Are the radio-frequency waves emitted from cellphone towers killing us slowly? Being exposed to a mobile tower located within 50-metres is like being in a microwave oven for 24 hours, say experts, and carries the same cancer risk as living surrounded by lead, DDT, chloroform and petrol exhaust. Himanshu Vyas reports.india Updated: Jul 15, 2012 01:29 IST
The Kasliwals and fifty other families in the upscale C-scheme neighbourhood in Jaipur live under the shadow of death. Seven people in the neighbourhood have been diagnosed with cancer since cellphone towers were installed here in 2003. Since then, illnesses, both minor and major, have become a part of their lives.
Two of the three Kasliwal brothers were recently diagnosed with cancer. "First, our dog died of cancer. Last year, both my younger brother and I were diagnosed with brain cancer. It was only when the doctor asked whether we were exposed to some kind of radiation that it occurred to us that the cell-phone towers next to our home were to blame," said Sanjay Kasliwal, who is a part of a large joint-family living in C-scheme.
After treatment at the New York Presbyterian Hospital in the US, Pramod Kasliwal has been admitted to Medanta Medicity at Gurgaon. He is critical. "These towers were put up illegally and the Jaipur Municipal Corporation (JMC) has no records for granting any permission for installation of cell phone towers," says Kasliwal.
The World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says radiation from cellphone handsets and towers is "possibly carcinogenic to humans" and may cause glioma, a type of brain cancer. Towers are more dangerous than handsets because they emit greater-intensity radiation 24X7.
"The area of concern is base-stations and their antennas, which provide the link to and from cellphones. This is because, in contrast to handsets, it (RF) is emitted continuously and is more powerful at close quarters...," said an inter-ministerial committee of experts on electromagnetic radiation exposure from cellphone towers in 2009.
Despite that, the response from government is predictable. "There is no scientific study to prove that anyone has got any health problem due to telecom towers in India. The WHO has prescribed norms on emission of radiation by Telecom Towers. Our norms are much below the WHO norms," said R Chandrasekhar, secretary, department of telecommunications (DoT). "The government has set up a committee under the department of science and technology to look into the issues. The matter is continuously under review."
But the norms adopted in India in 2009 are already outdated, say experts. "In 2009, India adopted the radiation norms specified by ICNIRP, which are now outdated as they were only intended to protect people against short-term gross heating effects and not against ‘biological’ effects such as cancers and genetic damage from long-term exposure," says Dr Girish Kumar, professor, department of electrical engineering, IIT Bombay, who submitted a report on Cell Tower Radiation to the secretary, DoT, in December 2010.
"Also, these safety standards are based on 6 minutes/day exposure, without accounting for people who live close to cell towers 24x7. The norms allow EMF of 4,500 mw/sq2," he adds.
Following the Girish Kumar report, the Inter-Ministerial Committee January 2011 report made recommendations to reduce the exposure to 450 mw/m2. "However, even that hasn’t been implemented yet," laments Kumar.
By the end of 2010, India had 5.4 lakh cell phone towers, of which Delhi alone has 5, 364, including legal and illegal ones.
The problem is not unique to Jaipur. Sushila Shah, 57, housewife and Wadala resident in Mumbai, was surprised when told one of the possible reasons for her cancer was just 50 feet away. There are some 20 cell towers on the terrace of very next building to where she stays. She called in experts to measure radiation levels in their home and found the terrace was in the danger zone with very high radiation, while the bedroom, kitchen and hall were in the caution zone. "Every day, we are faced with a new problem: severe headaches, body ache, fatigue, skin rashes and unbearable itchiness. Towers have been there for three years, they are a menace to society," she says.
In west Delhi's Vikas Puri H-block, the Anands claim even birds avoid their neighbourhood after tower was installed in their locality seven years ago. "All the five towers have been put up in and around the neighbourhood without ‘no-objection, certificates being sought from the residents," says AK Anand, who plans to move court to get them removed.
