Study puts glare back on cell tower risks
Prithvijit Mitra, TNN Dec 17, 2013, 04.09AM IST
KOLKATA: It has always been feared and debated; now, a study has reinforced the belief that radiation from cellphone towers are taking a toll on the health of people living near them.
Cellphone tower radiation could be triggering a range of disorders - from fatigue, memory loss, headaches and hearing impairment to more serious problems like cardiac diseases and even congenital defects, claims the study conducted by researchers of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Cancer Research Institute (NSCRI).
It has always been feared and debated. Now, a health impact study reinforces it. Cell phone towers in Kolkata have been taking a heavy toll on the health of people living close to them. It could be triggering a range of disorders from fatigue, memory loss, headache and hearing impairment to more serious ones like cardiac problems and even congenital defects, claims the study conducted by researchers of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Cancer Research Institute (NSCRI).
Continued exposure to electromagnetic waves from cellphone towers could even cause cancer, the study warns. Researchers from the institute studied and observed 200 people residing in areas with a high density of cellphone towers in central Kolkata. While some lived in buildings that had towers on the roof, others live within 50 metres of such buildings.
Almost everyone said they had been experiencing some form of physical discomfort.
Around 70% suffered from fatigue; 30% had partial loss of memory; 20% had dizziness and 25% had sleeping disorders. While 20% had skin infections, around 12-15% had hearing impairment and 10% suffered from cardiac problems. Almost half of those surveyed said they had difficulty in concentrating and 30% said they were irritable. Two babies - each born in the last six months - had congenital defects, the study found.
Even though the study does not directly correlate the disorders (see box) to the cellphone towers, it points out that the complaints were restricted to a 50-metre radius of the towers.
"Interestingly, most of the subjects of the study said the intensity of their ailments goes down once they leave their homes and reverts to the earlier stage once they return," said Ashish Mukhopadhyay of NSCRI. "While we need further evidence, this is indeed something that technical experts should worry about," he added.
Electromagnetic waves emitted from towers could cause cell damage, leading to cancer, Mukhopadhyay said. "Continued exposure to such waves could cause cell damage, leading to cancer. It could also trigger cardiac disorders," he added.
The radio frequency (RF) standard that the cellphone industry had adopted prior to September 1, 2012 - 9.2 Watt per square metre at 1,800 MHz - was considered safe for short-term exposure of around 6 minutes. The revised standard - 0.92 Watt per square metre at 1,800 Mhz and 0.47 Watt per square metre at 900 MHz - is valid for a maximum of one hour’s exposure per day. It is still not safe, believe several experts.
"We already have level I evidence to prove that those who live near towers and are exposed to this radiation 24 hours a day are not safe. It is quite possible for them to suffer from disorders, especially hearing impairment, visual problems and loss of memory. There is as yet no direct evidence to show that tower radiation causes cancer. But we need more studies to check whether brain tumours are related to this," said Jaydip Biswas, director, Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute (CNCRI). Biswas added that even without such evidence, towers should not be allowed in congested neighbourhoods and near schools.
Oncologist Gautam Mukhopadhyay said: "Continued exposure to electromagnetic waves has got to have an impact. Even if it doesn’t trigger brain tumours, it could well be causing a host of other ailments. These could snowball into a major disorder," he added.
In Kolkata, most cell sites emit radiation of nearly 100 Watts per square metre. The government argues it has adopted the guideline of 9.2 Watt/sq m set by International Convention for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection as a safe limit. What it does not mention is that the norm is for exposure to radiation for 6 minutes a day.
IIT-Kharagpur professor Sudarshan Neogi, who co-authored a pilot study on cellphone radiation, commissioned by the state government, believes the prescribed limit - 0.92 Watts per square metre - is faulty. "For every 6-minute exposure, there is a 23hour 54minute cooling period. This does not happen in areas with a high concentration of towers. So, health hazards are a possibility. But our hands are tied till we can prove that the standard is indeed faulty," Neogi said.
Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) director-general Rajan Mathews argued that the radiation levels were within prescribed limits and have not yet been proved harmful. "The existing limit in India is lower than what is allowed in 95% of the world’s countries. More importantly, it has been set by the government. So far we have not had a single violation. In Kolkata, we had received reports of violation but they turned out to be false," he said.
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