DHAKA, Sept 14: An in-depth study of the impact of radiation emanating from cellphone towers on human health and environment is yet to be conducted in the country, even though the number of cellphone towers established by different operators has increased significantly in the last few years, following the expansion of mobile networks on a large scale.
In 2008, the Bangladesh Regulatory Commission (BTRC) formed a committee to assess the impact of mobile tower radiation on plants, as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) had complained to the regulator that installation of such towers was hampering coconut and betel nut production in Barishal and Khulna divisions.
Field workers with the NGO had found that the sizes of these two species of plants were becoming gradually smaller, and showed black spots on the plants near mobile towers. The BTRC committee, however, did not produce a complete report as, according to it, the evidence was not conclusive, and so, mobile towers could not be blamed.
An expert panel of the Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications, a world-renowned telecom research organization, conducted a small study in 2010. It did not express any opinion about the harsh impact of mobile tower radiation on human health and ecology in Bangladesh.
The study, however, indicated that the number of different types of birds has been decreasing in Dhaka city, owing to the radiation caused by the growing number of mobile towers.
the largest mobile operator, has 14,000 towers. Banglalink, Robi, Airtel, Citycell and Teletalk have 5,200, 8,200, 4,100, 2,900 and 1,400 mobile towers, respectively, across the country.
Talking to The Independent, Dr Satyaprashad Majumder, professor of telecommunications engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), said the radiation emanating from a mobile 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 other flying animals cannot tolerate more than 40,000 micro-watts, he explained. “Sometimes, we find that the tolerance level of some people has decreased to 50,000 micro-watts. If they are directly exposed, they might suffer from skin diseases, as well as from cancer,” he warned.
Wasim Hussain, a BUET lecturer currently carrying out his PhD research on mobile tower radiation at the University of Toronto, told The Independent by e-mail that such radiation is emitted continuously and is more powerful at close quarters. On the other hand, field intensities drop rapidly with distance as one moves away from the base of the transmitters, because of the attenuation of power with the distance, he explained.
Hossain wrote that the sector antenna, which is a popular design of mobile phone towers, has a coverage of 120 degrees on the horizontal and about +/-5 degrees from the vertical. The sector antenna, which works as a base transceiver system (BTS), should be established at a minimum height of 300 feet for better coverage and radiation safety.
But, as Hossain pointed out, cellphone companies in Bangladesh are flouting internationally prescribed rules and are installing towers in populated localities by taking leases of pieces of land or roofs of buildings, some of which are not as tall as 300 feet.
In Western countries, such mobile phone towers are installed at a height of at least 400 feet and are located far from educational institutions, hospitals and similar buildings as there are regulatory guidelines. Bangladesh, however, is yet to have any such guidelines.
Another expert said the minimum distance of a tower from a residential building should be at least 30 metres. But in Bangladesh, especially in metropolitan cities, mobile towers with antennae have been established right on top of residential buildings.
Several other studies conducted in different countries have found that even low levels of radiation have resulted in damage to cell tissue and DNA. This has also been linked to the onset of various forms of cancer, brain tumours, suppressed immune function, mental depression, miscarriage in pregnant women, Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other serious illnesses, according to material sourced from the internet.
In India, a national committee comprising officials and experts from the departments of telecom and science and technology, Indian Council of Medical Research, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Indian Institutes of technology (IITs) and telecom operators conducted an extensive year-long research study on mobile tower radiation.
India, earlier, had the worst cellular tower radiation norms in the world. But after the research, which was completed a few days ago, the committee suggested a new set of guidelines to eliminate health hazards caused by radiation by reducing the amount of radiation the towers emit to one-tenth of the current level.
The Indian government recently implemented new guidelines, which stated that cellular towers will have to reduce the amount of radiation they emit to one-tenth of the current level.
The Independent talked to top officials of the six mobile operators in this connection.
Kazi Monirul Kabir, chief communications officer of Grameenphone, said the company had co-operated with the BTRC study of the impact of mobile tower radiation on plants in 2008. Kabir said it is ready to cooperate if the government wants to conduct further studies.
Mahmudur Rahman, executive vice-president of the operator Robi, said the company is thinking of installing greener and environment friendly towers.
Mehbub Chowdhury, chief executive officer of Citycell, said such a study should be conducted at the government and regulatory levels.
An industry expert, who preferred anonymity, said mobile towers emit radio frequencies which are a sub-category of electromagnetic radiation (EMR). Such radiation is of little concern because of the fact that EMR is not classified as an ionizing form of radiation. Non-ionizing radiation only causes harm in large doses, and poses a threat to people only through the heat energy it generates. According to the expert, this has meant that the potential health risks and consequences of cellphone tower radiation have been downplayed.
BTRC consultant and a former director-general with the regulator, Rezaul Quader, said the commission has already held talks with the telecom ministry for conducting a nationwide study to find out the impact of mobile phone tower radiation on human and animal life.
The regulator has, in principle, also approved some rapid infrastructural changes, including handing over of maintenance of mobile towers to third parties and incorporation of a provision to introduce a network-sharing mechanism to reduce operational costs, Quader said. “This will create better and greener maintenance work of mobile towers,” he said.
BTRC director of spectrum, Col. Rakibul Hossain, said there has been no large-scale investigation into the harmful effects of radiofrequency fields from mobile phone towers. “While many theoretical studies in the world have said it is harmful, on the other hand there are many other studies which have said it is not,” he said.
He, however, admitted that the telecom regulator currently lacks guidelines regarding construction of mobile phone towers. Hossain said the BTRC will carry out a large-scale investigation soon. Guidelines will be published after the investigation is completed.
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