Mobile tower radiation: Impact on public health and environment

Dhaka,  Sun,  24 September 2017
Published : 02 May 2017, 19:26:42

Mobile tower radiation: Impact on public health and environment

Shishir Reza
The mobile phone use has spread rapidly across the world lately. The demand for better and wider coverage continues to rise leading to increase in the mobile phone base towers. People use mobile phones for the purpose of communication at home, working place or anywhere, but few are concerned about their health implications and the environment safety precautions and measures. The effects of mobile tower radiation are found in many countries.

In Bangladesh, the use of mobile phones has increased over the past few years with the total number of subscribers reaching 130 million at the end of December 2015, from 26.66 million at the end of May 2007. At the same time, there has been a significant increase in the installation of mobile base stations, accompanied by concerns for possible environmental and health impacts associated with the exposure to electromagnetic waves spreading from the base stations.    Currently, there are more than 120 million cell phone bases and nearly 21,600 cell phone towers in Bangladesh to meet the communication demand. The number of Grameenphone towers is 9,500; Banglalink 5,300; Robi 3,056; Citycell 1,350; Airtel 1,700 and Teletalk 594. In Dhaka city, the cell-phone towers are spreading fast. Due to the great demand for mobile phones in Bangladesh, various mobile operators have built their towers and the networking system through antennas all over the country, even over the roof of houses or institutions without keeping in mind the need for a minimum distance from people living in the areas concerned. This has generated concern among the conscious sections of society as to whether frequent utilisation of such devices is safe. 

Nowadays, three types of mobile phone towers are being used in Bangladesh. These are Roof Top Towers, Green Field Towers and Green Field Roof Top Towers. Besides, there are three indicators to measure radiation covering the 4 frequency bands. In Bangladesh, all indicators have crossed the standard level of radiation provided by World Health Organisation (WHO). 

The first one is 'power density' ? the amount of power per unit volume. The safety limits of power density given by the WHO at different frequency bands are CDMA450-2.2 W/M2, GSM900- 4.7 W/M2, GSM1800-9.0 W/M2, and UTMS-10.01 W/M2. On the other hand, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission ( BTRC) has carried out some measurements of radiated power density of the mobile phone tower sites ? CDMA450-2.5 W/M2, GSM900- 10.38 W/M2, GSM1800-10.35 W/M2, UTMS-5.5 W/M2.

The second one is 'electric field strength' --- a quantitative expression of the intensity of an electric field at a particular location. The standard limits of electric field strength provided by WHO are CDMA450-29 V/M, GSM900-42 V/M, GSM1800-58 V/M and UTMS-61 V/M. The 'electric field value' used by BTRC at different frequency bands of mobile tower are CDMA450-62.56 V/M, GSM900-51.05 V/M, GSM1800-71.50 V/M and UTMS-65.05 V/M.

The third one is 'specific absorption rate' related to electric field value and absorption rate by human tissues. WHO has fixed the standard value of specific absorption rate of various frequencies at 1.66 w/kg. The absorption rates at various frequencies in Bangladesh are CDMA450- 1.75 w/kg, GSM900- 1.83 w/kg, GSM1800- 1.91 w/kg, UTMS- 2.05 w/kg.

Upon a look at the above break-up, we can easily understand the radiation status of Bangladesh. In this context excessive radiation of cell towers affects birds, animals, plants, the environment in general, and public health. These days, it is difficult to see a bee, sparrows, pigeons or any bird flying and staying near the cell towers. They absorb more radiation as the surface area of these animals is larger than their weight in comparison to the human body.   

Telecommunication specialist Dr. Satyaprashad Majumder says, radiation emanating from a tower per square metre ranges from 17, 100 micro-watts to 72, 000 micro-watts. The human body can tolerate radiation up to 1, 00, 000 micro-watts, but birds and flying animals cannot tolerate more than 40,000 micro-watts. Excessive radiation absorption changes the life-cycle of bees that is called Colony Collapse Disorder, where bees cannot find their way back to the hive and it also interrupts the intercellular communication within individual bees. When birds are exposed to weak electromagnetic fields they become disorientated and begin to fly in all directions which impair their navigational abilities. 

