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A Towering problem

A Towering problem

Criss-crossing the airwaves, radio frequencies (RF) have woven a tangled web of confusion that has the world´s leading scientific authorities at loggerheads. We are none the wiser.

Earlier last month, civic authorities sealed a mobile tower atop a school building in the town of Aurangabad in the state of Maharashtra after residents registered as many as six complaints, citing radiation concerns.

In India´s most popular tourist destination Goa, local residents continue to oppose new mobile towers in Mormugao at all gram sabhas (local self-government) of the six village councils in the district and at the meetings of the Mormugao Municipal Council. Not only have they refused permissions but they have grilled their village councils over the issue and asked it to refuse such proposals in the future. They have also passed a resolution to deny permission to towers and resolved to ask the Goa Sate Pollution Control Board to conduct a study on the radiation level of the existing towers near the village.

At another area in Goa, there were five incidents in 2015 in which residents got together and warned their local body to stop the installation of mobile towers. Such opposition to mobile towers has become a regular occurrence, aided by the fact that towers are also set up routinely without the necessary permissions. In fact, site workers employed by Reliance Jio were taken to a police station by local residents as the employees continued to work to install a tower on National Highway 17. A letter written last year by cellular companies in protest against their towers being sealed estimated that as many as 1,700 towers had been sealed in 2015 all over India.

The top six companies cited this as one of the reasons for the rising incidences of dropped calls, saying every 40 sites sealed caused an average 20 per cent increase in call drops. To be sure, the reasons for dropped calls are numerous, ranging from scarcity of spectrum, increasing smart-phones, dead zones, too many operators, networks optimised for data services by the operators themselves, unprecedented subscriber growth and greater tele-density, among others.

However, the problem of dropped calls has unwittingly but squarely put the focus also on the sealed towers and on the greater debate about radiation levels. ´Nowhere in the world do they have so many cellular operators,´ says Prakash Munshi, a concerned citizen who has been instrumental in getting towers sealed off in urban settlements in Mumbai. He adds, ´Our country is the only country in the world that has 14 operators. Even in bigger countries like the US and Australia, there are just three or four major operators. Greater the number of operators, the greater the number of antennae to be found.´

Indeed, with increasing numbers of towers and with multiple loading of radio equipment across technologies (2G, 3G, 4G, CDMA, Wi-Fi) at each tower, there has been an increasing concern regarding increased radiation levels at each tower site. There are various estimates of cell towers (base stations) but they mostly put the number of towers between 4.5 and 5 lakh. Projections are that the country requires about 1-2 lakh more towers by 2017 and even that may not be enough given that 4G requires many more towers than 2G or 3G to meet both coverage and capacity requirements. With citizen groups like Munshi´s creating awareness both online and offline about the radiation levels from these towers, residents´ welfare associations are only going to be more watchful in the future. Already commanding a global following online, Munshi´s awareness campaigns are spreading their messages as far away as the US and Europe where citizen groups have been instrumental in getting towers sealed off.

Most countries follow norms prescribed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Germany. However, this is where it gets contentious.

A number of academicians and researchers worldwide have contributed to a bio initiative report (BIR), first published in 2007, with subsequent updates in 2010, 2014 and 2014. The BIR believes that the safety norms should be far lower than those set by ICNIRP.

Second, even among the countries that have accepted the ICNIRP norms, the real radiation levels are far lower and actually closer to the limits set forth in the BIR. In India, the Department of Telecommunications came out with revised guidelines, adopting one-tenth of the norms set by ICNIRP from September 2012 onwards. However, even these lower limits that are currently in place in India are far higher than the BIR norms. Moreover, the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Information Technology 2013-14 also clearly mentions on Page 35 that even after the reduction of the norms, the emission is still higher than many other countries.

That hasn´t stopped the Indian authorities from proudly advertising the fact India is one of the few countries in the world with the toughest EMF radiation standards for mobile towers and handsets. After all, why let facts get in the way of a good story! In 2012, a report by the World Health Organization´s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields (EMF) as Group 2B possibly carcinogenic to humans. One of the 30 experts involved in the evaluation of scientific evidence concerning wireless radiation and cancer was Dr. Dariusz Leszczynski, PhD, DSc, Adjunct Professor of Biochemistry from the University of Helsinki, Finland. He says there was enough scientific evidence to be suspicious about the possibility of health effects but it wasn´t enough to be certain and consider the health effects as proven.