"It is not legal to install cellular towers in residential areas without taking formal consent. People can complain at the MCD’s office of their zone," said Mahender Nagpal, leader of the house, north Delhi Municipal Corporation. But complaining to the MCD has not worked for the Anands, who are now planning to move court with some of their neighbours.
Searching for a solution
Like them, the Kasliwals approached several regulators and service providers, but nothing happened. "There is no rule in JMC specifically to regulate mobile towers. We tried to make the bylaws for the mobile towers and sent them for approval of the state government, but due to some legal tangle, we still haven’t got permission. Now the state government will reply in court and further instruct to JMC," says Jaipur Mayor Jyoti Khandelwal. Tired of the civic authorities and the regulators passing the buck, the Kasliwals filed a writ petition to remove the towers.
Shifting towers is not a solution, as they invariably end up somewhere around for cell phone connectivity. "Instead of removing towers and passing on the problem to other people, the transmitted power must be reduced," says Kumar.
—With Rhythma Kaul and Manoj Gairola in New Delhi, and Sanjana Bhalerao in Mumbai
Technology is fine, but stringent measures needed
Usha Suradkar, 65
Radiation-shielding machine, shielding films on window, radiation blocking curtains and wallpapers are an essential part of life for the Suradkar family whose house in Dadar has 12 cell towers on their terrace. "If you have towers in your vicinity, these precautionary measures are a must," says Suradkar, who was diagnosed with brain tumour . The family got two cellphone towers outside their kitchen and bedroom removed after persistent badgering of the cellphone tower company. "We later found out that the issues like severe headache, continuous cough and itchiness that my wife was facing was possibly due to the radiation from towers," says Sudhakar Suradkar, a retired Inspector General of police (IGP).
"These cell also causes structural damage to building. I urge all to not just get lured by the money paid by these companies," he says. Her husband adds: "I am not against technology advancement, but stringent measures should be taken to tap these companies."
— Sanjana Bhalerao
Complaints to authorities have not helped so far
Uma Devi Luthra, 70
The residents of north Delhi’s Model Town-II have unsuccessfully requested the Municipal Council of Delhi (MCD) to get two cellphone towers moved out of their neighbourhood for four years, installed eight years back. After writing several complaint letters to the Delhi Police, MCD and other government departments, the Luthras, and neighbours, are now planning to move Court.
"My daughter-in-law complained of nausea and frequent headaches, my son and grandson felt irritable all the time and my immunity began going down," said Luthra. "After receiving my complaint, police commissioner YK Dadwal, called and said they would take action, but nothing’s been done," she says.
I stopped opening my windows for fresh air
Javlika Shah, 58
When cell phone companies placed transmitters outside her bedroom windows eight years ago, little did Shah, a resident of Girgaum in south Mumbai, know that she would face the consequences years later. "My headaches are not something ordinary. The nerves are strained and it is unbearably painful," she says. She’s also become an insomniac, and gets up in the morning feeling tired and uneasy.
According to the radiation test undertaken in her house, all the rooms have high level of radiation. She says, "I stopped opening my windows for fresh air. The report shows that these areas have highest level of radiation."
"The cell phone towers were put up in most residential buildings for better network. Without knowing the consequences, most society committees agreed to it. "I cannot afford to put up these window films or wallpapers. They are too expensive. I want these towers to be removed for my safety and that of the others around," says frustrated Shah.
Headaches and insomnia plague Peddar Road
Smita Agarwal , 43
Many residents of Peddar Road suspect there is connection between the increasing number of cancer cases and other health problems and the cluster of cellphone towers put up on residential buildings. Agarwal is one of the victims, staying on the top floor of Maheshwari Niketan. She recently got a doctor’s certificate stating that cause of her health problems are radiations. Her children also complain of headache and sleeplessness.
