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.

Radiation towers

Radiation 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.      

Children exposed to radiation for longer duaration

Children should avoid exposure to radio waves for longer duaration

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.

When we switch on the mobile phone, the signal is first carried to a tower, then to the intermediate station that recognises the caller and sends it to another tower that is close to the recipient. And finally, the signal reaches the antenna of the mobile phone that captures it and changes or modulates it into an audible sound. With all the hype around mobile phone towers and radiation, the question is – whether it can cause cancer? We spoke to Dr. Rakesh Jalali, Professor and Senior Oncologist at the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai. He is a Radiology Oncologist, also has a Neuro-Oncology fellowship from Royal Marsden Hospital, London. With over 200 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, he has also received Academic Award for Excellence for Best Global Original Research in Quality of Life for Patients at the Society of Neuro-Oncology in 2007. 

According to Dr. Jalali, the concern arises because essentially we are using electromagnetic radiation. Even though it belongs to the lowest end of the spectrum in terms of frequency, it is still slightly more than the radio frequency waves used by radio. However, he is quick to point out that they are essentially non-ionising, which means they cannot cause direct damage to DNA. Direct DNA damage generally occurs because of ionising radiation. “Though the effect of non ionizing waves is very small, for 50 years people have been trying to see in laboratory using animal module, whether there is any damage to DNA. Initially results hardly showed any damage because there was no direct DNA link, but now people are exploring the possibilities of some indirect damage. So they have seen, for example, that it can affect the environment of the cell, it can affect the cell membrane, it can also sometimes affect the nucleus indirectly, it can release what are called free radicals which can predispose people to cancerogenic effect. Even WHO terms it 'potentially carcenogenic' that implies a probable link and it requires further research.”  

Dr. Rakesh Jalali, Professor of Radiation Oncology , Tata Memorial Hospital

Dr. Rakesh Jalali, Professor of Radiation Oncology, Tata Memorial Hospital

Though the effects of radiations are making headlines now, several studies have been conducted over the past 20 years to know the effects of radiations on humans. However, majority of the studies conducted till date haven’t been able to establish a direct link between the causation of brain tumor or cancer in general with the usage of mobile phone. Dr. Jalali points out one such important study and the possible reasons why such studies in the past have failed. Interphone is a study commissioned by WHO’s branch called International Agency for Research in Cancer IARC. The Interphone study was performed in 13 countries in the world and primarily in the Nordic countries (relatively non-migrating population and they were amongst the first one to use mobile phones). He says, “Talking about the overall result of the study, there was no direct link established between cancer and radiations. But if you look at it critically, there’s some interesting data like the maximum time that a person spends on phone was about 100 – 110 hours in the entire life which means around 20 hours per month and here sometimes people speak for 20 hours in probably few days. The study started roughly in 2000 when cell phone usage was not that high as it is the case now. And interestingly and of slight concern was that there was a small group of patients in whom there was a statistical significant increase in brain tumor and this group belonged to people who reported excessive usage of cell phones. This number was very small as compared to the overall sample size on whom the study was conducted.” So, probably, if today such a study is conducted, the results could be different.

While there is no direct link to prove the cause of cancer or even tumour, radiation can have other health effects. Specific absorption Rate or SAR, as it is more commonly known, is the more worrying factor with evident health implications. SAR is associated with your mobile devices. When mobile phones use microwave frequency waves, they do deposit some amount of energy and this energy is of two types – thermal energy and non-thermal. SAR is measured as watts per kg body weight. Higher the SAR, more is the possibility of deposition of that energy. Many international agencies, including the American Cancer Society, say that the power of the mobile phone energy deposition in the human tissue should not be more than 1.6 watts per kg. So, it is important that you check the SAR of your handset before purchasing it. In any case, there will be some deposition of energy, but the heat temperature is extremely mild at .01 degree centigrade (you don’t feel the heat). Nevertheless, it also depends on the length and duration of the calls you make. Recently, DoT reduced the SAR value from 2 watts per kg to 1.6 watts per kg, it has also made it mandatory for the mobile phone manufacturers to mention the SAR value of every handset on their website. This also applies to the mobile devices being imported to the country.

Cell phone radiation cause of cancer? (Image Credit: Interphone, IARC)

Mobile phone and SAR (Image Credit: Interphone, IARC)

Even with the reduced values, SAR can be potentially harmful to your health. However, this depends on your phone usage and so is in your control. Dr. Jalali, while explaining the impact of SAR, points out that all electromagnetic radiations are governed by the inverse square law, which means longer the distance of the source to the tissue, the less is the effect of the energy deposition. Speaking about the ill effects of such energy deposition he says, “People have reported headaches which could be because there is a temporary thermal deposition on the hearing nerve due to the hearing apparatus of the phone. Depending on person to person some have complained of hearing loss, they have complained of tinnitus – ringing sensation in the ear, people have also complained of fatigue because of excessive use of cell phone.” He advises people to use mobile phones sparingly, as he thinks there is an over dependency on phones that not many people realize. He adds, “It’s easy to blame the cell phone towers, cell phone companies, but it’s ourselves we have to blame. There is mobile phone etiquettes and there is cell phone culture, which I have particularly noticed is very low in our country.”

Dos and don’ts

  • Use the phone judiciously
  • Hold it away from your body. Use speakerphones or Bluetooth headsets while talking on the phone
  • When you use the phone, try to alternate the side of the face you are using
  • Try to avoid using mobile phones whenever there is a weak signal, as that’s when it uses more power and so the energy deposition is much more
  • Do not press the phone against your head to hear more clearly
  • Resort to texting rather than making phone calls whenever possible
  • Do not keep the mobile phone next to you or under your head while sleeping
  • Check the SAR value of the handset before buying it    
  • Use the landline instead of mobile phone whenever possible
  • Avoid using the phone when your hair is wet and hold it away if you are wearing a metal spectacle frame, as water and metal are good conductors of radio waves
  • Children should limit the use of mobile phones to avoid longer duration of exposure to radio waves, as their bones are thin because of which the absorption rate is higher

Image Credit: Getty Images

Tags: , , , , , ,