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How hazardous are mobile phone towers?

March 02, 2009

Possible health hazards due to exposure to electromagnetic fields had been cited as one of the three negative effects of mobile phone towers in a report commissioned by the federal cabinet in 2005. -AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq

Recently residents in one locality of Islamabad woke up one morning to find themselves neighbours to a 30m tall mobile phone tower. The tower was erected overnight on top of a two-storey plaza in the neighbourhood market, less than 20m away from their homes.

The plaza owner had no qualms about becoming one of the hundreds of landlords to the rapidly expanding wireless communication network in the twin cities — he is getting Rs25,000 in monthly rent from the mobile phone company for hosting the tower on his plaza's root-top. Some owners are known to be paid as much as up to Rs50,000 per month.

But residents nearest to the plaza, who were neither asked for their opinion nor informed about the tower before it was erected, are worried about the potential harm of living in the shadow of a radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation-emitting cell phone tower.

Possible health hazards due to exposure to electromagnetic fields had been cited as one of the three negative effects of mobile phone towers in a report commissioned by the federal cabinet in 2005 after public concerns were raised about the mushrooming of mobile phone antennas throughout the urban and rural landscape of Pakistan.

The other two negative effects of mobile phone towers, according to the 51-page 'advisory report' prepared by the ministry of information technology are the 'obvious aesthetic impact' and the 'relatively lower, but real threat, from accidents that could occur in the event of storms and gusty winds'.

Cellular towers or base station antennas of the growing number of mobile phone companies in Pakistan increased from 968 in 2003 to 5,236 in 2005 and 10,109 in 2006, according to the above report entitled 'Environmental and Health Related Effects of the Cellular Base Station Antennas'. The number today could possibly be twice as much as in 2006.

In some cities, apparent concerns about the health hazards of these towers, especially in residential areas, have prompted public complaints that in some instances have led to sealing of these towers by the local authorities concerned and even court cases. The public often blames leniency by the local authorities — CDA in the case of Islamabad — towards the mobile phone companies for the mounting of towers in residential sites.

Such conflicts are not only unpleasant but unnecessarily compromise the benefits that radiocommunications technology has brought to modern living. It is not uncommon, for instance, for mobile phone users to have to go outside and stand in a certain way or hold their mobile phones to their ear at a certain angle to hear or be heard properly. This problem of weak signals is supposed to be solved by the ever-growing number of new towers delivering new telecommunication services to an increasingly large customer base.

The above advisory report by the ministry of information technology recommended that we do two things, which many other countries have already done, to address public concerns about the hazards of mobile phone towers.

Firstly, adopt internationally accepted safety guidelines on exposure of public to radiofrequency radiation emitted by mobile phone base station antennas. Secondly, develop appropriate mechanisms through clearly laid down rules and regulations to deal with the environmental and aesthetic aspects of a growing wireless communication infrastructure.

Not only should the deployment of mobile phone towers within our communities be regulated and planned by a number of different pieces of regulation — federal, provincial and local — but a code for the mobile phone industry could also be developed obliging it to apply a precautionary approach to the design, operation and selection of sites for communication facilities.

Under the code, mobile phone companies should be required to consider avoiding 'community sensitive' locations such as residential areas, schools and hospitals and balance this with other factors, such as coverage objectives and engineering requirements, when deciding on placement for a site.

In addition to these measures, a website could also be developed — preferably by the industry itself — to provide people with access to information about the deployment of mobile phone infrastructure across the country, what has been done to contain the negative effects and health hazards, and how it aims to deal with continuing social and environmental issues relating to the mobile phone network.

With such measures in place, people will probably be less concerned about the health and safety implications of mobile phone towers and their emissions whenever a new tower is installed.