Two key species that indicate the health of our urban environment — the house sparrow and the honeybee — are threatened by the proliferation of cellphone towers, says a report commissioned by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) to review the impact of electromagnetic radiation on animals, birds and insects.

The ill-affects of electromagnetic radiation on birds and bees were particularly pronounced and their responses varied from “aversive behavioural responses to developmental anomalies and mortality”, according to the report by the 10-member expert committee constituted on August 30, 2010.

While honeybees, nature's most important pollinator and a critical agent in agricultural productivity, has seen a drastic population drop, radiation has physiological and behavioural repercussions on birds and their egg production, the report observes.

In one study, when 50 eggs of house sparrows were exposed to electromagnetic radiation for five to 30 minutes, each one of the embryos was found to be damaged. As for honeybees, they developed “colony collapse disorder” when most bees abandoned the hive leaving only queens, eggs and a few immature worker bees. Radiation from mobile phones is believed to interfere with bees' navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way back to their hives.

Several other species are also impacted by radiation. For instance, changes in behavioural response in rats and bats were observed, while in reptiles and amphibians, radiation interfered with metamorphosis and the determination of their sex, the report points out.

Electromagnetic radiation must, therefore, be recognised as a “pollutant” and restricted near wildlife protected areas, bird sanctuaries, Ramsar Sites, turtle breeding areas, bee colonies and zoos, says the expert committee that included Asad Rahmani, Director of BNHS, a representative of the Department of Telecommunications and a professor of Indian Institute of Science.

Recognising that “conservation issues in urban areas are different from [those in] wildlife habitats” the committee has called for a policy to protect urban flora and fauna from emerging threats such as electromagnetic radiation. “In the absence of any policy on infrastructure development and location of cellphone towers, large numbers of such towers are being installed in a haphazard manner across urban and rural areas,” it said.

Radiation must be audited around hospitals, residential areas too, says the report of the expert committee, adding that studies have indicated long-term impacts of electromagnetic radiation leads to serious health complications, including brain tumours, congenital deformities, stress, “ringxity” and sleep disorders. India is one of the fastest growing mobile telephone industries in the world and it is estimated that by 2013 over a billion people will have cellphone connections.

Mobile towers have caused drop in their population: report