Friday, July 5, 2013

Is mobile phone tower radiation in India a health hazard?

Is mobile phone tower radiation in India a health hazard?

By Himanshu Vyas/The Hindustan Times
Does radiation from cellphone towers in India cause cancer?
Yes, said the Kasliwals, two of who have been diagnosed with brain cancer after three towers were installed next to their upscale C-scheme neighbourhood in Jaipur, capital of the north Indian state of Rajasthan.  Since then, illnesses, both minor and major, have become a part of their lives and the lives of the 50 other families in their neighbourhood. 

"Last year, both my younger brother Pramod and I were diagnosed with brain cancer. Pramod is critical," said Sanjay Kasliwal, who belongs to a family of prominent jewellers in Jaipur. The Kasliwals have no family history of cancer.

Experts agreed. "Being exposed to a mobile tower located within 50m of your home or workplace is like being in a microwave oven for 24 hours," said Prof. Girish Kumar, department of electrical engineering, IIT Bombay, who submitted a report on cell tower radiation to the department of telecommunications in December 2010.
"Following that, in January 2011, a report by an inter-ministerial committee made recommendations to reduce the exposure to 450 mw/sq m. It has not been implemented yet," said Kumar.

Cancer happens in extreme cases, with almost everyone living close to mobile towers reporting disorders such as sleep disturbances, headaches, fatigue, joint pains, among others.

Even with cellphone use, benign swelling in the brain and head, hearing disorders, headaches and anxiety neurosis are well established," said Dr Sameer Kaul, cancer surgeon, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, New Delhi. 

The impact is higher in children, who have smaller and thinner skulls.

The industry, predictably, is in denial. "We have extensive factual, scientific research and papers to show that there is no conclusive evidence that EMF, at the levels prescribed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (an international commission for radiation protection) causes any risk to the health and well -being of individuals," said Rajan S. Mathews, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India, an apex body of telecom operators.

People who have developed health problems are not buying that. "If towers are so safe, why bother to have laws and limits at all," said AK Anand, who is unsuccessfully trying to get cellphone towers moved from his Vikas Puri H block neighbourhood for five years.
Towering trouble

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. 

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.

Killer waves

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.

Sickened nation

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.

- Himanshu Vyas with Rhythma Kaul and Manoj Gairola in New Delhi, and Sanjana Bhalerao in Mumbai.

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