The city’s heritage precinct Khotachiwadi with its quaint East Indian homes is used to battling builders. But now residents are coming together to fight for their very lives. At least three families living cheek by jowl with a cell phone tower have members suffering from cancer. Now they want to get rid of the tower — which came up in the heart of their neighbourhood in 2007 — as soon as possible.
“I had gone on a holiday and I got a stomach upset. A series of tests later, I was diagnosed with cancer,” said Jeanette Phillips (71), who lives opposite the tower, only 15 metres away. “At first, I didn’t link it to the tower. But I heard that our neighbours Marc and Bernice were also suffering from cancer,” she added.
Khotachiwadi is just one of several localities in the city which are rising up against cell phone towers. A building in suburban Vile Parle and Usha Kiran high-rise in south Mumbai are among others to have turned against the towers after residents were diagnosed with brain cancer.
Data with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) shows there are as many as 3,705 mobile towers. Of these 1,830 are said to be illegal. Under fire from citizens, the municipality on Monday finalised a long-debated policy on mobile towers. The policy mandates that only one tower be allowed on every building. Written consent from 70 per cent of occupants and every person on the topmost floor of a building is mandatory. The policy also prohibits installation of mobile phone towers in schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, child rehabilitation centres and old age homes.
What is the existing research? Although radiation from mobile phones and towers has been studied in the West for almost two decades, there is hardly any India-specific research. Therefore, the health risks are still a matter of debate.
Anti-radiation activists, however, point to the Bioinitiative 2012 report based on research from 10 countries, including India. The report said the most common ailments due to continuous base station-level exposure are sleep disorder, headache, irritability, concentration problems, memory loss and depression. The severe problems include seizures, paralysis, miscarriages, irreversible infertility and cancer. Children, pregnant women and old people are the most vulnerable, the report said.
An Interphone study of May 2011 shows that excessive users of mobile phones (half an hour a day over 8-10 years) have quadrupled brain tumour risk.
What is radiation? Experts explain that the Electromagnetic Field Radiation (EMF) which is non-ionising is harmful. Radiation from WiFi and microwaves is of a similar nature. The light from the sun that reaches the earth is also largely composed of non-ionising radiation. “Although sunlight is good, can you imagine being continually exposed to the sun without any relief?” asked P.R. Munshi, Member of Indians for Safe Environments. Mr. Munshi said towers in themselves are not harmful, unlike the antennae which emit radiation.
Girish Kumar of IIT Bombay said, “The risk depends on proximity to a tower and the power transmitted by each antenna. The greater the power and the number of antennae, the higher is the radiation. Maximum radiation is in the front direction of the building. That is when the entire zone is converted into an open microwave oven.”
The guidelines of the Department of Telecommunications which became effective in June, brought down the electromagnetic frequency limits from 4,500 to 450 milliwatts per square metre. However, critics say even this is too high. “450 milliwatts per square metre is five times the frequency of the maximum frequency recorded in Mumbai,” said Mr. Munshi.
However, these concerns have been dismissed by network providers. The city requires at least 2,000 cell phone towers for adequate coverage. They said. “Every cancer is not related to radiation. There are causes other than radiation that are responsible for cancer,” said P. Ramakrishna, advisor to the Cellular Operators’ Association recently. Those opposing cell phone towers are unnecessarily raising alarm, he said. Network providers claim they are adhering to all the government guidelines.
The debate on cell phone towers and accompanying risks is likely to be a long-drawn one. However, the BMC’s policy is a stepping stone in regulating the system.