For the past couple of months, apart from the scams, what’s also making news is the issue of mobile phone tower radiation. Recently new radiation norms were adopted by India and the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) had set September 1 as the deadline for the telecom operators to adhere to them. As per the new norms, the operators were mandated to reduce the radiation levels by 1/10th of the current levels, thus making it 0.9 watt/m2. Furthermore, it was announced that operators who are found flouting these rules would be heavily penalised.
While many welcomed this news, the critics were quick to point out that even this was not safe. There has been an ongoing debate about whether the radiation being emitted from the mobile phone towers can be a cause of cancer. The answer to this question is a tricky one as the scientific data available to date doesn’t clearly state whether or not radiation emitted from the mobile phone towers can cause cancer. Even the WHO report terms it a probable factor. Government officials as well as the operators are using the lack of proper scientific evidence as a defensive shield to fend off critics.
Even with the absence of scientific data to determine their role, there are many who are convinced that these towers are indeed death traps. And their belief is backed by the instances that have been witnessed in the country, be it the Kaiswal family from Jaipur where three family members were detected with cancer after installation of mobile phone towers five metres away from their house, or the Usha Kiran building in Mumbai that cited three cases of brain tumour that were attributed to the mobile phone towers installed on the rooftop of an adjacent building. While some may shrug these off as mere coincidences, several housing societies have now come forward to protest against these towers.
According to an estimate, currently there are around five lakh mobile phone towers in India. And today, thanks to the ever increasing popularity of mobile phones, it’s imperative for the operators to install towers to provide coverage. This will further increase their number in the future. With lack of conclusive evidence about their safety or even their role in causing cancer, the common man is at crossroads, especially those living around these towers.
We spoke to industry authorities, medical experts and researchers to find answers to the question that’s on everyone’s mind – are these really towers of death?
The matter of radiation
India has adopted the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection Board (ICNIRP) norms for the telecom sector, which are considered to be the best in the world. Recently, the radiation levels were further reduced by 1/10th of the current levels as a precautionary measure. Speaking on the matter, Rajan S Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said, “The Inter Ministerial Committee, as a precautionary measure, recommended that the standards be further lowered to 1/10th of the present ICNIRP standards, despite there being no scientific evidence stating any increased health benefit from the proposed directive, the industry has gone an extra mile to ensure compliance with the same. The base station/mobile tower is essentially responsible for the signals, coverage and the quality of service in the location it is installed. As per the mandate for coverage in Unified Access Service License (UASL) given by DoT, the clause 34.2 states: ‘Coverage of a DHQ/town would mean that at least 90% of the area bounded by the Municipal limits should get the required street as well as in-building coverage.’ Therefore, while making any changes in the RF planning, operators have to ensure that they are in compliance to the Quality of Service requirements as mandated by license and regulatory conditions. The Operators have worked under very tight deadlines to re-align their networks to provide desired QoS and coverage while bringing down the emissions levels and 95% of all towers owned by our members are fully compliant to the new. The industry is putting in serious efforts to achieve the same even in case of remaining five percent of towers after resolving minor operational issues.”
While the telecom operators seem happy to have done their bidding by agreeing to abide by the latest norms, there are many who believe that the radiation norms need to be reduced further. Most vocal amongst them is Prof. Girish Kumar, Electrical Engineering Department, IIT Bombay. He has conducted extensive research in the field and has presented his findings to DoT, but his suggestions have so far been ignored. He opines that the current radiation levels, even after being reduced, are high and can cause health troubles in the long run. Having himself experienced the ill effects of radiation owing to the nature of his work, he warns others of the ill effects. He is quite critical when voicing his opinion. He says, “I have met with industry bodies and even government officials with my research. Earlier I used to think that these people were not knowledgeable, so I thought let me make them aware about the health problems, but now I know better. They are akin to the cigarette industry and are waiting for millions of people to die. They will keep denying that there are any health problems. Now they have stopped saying that there is no evidence, what they are saying instead is that there are no concrete evidence.”
