In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court recently ordered in favour of a man who said that the radiation from a mobile tower had affected his health. According to Dhananjay Mahapatra’s report in TOI, Harish Chandra Tiwari has Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer, and he claimed that the harmful radiations from a mobile tower near his workplace affected him.
Not only did the court rule in Tiwari’s favour, the SC also asked for the tower to be deactivated in a week.
At a time when there is plenty of research about radiation and how it affects the human body - and plenty that counters it - the SC’s decision has thrown open the gate yet again for the debate on the health hazards posed by electromagnetic radiation of mobile towers.
While activists and some organisations have registered strong concerns about it, the government has continued to maintain that low Electro Magnetic Frequency (EMF) from mobile towers does not have adverse health consequences.
There are two types of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing. The former kind is the category into which X-rays fall – these are harmful to the body and can cause cancer. Non-ionizing radiation on the other hand is a low energy radiation which generates heat. This is the category into which mobile tower radiation falls.
Over the years, there have been many studies refuting the connection between non-ionizing radiation given out by cell phone towers, and cancer. Oncologists have also said that these radiations are not carcinogenic, but not everyone from the science fraternity agrees.
For instance, Dariusz Leszczynski, a Finnish scientist on WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) expert committee, said that long-term exposure to mobile phones and cell tower radiation - an average of 30 minutes per day for a decade - increases the risk of brain cancer.
WHO has also classified EMF radiation from mobiles, mobile towers and wi-fi as category 2(B), or possibly carcinogenic.
According to Malini Bhupta's report in Business Standard, the safety standards followed in India are 10 times more stringent than a majority of the world's countries. Mobile handsets emitting over 1.6 watt/kilogram radiation are not allowed in India. This limit is called the Specific Absorption Rate or SAR.
But like Tiwari, other individuals have also alleged that exposure to cell phone towers has had serious health consequences for them.
For instance, a Hindustan Times report from 2012 tells the story of a family in Jaipur. Two of its members were diagnosed with brain cancer, incidentally after three cell phone towers were erected in their neighbourhood.
Girish Kumar, a professor at IIT Bombay and one of the advocates of cell phone towers’ health hazards, had told HT then, “Being exposed to a mobile tower located within 50m of your home or workplace is like being in a microwave oven for 24 hours.”
Tiwari’s case is not the first time that the matter has been taken up by the higher judiciary. Bollywood actor Juhi Chawla has been campaigning for a more stringent mobile tower policy for many years now. She and activist Prakash Munshi filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court in 2015 regarding increasing radiation levels as well as illegal towers across the country.
However, the HC said in November 2016 that there were no health hazards from mobile towers. Earlier in 2012 though, the Rajasthan High Court had held mobile towers as a health hazard, and asked operators in the state to remove towers in close proximity of hospitals, schools, colleges and playgrounds, or relocate them.
The matter moved to the Supreme Court where telecom operators challenged the Rajasthan High Court’s order. Speaking to Kalyan Parbat and Gulveen Aulakh for Economic Times, a spokesperson for the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in the regard that while the electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones had been classified as “possibly carcinogenic”, there was no conclusive evidence to prove adverse health effects.
He conceded however that “lack of data on the impact of prolonged mobile phone use in excess of 15 years warrants further research.”
The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Rajasthan High Court’s decision in June 2013.
However, concerns about the radiation from mobile phones and towers continued to be raised in the following years as well. Just last year, the apex court heard a “batch of appeals from various High Courts relating to erection of mobile towers in towns and cities.”
Counsel Prashant Bhushan had submitted that in cities like London, there were no cell phone towers – they were erected outside the city and boosters were used in the city. This wasn’t being done in India.
The CJI, one of the judges hearing the case, observed that a retired judge had said in his book that he used mobile phones for long hours, which could have been one of the reasons behind his cancer and subsequent death. However, the CJI also said that unless the lawyer could submit scientific proof about harmful effects of radiation from the mobile towers, the court could not pass an order against them.