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Sat26Jul2014

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Turning a blind eye to cell tower radiation risks

By Darryl D'Monte

The Maharashtra government has finally accepted that nearly half of Mumbai’s cell towers are illegal. However, the government is still not admitting the health risks posed by these towers

cell tower radiation

At long last, the Maharashtra government has reacted to the burgeoning menace of cell towers, which emit harmful radiation. The Minister of State for Urban Development Bhaskar Jadhav has announced that 1,830 cell towers out of 3,705 in the city – very nearly half -- do not have permission from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and action will be initiated against the housing societies that gave the green signal for such installations. The BMC, he stated, was in the process of drafting its policy to regulate such towers, while the Centre had already brought out its guidelines. However, his statement only deserves two cheers. He said, in the same breath, “the health hazards of cell tower radiation have not yet been established”. In which case, why should they be regulated at all? He appears to have taken a very legalistic view in only penalising such unauthorised towers – like buildings and extensions themselves -- -- without looking into the health implications for the citizenry.

One should never underestimate either the apathy of civic bodies or the influence that can be exerted on these bodies by vested interests. The Maharashtra Housing & Area Development Authority (MHADA), for instance, has just proposed a 20% increase in floor-space index (FSI) from 2.5 to 3 for builders who take up residential redevelopment projects in Mumbai by this state government agency. There is nothing to indicate that under the existing FSI regulations, there was anything of a deterrent to builders, who virtually rule the roost in Mumbai and other cities in the state. While builders – like the irrigation lobby in Maharashtra – are so powerful and think nothing of indulging in daylight corruption and outright loot of the state exchequer, cell tower operators are a much more circumspect body.

As the Hindustan Times – which is running a spirited campaign against these cancer-causing towers in Mumbai (as has, to its credit, the Rajasthan Patrika in Jaipur) -- has reported, barely two months after the Mumbai Municipal Corporation initiated a study on the suspected correlation between health hazards and exposure to radiation emitted from mobile phone towers, it  has been abruptly halted. This points to the confusion which continues to prevail between the civic administration and the commissioned panel of doctors from KEM hospital on the conclusions drawn from the study so far. “We have stopped the study on the health hazards caused by exposure to mobile phone tower radiation. We have not prepared any report as part of the study,” said Dr Sandhya Kamath, Dean of KEM Hospital, who was chairing the study panel. But Additional Municipal Commissioner Manisha Mhaiskar, in-charge of civic-run hospitals, said, "The study shows that if operators adhere to norms, there won't be any health hazards. So, we are not taking it forward."

Sources from the hospital told the HT that the study was stuck in its design stage, even before the groundwork could be set in motion. "While there are no clear reasons, the possibility of lack of funds coupled with the delay in getting other professionals, including technicians, could have led to this halt," said a senior doctor. ”Medical studies in general are very exhaustive and expensive. On account of the absence of medical literature on the issue of exposure to mobile phone tower radiation, there is a lot of groundwork that needs to be undertaken," added the doctor. The paper quotes an activist, Jitendra Gupta: “We fear there could be vested commercial interests in not giving a conclusive report. There are several international studies on the subject. But this was the first such study undertaken at a local city-centric level.”

As often happens, the left hand appears not to know what the right is doing.  What Mhaiskar states simply begs the question. The nationwide norms themselves, while made 10 times tighter last year, are still very lax compared to other countries. On the very day in February 2013 that the Supreme Court began hearings on the Rajasthan High Court’s ruling that cell towers should be removed from the roofs of schools, hospitals, jails and heritage buildings, on a case filed by telecom-industry lobbies, the Economic Times (ET) chose to highlight the cautions voiced by the Towers and Infrastructure Providers Association about lowered network reach if such a legal provision was imposed. This was echoed in the article by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) which surfaced in the notorious 2G telecom scandal.  The permissible limits for radiation for a cell tower was reported in the pink paper to be well within international standards – although the Indian government reduced it to (not by) one-tenth of the existing limit slightly earlier that year.

