Do birds disappear due to electromagnetic radiation caused by mobile phones? Ornithologists think the issue needs more research
As Superstar Rajinikanth's next release, 2.0, gets set to hit the screens on November 29, its unusual theme of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) harming birds has already generated curiosity and even some controversy. Mobile telephonic service providers have raised objections, based on the film's trailer. But what do experts think? Well, some of them were impressed that a mainstream movie chose such a topic. But they advised caution.
2.0 is directed by S Shankar and stars Tamil superstar Rajinikanth alongside Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar as well as actress Amy Jackson. It is the sequel to 2010 hit “Enthiran” and will have Rajini reprising the roles of Dr. Vaseegaran and Chitti.
The Cellular Operators Association of India or COAI has sent a letter addressed to the Central Board for Film Certification or CBFC and a copy to producer Lyca Productions.
“The movie, including its teasers, trailers and other promotional videos depict mobile phones and mobile towers in a defamatory manner. It will create unfounded fear and mass paranoia by spreading misinformation about the adverse impact of mobile towers and mobile phones,” Rajan S Mathews, Director General, COAI, has written in the letter.
COAI also said that the movie stood to prejudice the ongoing proceedings before the Supreme Court of India over whether or not mobile towers had any harmful effects. It has asked the movie’s certification to be revoked and its exhibition to be halted till the CBFC makes a determination on COAI’s submission.
The effects of mobile phone towers on bird species such as house sparrows is already a hotly debated topic in India. In fact, in 2011, a report by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change expert committee had concluded that EMR was largely responsible for the birds' declining numbers.
However, ornithologists that Down To Earth spoke to said the link is still not verified.
“There is no scientific evidence to prove that EMR is responsible for the decreasing number of house sparrows,” says Rajat Bhargava, an ornithologist with the Bombay Natural History Society or BNHS.
Mohammed Dilawar, President of the Nashik-based Nature Forever Society, who was one of the members of the expert committee that helped draft the 2011 report, had a slighty different view.
“In general, EMR is considered harmful. Every mobile tower has a cautionary sign. That is common knowledge. In India, we follow US guidelines governing cellphone towers. Countries such as China and Switzerland have different rules and EMR in these countries is less than in India,” he said.
“Studies abroad have conclusively proved that when the number of cellphones in an area increase, the number of sparrows decrease and vice-versa. However, in India, the topic has not been studied well. In the 2011 MoEF study, we had said that EMR could be one of the reasons why sparrows were vanishing but not the only reason. Other reasons include lack of nests and food,” he added.
Veteran ornithologist, Asad Rahmani, who headed the 2011 expert committee, agrees with Dilawar.
“It is true that there is no scientific evidence to show that sparrow number decline due to cellphone towers. Our study was a baseline one, with information collected from various parts of India. However, we did not do experiments. To collect data, we would have had to take a fixed sample size, in this case, live birds, and subject them to radiation and then monitor changes in their body. But we did not do this,” he told Down To Earth.
“In our study, we drew two inferences: One was that sparrows were declining in number because they did not have proper nesting sites as these had been taken over by humans for building houses. Secondly, humans made lawns in their homes which were sprayed with pesticides. These pesticides killed insects and grubs in the lawns.
"Sparrows themselves eat grain.But they need grubs for their chicks. When these died, the chicks had nothing to eat. Coincidentally, the human habitations built over sparrow habitat also had the most number of cellphone towers. So, it was a kind of domino effect. Thus, EMR could be one of the reasons why sparrows are declining but not the only one,” he added.
Rahmani was of the view that more research was definitely needed on the topic. “We need a proper, detailed, scientific study on this topic to come up with data which is statistically robust.”
Dilawar, however, said that the movie depicting the topic was good news, if true.
“Since I have not watched the movie, I am not in a position to comment. But if this is what the plot of the movie is about, then it is a good thing that popular cinema has started talking about electromagnetic radiation or EMR. EMR is an invisible kind of pollution. So far, we have seen other kinds of pollution being depicted in documentaries and popular cinema, but not EMR,” he said.
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