Environment
Across the country, we're seeing migratory birds crash landing into poles and fences in urban localities - are cellphones the reason?
Screenshot from YouTube/Gazab Wood

Avian and exotic animal specialist Dr. Rina Dev has been a practicing veterinarian for over a decade now in India's financial capital and has always maintained that her feathered patients are superior in intelligence to even canines. But over the last five years, Rina has been witnessing a strange and worrisome phenomenon in Mumbai. Several migratory birds that pass over the city in winter have been crash landing into populated areas and even industrial zones, far removed from forests or water bodies where they traditionally halt.

"I get at least three pallid scops owls in my clinic every single week and the latest one was found in an industrial area in Andheri East," reveals Dr. Rina. "They are crashing into buildings and poles. Their behaviour is far from normal," she adds.

And close to 1000 kilometres from Mumbai, in the garden city of Bengaluru, Jayanthi Kallam, the co-founder of the Avian and Reptile rehabilitation centre narrates a similar ordeal.  For three years now, the Indian Pitta which migrates from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka, has been found disoriented and weak in the lawns of homes in Karnataka's capital city.

"They migrate in September and October and sighting is very rare," says Jayanthi. "But this year, we found at least 12 birds that had lost their way. Why were they bumping into poles and why were they flying so low in populated areas has become a matter of concern," she adds.

Across India, rescuers and experts in the avian field are recounting similar abnormal behaviour amongst birds flying through cities. And what was a daily subject of conversation for only those concerned with the field of ornithology has now entered public domain, following the release of director Shankar's 2.0, starring actors Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar in lead roles.

In the film, Akshay plays the role of an ornithologist who attempts to make the public aware of the effect of electromagnetic field radiation (EMF) from cellphone towers on the avian species. Scenes in the film show birds crashing to their deaths due to disorientation. It holds no punches and has created a flutter amongst audiences across the country, with its message - radiation from cellphone towers is killing birds.

'Everyone with a cellphone is a murderer'

This is the claim that Pakshirajan (Akshay Kumar's character), a cellphone snatching “evil aura”, wildly declares. In a flashback sequence ahead of the interval in the movie, the “aura”, which is out to destroy cellphone towers, recalls how he was once a kind and gentle ornithologist. As the years pass, a cellphone tower is set up near his home and he notices birds behaving strangely in the sanctuary he has built for them. They smash into fences, come crashing into the ground and even face severe reproductive issues. He appeals to multiple government authorities, all the while stating that it is the increasing presence of electromagnetic field radiation that is causing the death of birds. He points that if we do not put an end to it, the end of humanity will soon be upon us.

According to the National institute of Environmental Health and Sciences, electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) are invisible areas of energy, often referred to as radiation, that are associated with the use of electrical power and various forms of natural and human-made lighting. EMFs are typically grouped into one of two categories by their frequency - Non-ionizing, which means low-level radiation and is generally perceived as harmless to humans, and Ionizing, which is high-level radiation and has the potential for cellular and DNA damage.

Many experts have pointed out that cellphone towers emit non-ionised radiation that is different from nuclear radiation or even the waves you are exposed to while getting an X-ray done. While these rays cannot penetrate deep into the cells of humans or affect molecular structure, they create very stressful situations for birds in urban areas (where there is a larger concentration of towers).

But stakeholders in India's massive cellular industry wouldn't hear any of it. Two days ahead of the movie's release, the Cellular Operations Association of India had written to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) over the film’s depiction of mobile phones. According to a complaint letter by the ‘non-governmental society’ that is ‘dedicated to the advancement of modern communication’, the film “falsely depicts mobile phones and mobile towers as harmful to living creatures and the environment including birds and human beings, on account of electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions from them.”

The association even claims that the depiction of mobile services and towers is 'false, based on no evidence and wholly fictional'. But studies conducted both abroad and in India, show that there is definitely reason to be concerned.

What does science say?

As recent as May 2018, an analysis of 97 studies by the EU-funded review body EKLIPSE concluded that radiation from cellphone towers, phone masts, WiFi and broadcast transmitters is a potential risk to insect and bird orientation and plant health. The report found that the magnetic orientation of birds, mammals and invertebrates such as insects and spiders could be disrupted by EMR.  Authors of the review have stressed on the need to strengthen the scientific basis of knowledge on EMR and its impact of wildlife. In fact, 237 scientists have reportedly appealed to the United Nations through a petition, asking them to take risks posed by electromagnetic radiation more seriously.

Closer home, an expert group was formed by the Ministry of Environment and Forest to study the possible impacts of communication towers on wildlife, including birds and bees. It pointed out that India is likely to become one of the world's largest markets for cellphones and was devoid of any policy on infrastructure development and location of cell phone towers. They studied 919 reports on the effects of EMF, with 81% of the reports cataloguing effects on humans, 3% recording effect on birds and just 2% on wildlife. But even in the 30 existing studies, 23 concluded that EMF had a negative impact on birds while 6 out of 7 studies concluded negative impact on bees.