ET questioned and quoted the World Health Organisation; the WHO only opined on the lack of scientific certainty about the use of cell phones, not about cell tower radiation, which was also a question addressed to it. The paper had the temerity to claim that “so far, no study has conclusively proved that mobile phones or radiation from towers poses a potential health risk”. It ended with a quote from a senior lawyer, Meet Malhotra: “Nothing can be banned on mere suspicion and definitely not something as essential as cell phones”. There are no prizes for guessing that the article was timed to pressurise the Supreme Court to overturn the Rajasthan High Court’s ban. This piece of journalism stuck out like a sore thumb, with the rest of the media taking on the cell tower companies. This is especially true of Mumbai where the problems of such radiation are highest, given the density of high-rise buildings.  Indeed, this radiation has already caused the death due to brain cancer of a lady in Usha Kiran, the first high-rise in the city (coincidentally, the wife of  Vijay Gokhale, who was the GM of Union Carbide India when the Bhopal gas tragedy took place in 1984).

Kalyan Parbat, the Mumbai-based ‘Assistant Telecom Editor’ of the ET had written to Mumbai’s – and certainly one of the country’s – foremost authorities on the radiation from these towers, Prof Girish Kumar of IIT Mumbai.  “I am working on an ET special feature on health concerns relating to telecom towers -- fact or fiction,” Parbat e-mailed him in February 2013. “Below are my questions. I will need your responses by 7 pm tomorrow as we have a very tight deadline. Since you are among the most nationally renowned campaigners against radiation, I am really looking forward to your perspectives to bring out the real story.”  Prof Kumar had replied, among other points, that “India has adopted 1/10th of ICNIRP [International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, a publicly funded body of independent scientific experts] guidelines, which comes out to be 470 milliwatts/sq m for GSM900 and 920 milliwatts/sq m for GSM1800 [Global System for Mobile Communications is a standard set developed by the Institute to describe protocols for second generation [2G] digital cellular networks used by mobile phones).  The most stringent norm in the world is adopted by Austria, which is 1.0 milliwatts/sq m.”  

After the story appeared, Prof Kumar, who is from the Electrical Engineering Department of IIT, wrote back to Mumbai activist Prakash Munshi: “I had sent following reply to the questions raised by Kalyan Parbat from ET but he has written very differently in the newspaper.” Munshi e-mailed Bodhisatva Ganguli, the Resident Editor, “I am forwarding Prof Girish Kumar's reply to Mr Kalyan Parbat. You can compare Girish Kumar's email with what has been published. Could you please arrange a correction?”  Two days later, he sent a reminder but, expectedly, there was stony silence from the paper.

 According to UK local activists, 14 people living within a mile of a mobile phone mast that emits one of the highest levels of radiation in the country have died of cancer. Four of the deaths have been in a cul-de-sac yards from the site. A further 20 residents have developed tumors in the last seven years, although they have survived. Those living in the shadow of the mast have begun a campaign for its removal, claiming that it has caused a cancer hotspot. The Health Protection Agency is investigating. Worried parents are refusing to take their children to the playing fields where the mast is sited for fear of damaging their health. The mast was erected in 1995 on a disused water tower in the West Midlands. However, the radiation was still within UK safety guidelines. The 14 deaths have included Betty Genner, who was killed by ovarian cancer in 2003 aged 68, and Dorothy Day, 69, who died two years later from cancer.

The government insists mobile phone masts pose no threat to the public. But some campaigners believe the radiation from masts could be powerful enough to change the composition of body cells, making them more susceptible to cancer. A spokesman for Ofcom (the independent regulator and competition authority for UK communications

But Yasmin Skelt, from pressure group Mast Sanity, which campaigns against the spread of mobile phone masts, said: "The government keeps refusing to believe there is a problem. China and Russia realise this and keep their limits at a sixtieth of what we have got. We are being told nothing about the health effects, agencies that should be helping the British public are not helping. Why are we putting up with it?"

The UK activists point out:

  • Mobile phone masts emit almost 10 times as much radiation as a microwave oven 
     
  • Radio waves from the masts penetrate more than an inch into the body's tissues
  • The radiation emitted by a mobile phone held against the head is far more powerful than that produced by a mast 
     
  • In 2000, a report backed by the government concluded there was no definite link between masts and ill health. 
     
  • There are 51,000 phone masts in the UK.

Considering that it took 50 years for the US government to finally crack down on the tobacco industry due to hazards of smoking, it is not surprising – whether in Mumbai or a small UK town – to find the civic authorities indifferent, if not negligent or callous, about such health risks of modern devices. This is especially true of such a universal, widespread practice – from smoking to using cell phones. But now, the amount of medical and legal knowledge about such risks is growing in leaps and bounds. When will the authorities in this country wake up and listen to the voices of sanity from here and across the globe?

Infochange News & Features, April 2013