However, Professor Girish Kumar, IIT Bombay and Munshi both say it is the long and prolonged exposure of a number of tower clusters in the midst of urban settlements that have the ability to cause long-term harm. Moreover, with much that is yet unclear on the issue, people at large in India are unaware of what precautions to take. Kumar also adds that in addition to towers and indiscriminate usage of cellphones, a 24-hour daily exposure to wi-fi at one´s home over 5-10 years is also damaging.

Dr. Leszczynski concurs and says the problem in India is the location of cell towers. ´Often, these are located in large clusters and, often, these clusters are too close to human dwellings. I have seen cell tower antennas located in such way that a person could touch them from the window or balcony of the flat. This is a bad location,´ says Dr. Leszczynski. He adds, ´There are also concerns that the power emitted by cell towers is above the allowed limits.´

In the absence of universally acceptable guidelines on radiation norms, it has pretty much been left to respective governments of the world to decide their own standards. In some countries, self-policing has been a step in the right direction with respect to keeping radiation at low levels. So far, countries such as Belarus, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Belgium, Greece and Italy are observing limits below both the ICNIRP and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations.

Although France and Australia also follow the extremely high ICNIRP norms, their actual levels of radiation are much lower than the countries just mentioned. In France, actual radiation levels are at 20 mW/msq for 97 per cent of their antennae. In Australia too, according to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), the actual radiation levels range from 0.904 mW/msq to 150.99 mW/msq.

In India, the decibel levels in the argument over the effects of radiation have risen over the last couple of years with no clear consensus thus far.

The Indian government´s thrust for smart cities, digital highways, wi-fi hot spots, et al., have been given the thumbs up. However, it is worth noting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed caution as early as 2013 saying ´there is an urgent and very essential need for assimilation of awareness about the hidden danger to the health of the masses.´

In 2012, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) issued advertisements in national dailies warning of health hazards and listing precautionary measures. Kumar of IIT Bombay says, ´Based on our reports in December 2010 which I presented to the government, an Inter-Ministerial Committee had then made many recommendations to the DoT.´ He adds, ´Unfortunately, I am not invited to any deliberations on the subject any more since I am seen as a scaremonger.´ Escalating the war of words, TRAI and cellular companies have spoken out and/or issued full-page newspaper advertisements to allay public fears over radiation, claiming mobile towers are totally safe as well as a necessity.

What has caused the authorities to change their stance between 2012 and now? ´Lobbyists and industry stakeholders obviously play a part in these matters,´ says Kumar. He points to the fact that the government has raised over Rs.2 lakh crore thus far in spectrum auctions and is set to conduct another round of auctions soon. Munshi continues to attend talk shows, discussion forums and meet local government authorities to spread awareness and to try effect a change in legislation for better safety standards and proper procedures and permissions for setting up new towers. In an attempt at bringing in more transparency, the Department of Telecommunications, cellular service providers and Ramboll India have set up a National Electro Magnetic Frequency Portal (NEP) to provide a public interface. However, government is yet to open the portal to the public to access EMF related information and a GIS-based database of cell towers in their areas. Currently, the platform serves all Indian cellular service providers to manage their tower base, tenancies and radio frequency technical parameters for handling EMF regulatory compliance.

However, citizen stakeholders such as Munshi and others are not impressed and have called it an eyewash.

What cellular operators worldwide need to take note of is the fact they could be faced with the same situation as exists in other industries where EMF fields are generated. In such industries, insurance companies generally exclude cover for illnesses caused due to prolonged exposure to radiation. Insurance brand Lloyds´ Emerging Risks team has already published a report on EMF from mobile phones but has refrained from commenting further on the issue since then.