The observations made on impact on birds include that they are at higher risk of radiation exposure due their ability to fly, that EMR affects their ability to recover from acute physiological stressors, radiation causes acute physiological stressors, potential physiological and behavioural repercussions and malformation in embryos.

Jayanthi Kallam further points out that the feathers of birds act as receptors of high levels of EMF.

"When exposed to high EMF, these birds receive a small electric shock that can impact their flight and even the path they take. Birds use magnetic navigation to travel, but then contrasting magnetic fields present in the atmosphere will leave them completely disoriented," she points out. "In urban areas they are already exposed to high levels of noise and air pollution. Increased levels of EMF could just be the straw that broke the camel's back," she adds.

Or in this case, as per the MoEF study, it could be the reason we do not see sparrows in our cities any more.

"Reproductive and co-ordination problems and aggressive behavior has also been observed in birds such as sparrows (due to EMF) (Balmori, 2005). General methodology used for such study was, from each area, all sparrows were counted in addition to the mean electric field strength (Everaert & Bauwens, 2007). In similar studies in India, population of Passer domesticus was found fast disappearing from areas contaminated with electromagnetic waves arising out of increased number of cell phones, in Bhopal, Nagpur, Jabalpur, Ujjain, Gwaliar, Chhindwara, Indore & Betul (Dongre & Verma, 2009). It was also observed that when 50 eggs of House Sparrow, exposed to electromagnetic radiation (EMR) for durations of five minutes to 30 minutes, all the 50 embryos were found damaged in a study carried out by the Centre for Environment and Vocational Studies of Punjab University (Kumar 2010, Ram 2008)," reads the report.

In bees, studies have linked electromagnetic radiations with an unusual phenomenon known as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) occurs when a 'hive's inhabitants suddenly disappear, leaving only queens, eggs and a few immature workers. The vanished bees are never found, but thought to die alone, far from home. The theory is that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bees' navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way back to their hives'. Bees are considered crucial to sustaining human population on this planet. 

But Asad Rahmani, former director of Bombay Natural History Society, who also chaired the commitee that came out with report, expresses doubt over these studies.

In an interview to Deccan Herald he has said, "People feel because of cell phone and mobile tower radiation, the number of house sparrows are on a decline. But the feeling is not science. There is no scientific proof between electromagnetic radiation and absence of sparrows. In the countryside there is no dearth of house sparrows. And if radiation is the culprit, then why are pigeons still around in the cities?"

Rahmani acknowledged that there were several gaps in their study and said, "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."

Ornithologist Mohammad Dilawar who has studied house sparrows extensively and was a member of the expert committee, points out that EMF radiation could be a factor affecting sparrows. But he also adds that there could be other reasons.

“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 told Down To Earth, following the release of the film. "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.   

Physicists whom TNM contacted also maintained that current data available on the subject did not provide conclusive information on the adverse effects of EMF radiation.

The 2011 report too highlights the need to conduct more studies in this area of EMF radiation and the effects it has on wildlife. It suggests that EMF should be recognised as a pollutant and regular auditing should be conducted in urban localities/educational/hospital/industrial/residential/recreational premises and around the protected areas and ecologically sensitive areas. It also stressed on the need to introduce a law for the protection of urban flora and fauna from emerging threats like EMF, as conservation issues in urban areas are different from wildlife habitats. It further calls for independent monitoring of radiation levels and overall health of the community to be conducted. It specifically focused on monitoring animal mortality.

7 years later, little has been achieved

Director Shankar is not the first member of the film industry to raise an alarm in regard to EMF radiation pollution. As early as 2013, Bollywood actor Juhi Chawla came out in public to protest against the setting up of mobile towers in residential areas. She shared her fear of illnesses that could be caused because of EMF radiation from a tower set up at a government guest house near her home. She filed a case and it is currently pending in Supreme Court. Five years later, however, there has been no change on ground.

In February this year, the actor-cum-movie producer wrote a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, cautioning against the health hazards due to EMF radiation from mobile tower antennas and WiFi hotspots. She further sought to know whether the Centre, which is implementing 5G to achieve the objectives of Digital India, has done enough research on the new technology.

Dr. Rina Dev points out that the MoEF is responsible for ensuring that these studies are conducted immediately.

"Flamingos that are flying in from Siberia are crash landing in Mumbai. Unless we conduct studies backed by the government, we will not be in a position to understand what exactly is happening," she points out.

Jayanthi meanwhile says that time is of essence and that EMF radiation cannot be ruled out merely because only birds and insects seem to be affected.

"The same was thought of pesticides. We saw it first affect insects, then birds and finally we saw what happened to humans who ate food sprayed with the chemical. And now we are all trying to switch to organic produce," she says. "In the case of EMF, we need to recognise its danger with thorough studies and counter it before we can see the adverse effects it will have on human beings."