Peddar Road has already reported two deaths because of cancer developed by radiation. The lane has educational institutions, a well known hospital and several residential towers and bungalow. At present, Maheshwari Niketan has around 18-20 transmitters on their terrace and there are expected to be few more in the coming years. A few months back, the residents of Peddar Road marched to demand the removal of the cluster of towers from their terrace.
"I don’t know how to protect myself and my family. Only proper rules and regulations set up by the civic body can make a difference," says a worried Agarwal. "I don’t want people killed for few lakh," she adds.
— Vaishnavi Vasudevan
Dr Girish Kumar
'Reduce the power or remove the tower'
Disrupted sleep, headaches, dizziness, altered reflexes, depression, fatigue, joint pains, heart disorders, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson, DNA damage and cancers are just some of the health hazards of exposure to cell tower radiation, says Professor Girish Kumar, professor, department of electrical engineering, IIT Bombay, who submitted a report on Cell Tower Radiation to the Department of Telecommunications, in December 2010.
Are towers destroying our health, with or without phone usage?
Yes, of course. After 20 minutes of using cell phones, you feel a warm sensation near the ear. This is because the temperature of the earlobes increases by one degree Celsius. A maximum of 6 minutes of cell phone usage is recommended during the day since a cell phone transmits 1 to 2 watts of power, which are very high and dangerous.
In the US, users are told this, but in India, there are no such warnings despite the fact that we adopted radiation norms specified by ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection) guidelines of 1998.
Do studies prove that exposure to EMF has a direct health impact?
The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s INTERPHONE study in 2000 done over 10 years in 13 countries showed that heavy cellphone users (1 to 2 hours a day) have a risk of glioma (brain or spine tumour). This risk is 55% for those using it over 10 years. They found 5,117 brain tumour cases in the study.
Several studies done in various countries — such as Germany, Austria, Brazil, Israel, etc — have reported increase in cancer cases in 5 to 10 years, where radiation level was more than 1 mW/m2.
Cancer is the last stage and before that, people living close to mobile phone towers have reported sleep disturbances, headaches, memory loss, lack of concentration, fatigue, joint pains, vision distortion, miscarriage, heart problems, etc.
In India too, there are many complaints of such health problems among people who are heavy cell phone users and stay near cell towers. Cell phone users start with feeling dizzy and even develop ear problems. This was acknowledged by the Government of India in its Jan 2011 Inter-Ministerial Committee report.
What are the norms for cellphone radiation in India and what is the ideal level of exposure?
Till 2009, India had no standards. India adopted the radiation norms specified by ICNIRP in 2009, which are now outdated as they were only intended to protect people against short-term gross heating effects and not 'biological' effects such as cancers and genetic damage from long-term exposure.
Also, these safety standards are based on 6 minutes per day exposure, without accounting for people who live close to cell towers 24/7. The norms allow EMF of 4,500 mw/m2.
In 2010, I submitted a report to the government on the health hazards from cell towers and how to curb them. In January 2011, the report by Inter-ministerial Committee mentioned several health hazards at levels thousand to ten thousand times below the ICNIRP standards and made recommendations to reduce exposure to 1/10th to 450 mw/m2. Even that has not been implemented yet.
How can exposure be reduced?
At first, I would recommend that the amplification of power in the cell towers be reduced by removing the power amplifier or by reducing the gain of the antenna. By reducing the power, coverage area will be reduced, which can be taken care of by using more cell towers or repeaters or in-building solutions. The height of towers should be increased. All towers in close proximity to schools and hospitals should be checked and removed, if too close.
Where do towers shifted from celebrity neighbourhoods — as in Juhi Chawla's case — go?
They may have shifted these towers to nearby place for cell phone connectivity, so the radiation from these high-power transmitting towers will now be affecting other people. That is why I have always recommended that instead of removing towers and passing on the problem, the transmitted power must be reduced. Reduce the power or remove the tower.
Sayli Udas Mankikar