With more than 90 crore mobile phone users across the country, business is booming for cell service providers in India. Falling prices and wider mobile coverage have led to the cell phone becoming a ubiquitous part of modern life.
But for some, the mobile revolution is ringing in despair. A group of residents in Delhi’s neighbouring NOIDA say they are facing health hazards and, in some cases, life-threatening cancers brought on by the ever-present mobile network.
Towers or masts erected by two telecom companies in Noida’s Sector 39 are emitting large amounts of radiation, which residents say may be responsible for the poor health in their area. In the past couple of years, there have been three cancer deaths and at least four more cancer cases in the vicinity of the two towers. This is in addition to most of the residents suffering from depression, insomnia and other health problems.
According to resident Nandana Singh, who lives across the road from one of the towers, the radiation emitted is responsible for her recurring ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed with stage III of the disease last year and is still battling it. Her cousin, who lived behind the other tower, passed away earlier this year, within months of a cancer diagnosis. Ms. Singh’s next-door neighbour succumbed to the disease over a year ago, as did another neighbour more recently. Ms. Singh and her cousin don’t have a family history of cancer.
“This tower has been there for 6-7 years, the other one for 11 years. I accepted them as a part of the environment. I took it for granted that the radiation would be under the legal limit,” she says.
Using a radiation detector, DETEX 189, she found parts of her house to be well above the safety limit. The instrument is around the size of a TV remote control and can detect a wide range of frequencies.
Prof. Girish Kumar of IIT-Bombay, who developed DETEX 189, says he felt there was a “need for a low-cost cumulative radiation detector”. The device works on safety levels defined by the Bio-Initiative Report and his own research that found health problems when radiation went above certain levels.
Ms. Singh says: “I was relieved to learn that my bedroom and backyard were in the safe zone, but my living room and front garden were not. I checked the house of my neighbour (who was recently diagnosed with cancer) and found that his whole house fell in the Red Zone. Other houses in the area also showed dangerous levels of radiation.”
The research done by Prof. Kumar on cell tower radiation, which was submitted to the Department of Telecommunications in December 2010, busts the telecom companies’ claims that their towers are not harmful. “I can safely say there is a connection between tower radiation and cancer and other health problems,” he says.
He explains: “There are around five lakh cell phone towers in the country. When a cell phone makes a call, the signal goes to the nearest base station tower, from there it goes to the base station tower nearest to the phone to which the call has been made.”
The professor says the radiation levels set by the government are far from safe, even after being reduced from 4,500 milliWatt per square metre to 450 milliWatt per square metre in September 2012. To put it in perspective, Austria allows radiation up to one milliWatt per square metre.
The electromagnetic waves emitted by the towers travel in a cascading umbrella formation, making the strongest impact a few hundred metres away from the tower. This means that the building on which the tower is erected is relatively safe.
Prof. Kumar adds: “In India, cell operators are allowed to transmit 20W of power per carrier from the individual cell tower antenna. One operator may have four to six carrier frequencies and there may be two to four operators on the same rooftop or tower. So, the total transmitted power may be 100 to 400W, making the entire area nearby an open microwave oven.”
The higher the power used, the greater the radiation emitted. To cater to the fast-growing consumer base, it’s easier for telecom companies to increase the power instead of adding more, low-power, towers.
Mr. Deodatta lives next to the house in NOIDA on which the tower is erected. He says the telecom company pays a large monthly rent to his neighbour for using the building’s roof. The lease agreement is skewed in favour of the company, making it difficult for the house owner to get out of the contract.
Mr. Deodatta, an advocate and the former CEO of NOIDA Authority, points out that apart from health hazard, the structural safety of the tower has not been tested and lacks required certification. He says in the event of an earthquake, the tower is sure to cause damage to the area.
In neighbouring Sector 40, another cell tower is worrying residents. Dr. Salil Sharma, an ENT specialist, lives in front of the tower. He says: “We are experiencing tinnitus (ringing sound in the ear), insomnia, hearing loss, and our neighbour has developed neurological problems.”
“Numerous studies have confirmed that there is a direct link between proximity to cell towers and acoustic neuroma (a cancer of the inner ear), astrocytomas (all cancers of the brain), etc. Recent studies have shown associations with cancers of the lung, pancreas, ovaries, thyroid and many childhood cancers,” Dr. Sharma adds.
He says other symptoms include high blood pressure, heart arrhythmia and clinical depression. People with pacemaker implants have also complained of a “drumming” sensation when they are near cell towers. According to a Greenpeace report last year, the towers are harming the environment as well. “The telecom towers powered by diesel pose a grave threat to the environment. They run on dirty diesel and therefore add to the emissions harmful to the environment,” says Greenpeace campaigner Mrinmoy Chattaraj.
He adds: “Radiation from the towers is a big hazard, and in spite of the government taking tough action by defining the penalty criteria, there is unfortunately not much bold action on the ground.”
Meanwhile in Noida’s Sector 30, Dr. S. Joshi, a medical practitioner, has been fighting a telecom company to remove the tower on his house, but hasn’t had any success so far. He says the company approached him to erect the tower around five years ago.
“My son started complaining of constant headaches when he was in the house. His friend, who had a pacemaker, visited and had palpitations while on the first floor of the house and they stopped on the ground floor,” Dr. Joshi says.
Despite sending a legal notice to the company and taking up the issue with the NOIDA Authorities, he is not hopeful of a resolution. “They (the company) hounded me so much, even though I’m 78 years old. They said it would take Rs. 5-10 lakh to remove the tower because they have to recover installation and removal costs.”
He says the NOIDA Authority promised support if he files a suit in the Allahabad High Court, but at his age, he cannot undertake that. “I’m sick of it,” Dr. Joshi says, wearily.
The NOIDA Authority seems to be waking up to the residents’ complaints finally. Additional CEO Pramod Kumar Agarwal says: “We are preparing a policy on tower installation. It will be taken up at a board meeting in the first week of November.”
The authority had removed a few towers after complaints poured in, but got into trouble when the telecom companies took the matter to court and the lack of a policy on the issue was highlighted.
“The court said the towers cannot be moved arbitrarily,” says Manoj Rai, the officer on special duty at the Authority. The new policy will be in line with court orders on the matter, says Mr. Agarwal.
Mr. Rai, who is responsible for drafting the policy, says it will be a balancing act between public health and the need for connectivity. Though he declined to give details, he said: “Ideally, there should be no towers on residential buildings, schools and hospitals.”
For Ms. Singh and her neighbours, the towers have cost them their health and, in some cases, their lives. They want the towers to be brought down, but till the authority’s new policy comes into force, they want to be assured that the cell companies follow safety guidelines.
According to an independent group of scientists, who brought out the Bio-Initiative Report 2007, safe radiation density is 1.0 milliWatt per square metre for outdoor, cumulative RF (radio frequency) exposure and 0.1 for indoor.
Prof. Kumar says: “We have also carried out radiation measurements at thousands of places and can say with certainty that adverse health effects occur over a few years of continuous exposure at 1.0 milliWatt per square metre. According to me, the safe limit should be less than 0.1 milliWatt per square metre for indoor, cumulative RF exposure.”
While there is no scientific consensus on the issue, many who live near the towers are convinced of the ill effects. For this ordinary suburban street, as Ms. Singh puts it bluntly, “cancer has become like the common cold in this neighbourhood.”