Killing us softly

The cell phone towers’ alarming electromagnetic radiation levels pose a danger to people’s health in metros

I may sound like an alarmist but these days I see more and more deadly headlines. No, I am not talking about the regular deaths in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan or even the storming of aid flotillas to Gaza. I am talking about cancer and dying birds and electromagnetic radiation (EMR) causing cancer.

Give me a minute and I will explain it all.

Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that cancer deaths could double by 2030. Cancer could claim 13.3 million lives a year by 2030, the WHO cancer research agency has said, almost double the 7.6 million deaths from the illness in 2008. In the US, according to one New York Times columnist, 41 per cent of Americans have cancer. Isn’t this an alarmingly high percentage? The question is: why is it so high?

Next, there have been headlines about the birds and the bees: parrots dying in Australia, peacocks falling dead in north India and bees expiring in some parts of the Himalayas. According to the study by a young Indian scientist, VP Sharma, a drastic decrease was observed in the brood area and egg-laying rate per day of the queen bee in hives exposed to EMR. He also found a reduction in the pollen-carrying and returning ability of the bees. This somewhat corroborates the University of Leeds study that found an 80 per cent decline in bee diversity, from 1980 levels, in over 100 sites across the UK and the Netherlands.

I agree this is a lot of morbid news. All this might be happening for a variety of reasons which could be environment or food or radiation-related.

But the next thing I am going to talk about is definitely about radiation—a by-product of the high-tech life that we are addicted to—and its hazards. And where is this radiation coming from? From innocent looking devices such as our cell phones and the cell phone towers that help in ‘connecting people’.

Kill zones

In the wake of a man dying of exposure to radioactive waste in New Delhi, India’s investigative newspaper, Tehelka, did studies on electromagnetic radiation in New Delhi and Mumbai, two of India’s biggest cities. The studies found radiation levels in the two cities over and beyond the safe limits in scores of locations in each city.

According to the newspaper, cell radiation is slow poison. Effects begin with fatigue and could end in cancer. It is near fatal for ones with pacemakers. For normal people, the effects can start with a headache to a tumour in 8-10 years.

The Tehelka EMR survey of 100 spots across New Delhi revealed that close to four-fifths of New Delhi is living in unsafe radiation zones. The newspaper says: “Only a fifth of Delhi lives and works in a safe zone and that is almost entirely the VVIP zone. This situation has come about because the authorities allowed illegal cell towers to mushroom all over Delhi, by not doing a thing about it.”

Further, 40 of the 100 spots surveyed in Delhi have extreme anomaly in radiation levels. Tehelka notes: “These are high risk zones, where the EMR was up to seven times or more than the safe limit. At times, the readings were so high that the instrument used to measure them stopped doing so. Thirty-one spots were unsafe zones and nine were borderline. Only 20 spots were within the safe limits.”

Because of the dangerous levels of radiation, the October Commonwealth Games in New Delhi could be the most radiation-filled ever, Tehelka concludes.

The situation is worse in Mumbai. Tehelka, with the help of Cogent EMR Solutions, surveyed EMR levels in 115 spots across Mumbai. The Mumbai results are even more shocking than New Delhi. “Well over nine-tenths of Mumbai is living in areas ranging from borderline radiation to extreme anomaly,” the paper reports. “Only four-fifths of Delhi fell into these categories. Less than a tenth of Mumbai is safe.”

In Mumbai, 70 of the 115 spots have “extreme anomaly” in radiation levels. This means, the paper explains, the levels are close to seven times the safe limit. These are high risk areas. The readings were so high at times that the device used to measure the radiation, a High Frequency Analyser, could not record the radiation anymore. Over 60 per cent of the spots surveyed fall into this category.

Thankfully, Tehelka’s study has prompted the Delhi High Court to constitute a high-level panel to ascertain if cell towers are a health hazard. The court has asked the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the telecom ministry to form the committee of technical and medical experts, NGOs, cellular associations, and public-spirited persons. The committee is to submit its report on the harmful effects of radiation within three months, Tehelka has said.

I am sure the government agencies in Southeast Asia are mindful of the harmful effects of EMR on their citizens. Unfortunately, I have not seen any third party running independent EMR tests in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong. I just hope things are not as bad here as they are in New Delhi and Mumbai.

Zafar Anjum, online editor of MIS Asia dot com, covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, outsourcing and telecommunications, among other areas of interest for FBM Asia publications. Follow MIS Asia on Twitter at @MIS Asia or follow Zafar on Twitter at @zafaranjum or subscribe to MIS Asia RSS feeds. Zafar’s e-mail address is

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