A large number of birds like pigeons, sparrows and swans are getting lost due to interference from the new 'unseen enemy'. A stable house sparrow population points to a healthy ecosystem for human beings in terms of air and water quality, vegetation and other parameters of habitat quality. Whereas, a declining population of the bird provides a warning that the urban ecosystem is experiencing some environmental changes unsuitable for human health in the coming future. It has been proven that cows grazing near cell-phone towers are more likely to experience spontaneous abortions, birth deformities, and behavioural problems. Exposing dairy cows to magnetic fields can result in reduction in milk yield, milk composition and fertility problems. Besides, impaired immune systems of sheep, reproductive and developmental problems of dogs and cats, anxiety and alarm in rabbits, frequent deaths of domestic animals near mobile towers have been observed. Apart from bees, birds and animals, electromagnetic radiation emanating from cell-phone towers can also affect vegetables, crops and plants. 

Studies show definitive clues that cell-phone tower radiation can choke seeds, inhibit germination and root growth, thereby affecting the overall growth of agricultural crops and plants. Trees located inside the main beam have a much lower fruit yield, dried tops and slow growth. Presently, excessive radiation is hampering coconut and betel nut production in Barisal and Khulna divisions.  Also electromagnetic radiation generates heat which may kill micro-organisms present in the soil nearby. This in turn harms those organisms which feed on them and disturbs the ecological cycle.

Through research by this writer and from face-to-face interviews with the people of Dhaka city --- at Dhanmondi, Mohammadpur and the Dhaka University area, he has detected various problems faced by the people. The tower antennas may have electrical down-tilt so that signals are directed towards ground level. Large numbers of these antennas are mounted near schools, hospitals, residential and office buildings to provide better mobile phone coverage to the users. These cell towers transmit radiation continuously. Thus people living in close proximity of the towers receive 10,000 to 10,000,000 times stronger impact than received from mobile communication. Mobile phone operators have erected towers and networking systems in highly populated zones. As a result, people are afflicted with eye cataract, damaged body tissues, heart diseases, hypertension, headaches, sleep disturbances, dizziness, anxiety, depression, changes in reproductive system and genetic code, generalised burning sensations, cases of shaking, palpitations, diarrhoea, skin rashes, changes in libido, fatigue, irritability, memory loss and heaviness of the chest. 

This writer believes the radiation of cell-phone towers is worse for the body than that associated with smoking, since one cannot see or smell it, as well as the process of its effect on human health and environment. Even if people are aware of the radiation hazard, they may not have the alternative of moving away from a tower which is installed near their home or workplace or school or university or a park. In addition to the continuous radiation from cell-phone towers, there is radiation from cell-phones, wireless phones, computers, laptops, TV towers, FM towers etc. We are exposed to all these harmful radiations. This does not mean we should not have these towers. We all know that automobiles create pollution, but we have not stopped using them. 

Instead, solutions such as unleaded petrol and catalytic converters to reduce emissions, compressed natural gas (CNG)-driven vehicles and hybrid vehicles have been introduced. If people in the networking operators feel that there are no health hazards, then they can stand in front of their own transmitting towers at 1 metre distance from the main beam for 6 hours.  Are they willing to do that? If mobile phone companies accept that radiation causes serious health problems, will they encourage people to stop using cell-phones? It will not be wise, because mobile phone technology has so many advantages, and there are billions of dollars at stake. 

As a solution, some primary steps can be taken: guidelines of WHO can be applied for erecting towers and for transmission frequencies; towers both ground-based and roof-based should not be installed within 50 metres of schools or hospitals; new towers should be located 50 metres away from school and hospital buildings; existing towers should be relocated; and installation of towers in the residential areas must be avoided. Twenty-four-hour monitoring of cell-phone tower radiation must be in place at various places, antennas should be mounted on or above 30 metres from the ground level, signs of warning must be installed near cell towers to alert people to the dangers of radiation, hotline or e-mail addresses must be available nearby through which people can contact the operators to inform about their problems regarding radiation. 

The writer is an environment analyst and Associate Member, Bangladesh Economic Association.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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