The world´s second largest reinsurance provider Swiss Re also published a report in 2013 titled SONAR. The report pointed out a high loss potential to the insurance industry caused by the large numbers of people being exposed to EMF worldwide. However, Reto Schneider, Head, Emerging Risk Management, Swiss Re, says, ´Our assumptions are scenario driven, not fact-based. The long-term effects of low energy radiation or the effects of highly pulsed high frequency signals on the human body are still unclear. In particular, in a world of connected smart devices and sensors, this is an area to be closely followed.´

Accusations and counter-accusations have been levelled thick and fast in this dispute with academicians and scientists pointing the fingers of blame at Michael Repacholi, Founder Chairman of ICNIRP, for his and ICNIRP´s close links to the industry. Repacholi subsequently went on to head the WHO´s EMF Project, thereby creating a situation that can at the very least be described as a conflict of interest.

In a Wikipedia entry about ICNIRP, the Council of Europe, a regional, intergovernmental organisation of 47 states, has this to say: ´it is most curious, to say the least, that the applicable official threshold values for limiting the health impact of extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields and high frequency waves were drawn up and proposed to international political institutions (WHO, European Commission, governments) by the ICNIRP, an NGO whose origin and structure are none too clear and which is furthermore suspected of having rather close links with the industries whose expansion is shaped by recommendations for maximum threshold values for the different frequencies of electromagnetic fields.´

Denying these charges, Repacholi says the recommendations made by the BIR do not reflect ´mainstream science´ and is the work of ´scientific activists´ (see inset interview).

Interestingly, parties on both sides of the argument agree on at least one thing. Repacholi, Kumar, Munshi and Dr. Leszczynski all concur that cellular companies do need to erect more towers, albeit for differing reasons.

´The greater the number of base stations, the lower RF signals everyone receives. This is because with more base stations, the mobile phone will be closer to a base station when making a call and so need a lower RF signal,´ says Repacholi.

Munshi, Kumar and Dr. Leszczynski agree to a greater degree when they say tower companies and operators need to set up more low power towers. ´This would be a win-win situation for all as it will result in less dropped calls and less exposure from both cellphone and cell tower radiation. The problem is that this issue is not well explained to people,´ says Dr. Leszczynski.

´Lower power towers would also not need a power amplifier, hence no need for the air conditioning either. That means no need for diesel generators and the towers could probably be served by just a solar panel. That would be true green telecom,´ says Kumar.

However, setting up more towers would need huge investments to the tune of Rs.15 -20 lakh for a single tower, or about Rs.75,000 crore to Rs.1 lakh crore for another 5 lakh towers. Kumar has a simple solution. He proposes raising the rate for voice calls by a mere 5 paise. Considering 18 minutes of average talk time multiplied by 90 crore subscribers and 365 days, the industry could easily raise at least Rs.30,000 crore a year, says Kumar, who presented his calculations to the government in 2010. ´It fell on deaf ears,´ he laments.

The Cellular Operators Association of India did not respond to repeated emails from Infrastructure Today on the issue of why companies did not see it fit to invest in low power towers but only on high power ones.

The argument by the Indian government authorities that conclusive proof is needed doesn´t wash. At least, not in the aftermath of reports that have linked long and prolonged exposure to cell-tower radiation with cancer in many urban dwellings. No doubt that the awareness over the health impacts of cell tower radiation is still at a nascent stage worldwide which makes it more important to exercise utmost caution. Equally, policies must be industry-friendly so that companies can make judicious investments in the right technologies as and when required. For instance, pricing spectrum 25 times higher than other countries will obviously use up what capital companies have with them and leave them cash-strapped for investments in the right technologies for safe and effective services. Additionally, spectrum allocation needs to be more efficient. It is also high time the merger and acquisition rules were amended in order for consolidation to take its natural course so that a healthy market develops.

Both Munshi and Kumar are of the firm opinion that telecommunications is headed the way of the tobacco industry. ´My parents told me 40 years ago that smoking cigarettes can kill a person,´ says Kumar. ´However, it is only as recently as five years ago that pictorial warnings were mandated on cigarette packets.´ ´How many more cases of cancer will we have before the powers that be consider them as conclusive evidence?´ Munshi demands.

In as populous a country as India which has an urban teledensity of about 150 per cent, it is time the government looked at the issue through a different lens. Or with each call, we could be dialling disaster.

– Rouhan Sharma

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