Don’t take any ad hoc decision on cell phone towers, IIT profs request Centre

They say radiation from these towers too low to be harmful; health activists accuse them of conflict of interest

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Tuesday 01 October 2013

Norms to curb mobile radiation do little to assuage people’s fear

Even as concerns about the harmful health effects of electromagnetic radiations from mobile phone towers persist, a group of experts from different IITs has written a letter to the Centre, requesting it to put on hold any “ad hoc decision” to restrict location of towers.

Citing the government’s decision to reduce the emission levels from mobile towers in the country to 1/10th of international standard, the IIT experts, mostly faculty members, claimed that India is among the countries having the most stringent norms for electromagnetic radiation exposure.

In the letter, the experts from the IITs of Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Madras, Mandi, Bengaluru and Kanpur have claimed that the radio frequency (RF) radiation from cell phone towers is too low to cause damage. The radiation is “in the frequency range from a few KHz to several GHz and are all radiations are non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation. Unlike ionizing radiation, such as X-rays, non-ionizing radiations cannot break chemical bonds nor cause ionization in the human body,” the letter states. For this reason, radiation cannot cause cancer through mutations, says the group led by Ashok Jhujhunwala of IIT-Madras.

On August 19, citizens’ forum based in Mumbai, Mumbaikars, had written to Union information technology and communications minister Kapil Sibal, demanding reduction of health hazards by reducing radiation levels. This letter by Mumbaikars could have been the reason for the IIT experts sending their missive, said Prakash Munshi who is associated with non-profit Indians for Safe Environments of Radiation from Mobile towers and Associated Hazards.

Activists who have been highlighting adverse health effects of radiation criticised the letter. They accused the group of experts of having conflict of interest and demanded that the government should investigate their motive for their writing such a letter.

The letter by IIT professors accepts that there are people who claim to have suffered a variety of symptoms because of exposure to low-level wireless antenna emissions, such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, loss of memory and disturbance in digestion. But it has not gone into the details of these claims.

The IIT experts have also cited a World Health Organisation (WHO) report which says there is no insufficient evidence to prove adverse health effects of radiation from cell phone towers “Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from cell phone towers and wireless networks cause adverse health effects,” the letter has quoted WHO recommendations on guidelines for International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). (Notably, another IIT faculty member, Girish Kumar from Mumbai IIT has countered this claim and said that WHO claims that the electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.)

The experts go on to acknowledge that wireless communication will continue to grow and that, therefore, there has been some concern that these may affect health in the long run, even though nothing may be known today. The letter emphasises the need for careful examination of new research and people’s claim but requests government not to take any ad hoc decision.

When contacted, Jhunjhunwala, IIT-Madras faculty member and signatory to the controversial letter, declined to elaborate on the letter. “At present, we have nothing more to add beyond what is written in the statement. The statement evolved following several months of deliberations. There was no immediate provocation for the statement, except that the issue was in media for some-time and we felt clarity was needed. It took us time to come to consensus. We have thus presented our view to Department of Telecommunications,” said Jhunjhunwala.

Radiation, how harmful?

Earlier in 2011, an inter-ministerial committee of government of India examined the matter and recommended a policy of abundant precautions. Based on this, the department of telecommunications on September 1, 2012 implemented reduction of emission levels from mobile towers in the country to 1/10th of the ICNIRP standards.

Munshi said the claim of the IIT experts that India’s norms for cell phone towers and its radiation being safest in the world is false.

He said the decisions taken by government so far are not ad hoc in nature but taken after serious discussions and in light of incontrovertible facts.

Contradicting the claim of IIT professors, he said that electromagnetic field radiation (EMF) is harmful. Prolonged exposure to radiation from WiFi and microwaves is harmful just like prolonged exposure to sunlight he said. Munshi added that towers as such are not harmful, but the antennas are. He said no guidelines mention how many antennas can be installed on one tower. “We have written to Sibal and are awaiting his reply,” said Munshi.

Munshi said there is enough information available with the government to prove that EMF radiation is carcinogenic, otherwise, the government would not have reduced the earlier ICNIRP norms of 4,500 mili wat/sq metre to 450 mili watt/ square per metre.

Munshi rebutted other points in the letter as well. India does not have the most stringent law as the IIT professors have claimed; other countries are more serious—Chile, Belgium, Austria, China, Russia have further lowered their radiation level norms, said Munshi.

“The recommendations of the IIT professors are not acceptable. We will not wait for another twenty years. We will have to apply the precautionary principle as is the case in the European Union and Chile,” said Munshi, adding that if some serious affects come to light later, these private companies would escape leaving common people to suffer.

Adopt precautionary principle: activists

Jaipur-based activist Sudhir Kasliwal has accused the experts of conflict of interest. “Twenty-four out of the 25 who have written letter to the government have conflict of interest. If they are working with cellular companies and being paid by them, they will definitely talk in the benefit of these companies,” he said. (Three members in Kasliwals’s family were found suffering from cancer after a mobile tower was installed on top of the building he stays in.)

“It is true that there is no sufficient evidence to conclude anything but the government should focus on independent research,” he said.

He cited the example of tobacco industry which denied there is sufficient proof to conclude tobacco products cause cancer. “After 20 years, they are now forced to write ‘tobacco kills’ on the wrapper. Have they idea how many people have been killed in these 20 years because of tobacco use?” asked Kasliwal.

IIT faculty member Girish Kumar, who has done pioneering work in India on radiation from mobile phone towers, said, “it (the letter) is clear case of conflict of interest”. He said the government has reduced radiation norms to one-tenth but people are still affected by radiation. “We want further reduction in the radiation, but the cellular companies are trying to get the government to decide in their favour,” he said.

In their letter, the IIT professors have mentioned their conflict of interest. They have written in the letter that all of them have worked with the telecom sector for 5 to 35 years. Some of their work has been funded by telecom companies. Some of them have been consultants to telecom manufacturing and operations companies and have also been independent board members of these companies. However, they have claimed to sign the statement as responsible citizens.

Meanwhile, in specially convened media symposium on September 27, the Delhi Medical Association (DMA) has also claimed that the radiation from mobile phone towers have no adverse side-effects on the health of people. When state secretary of DMA K K Kohali was asked about the immediate reason for raising the issue, he declined to comment.

Mumbai drafts new guidelines

Meanwhile, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai revised draft policy guidelines for installation of mobile towers in Mumbai on   September 11. The guidelines, which are yet to be notified, mandate the consent of at least 70 per cent of individual occupants, including tenants, prior to installation of mobile phone towers. It also mandates consent of every person living on the top floor of a building.

There will be only one tower allowed on one building / wing of the building, the guidelines say.

The guidelines ban installation of mobile tower antennas on top of and within 100 metres of educational institutions (nurseries, schools and colleges), hospitals, children correction homes, old age homes and hostels / orphanages for children.

There are 3,705 mobile towers in Mumbai of which 1,830 are said to be illegal. The municipal corporation has tried to remove illegal towers but the companies have taken stay from the court, said Munshi.

He said the draft guidelines talk about towers but not antennas, while adding that policy makers must focus on high quality of equipments and technology to reduce radiation levels.


Report of the inter-ministerial committee on EMF radiation

Latest instructions on mobile towers and mobile handsets by DOT

Radiation hazards from cell phones/cell towers

Dangers of radiation by cell towers in a densely populated Mumbai

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