technology wrote in an internal note reviewed by the Economic Times in May that: "The industry will have to demonstrate through a comprehensive database that radiation exposure limits prescribed by the DoT are being adhered to."

The ecological effects of the BTS cannot be ignored completely.

"In our neighbourhood, after the towers became non-functional, birds have returned and are building nests on the towers," Kasliwal said.

Modern living is entwined with communication technology but there is a huge need to filter out harmful effects without reducing the efficacy or efficiency of these technologies. In her book, Pandey talks about counter-measures like "environics" that are based on "ancient knowledge systems, blended with the modern science of geobiology, which deals with geopathic stresses and the principles of quantum physics".

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Updated Date: Sep 02, 2013 12:44:38 IST