He goes on to elaborate, “What is happening right now is that they are transmitting huge amount of power from one rooftop, as each carrier frequency can transmit upto 20 watt of power and there may be 3-4 operators on one rooftop. This means that the total transmitted power may be 200 to 400W. And why are they transmitting more power? The answer is simple, because they can cover several kilometres. Now what’s happening is that people who are living within few hundred meters get very high radiation. Ideally, they should reduce the transmitted power and from one place it shouldn’t be more than 1-2 watts, but if they do so then their range will reduce and they will have to put up either more towers or repeater or a booster.” When we asked COAI, as to whether the current reduction in the levels of radiation impacted the network coverage, we were informed that it would be some time before the impact on the coverage and the signal strength could be ascertained. But the operators would ensure that there is no dearth in the Quality of Service offered to the consumers to the maximum possible extent.
A few years ago, Prof. Kumar even developed an instrument to study the radiation levels, using which he has surveyed several areas and found the radiation levels to be high. He also developed radiation shield, first for himself and then established a company to sell it commercially. His harsh criticism of the telcos and the government is often countered with accusations of wanting to promote his own commercial interest. Clearing the air he says, “Being an entrepreneur myself, I understand that no one will want to run their business at a loss. If telecos were to reduce the radiations levels even further, then they will have to invest in more towers to strengthen the network coverage. So I even provided them with the solution, where by increasing the call rate per minute by just say 5 paise, they could be profitable in couple of years.” He goes on to add that if the telcos reduced the radiation to safe levels, then it was his company that would be at a loss, as people wouldn’t need shielding solutions.
But with cut-throat competition, it’s highly unlikely that the telcos would want to risk increasing prices. Anuj Jain, a telecom engineer who is in agreement with Prof. Kumar on most parts, especially about the need to further reduce the radiation levels in the country, believes that the telecos would not want to increase prices. Anuj is a resident of South Mumbai and his house faces one of the mobile phone towers. He became concerned about this when his wife was expecting, because as a telecom engineer, he was only too aware of the effects of radiation, especially on pregnant women and young children. He says, “We have a cell phone tower that faces our bedroom and the antenna are at the same level as our flat. I was concerned about the effects of radiation on my wife and our baby and that’s what prompted me to start looking for solutions. I knew there needs to be a policy change, but my concern was in the mean time what should a common man do?” He found the answer in the form of radiation curtains, which contain precious metals and help absorb radiation.
Anuj also conducts radiation audits and spreads awareness about the effects of radiation. He says, “Having conducted radiation audits in and around the area I live, I can say that the situation is quite grave. Today the towers are everywhere. I have been constantly working with people to create awareness. I am a committee member in my own building and we ourselves have a tower on our building. But ours is the tallest building in the vicinity and having a tower on our building lessens the risk, then having the tower on the building adjacent to us. So if your building has a lot of sight and no building around it can get affected then that is the ideal spot.” Housing societies earn money from allowing the installation of mobile phone towers on their roofs, but there is a growing amount of dissent with many groups of housing societies protesting against the installation of these towers.
While at present the radiation levels have been dropped by 1/10th and it’s being claimed that the majority of the operators have complied with the norms, it’s very difficult to ascertain the truth. To address the growing concerns of the people, DoT recently launched a public helpline and web portal for the Mumbai Telecom Circle, where complaints against radiation emitted from mobile towers can be registered. It can be accessed from the DoT website, under the link “Public Grievance – EMF Radiation”. The Telecom Engineering Centre (TEC), the technical wing of the Ministry of Communications, has a test procedure for the measurement of exposure levels and their Telecom Enforcement Resource & Monitoring (TERM) cell will then conduct an audit of the site. You will have to pay Rs. 4,000 and if the site is found to be non-compliant to the norms, then the amount will be refunded.
Do mobile phone towers cause cancer?
Mobile phones work on electromagnetic radiation technology. The spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is large with varying frequencies and amplitude across the spectrum (for instance – radio that you listen to is also a form of electromagnetic radiation with different frequency and amplitude). The highest end of the spectrum is called ionising radiation and is used for therapeutic radiation to treat cancer, while the lower end of the spectrum is known as radio frequency (RF waves). Just next step to the radio frequency waves are the microwave waves. Mobile phone technology uses this microwave end of the spectrum, which is roughly about 300 MegaHertz and falls in the non-ionising category. Similarly, radiations emitted by mobile phone towers lie in the non-ionising part of the electromagnetic spectrum.