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Are mobile towers safe?
Huge, bulky telecommunication towers on top of tall buildings is not an uncommon site in the major cities these days. But there is a possibility that these towers may not be safe for humans living near it in ways more than one.
THERE IS a widespread apprehension among people that some mobile operators have constructed the towers on top of structurally weak buildings in the city and any physical damage caused to the buildings by these towers may put the lives of the people living in and around such installations at grave risk.


There is also a serious concern that since we are living in Seismic Zone-V, these towers could cause devastating damage, in case an earthquake, if not designed properly. Therefore, it is necessary to monitor and appropriately regulate the erection of mobile phone towers on top of buildings.


Structural safety of the buildings has to be accorded top priority before giving permission for the construction of mobile towers. The agencies empowered to give building permissions should not allow erection of mobile towers on buildings, which have been constructed without valid permission. These measures will also put an end to the alleged unregulated erection of hoardings and other outdoor displays on top of the buildings in the city.


Mobile phone towers should also be subject to the enforcement of building laws along with the unauthorised buildings. A structural engineer should inspect and sign the site plan and drawings of the mobile phone towers, certifying that necessary safety measures have been taken and that the structure is safe and earthquake resistant.


There are, so far, no restrictions on the locations of towers. A city like Srinagar requires numerous towers, as telephone operators need large number of towers for better coverage and transmission. At the same time, number of towers needs to be kept at minimum in the interest of proper urban planning, public health and safety.


Base stations are usually tall structures servicing large areas (cells). In recent times, there has been a trend towards smaller antennas servicing smaller cells. The aerials are normally erected on tall buildings to cover the widest area possible. Operators need to replace old model towers with single pole towers. There are four telecom operators in the city: BSNL, Airtel, Aircel and Reliance. Three or more firms should share each tower, and no individual firm should be allowed to set up a separate tower for itself.


It is difficult to confine the construction of mobile towers to non-residential areas, as the distance between two towers is determined by factors such as transmission frequency, density of consumers and the desired sound quality, among others. However, telecommunication towers atop buildings in residential areas may need to be relocated, where they are considered to be a hazard. There are fears that the people living in and around such installations are susceptible to health hazards.


Electromagnetic radiations emitted from the towers are debated all over the world. However, there is no conclusive study stating that radiation emitted by mobile phones affects health adversely. Medical research material is available on health-related effects of electromagnetic radiation emitted from antennae on telecommunication towers, yet no conclusive evidence of hazards to human health has been established for possible exposure levels from the cellular towers.


Modified currents and voltage generate oscillation of the electrical and magnetic field, which propagates in space. The electric and magnetic components oscillate at right angels to each other, these waves are termed as Electro Magnetic Radiations (EMRs). Mobile phone towers emit electro magnetic rays with a frequency of 1900 MHz. With this high frequency, they can easily pass through our bodies and concrete walls. Our immune system can be harmfully affected when these EMR rays pass through our body. Mobile phone towers’ radioactivity can thus affect every living thing in one square kilometer range.


Density ranges of this radioactivity are 17,100 - 72,000 micro watt per square metre. Mobile towers, installed on top of buildings can penetrate radio activity among those who live in the same buildings. Electromagnetic field of these towers attract Radon gas from atmosphere. EMR can cause memory loss, headache, allergy and skin diseases mostly affecting those who live nearby. Sperm-count in men is known to reduce with daily use of cell phone.


The mobile phone operators however, argue that Radio Frequency (RF) emissions from antennas used for wireless transmissions such as cellular and Personal Communication Systems (PCS) signals are within safe limits. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents. They claim that the roof of the building absorbs large amounts of the RF energy.


Cell phones communicate with nearby base stations even when these are not being used for a call. This is necessary to tell the system where the user is, in case a call should come in. Thus, even while they are inactive, the phones are a source of RF energy exposure to the user. Hands-free kits reduce exposure to a user by removing the phone from the vicinity of the head. There is no identifiable health benefit in using the kits, but there is no detriment either and using them may increase a user’s peace of mind.


There is not much that you can do if there is already a phone tower on the roof of your own or a nearby building, except getting the building assessed by a structural engineer, for its safety and in case it is found that the building is not capable of taking the load and stresses of the telecommunication towers, these should be relocated immediately, to safe guard the lives of people. Before the installation of a mobile tower aerial on your roof top, make sure that the required safety measures have been taken.


Ensure that the building has had a proper structural survey done by a qualified structural engineer, to see if it is capable of taking the weight of the aerial. The calculations should include effect of earthquake and wind resistance on the aerial to make sure that it will be able to stand up to severe winds.


There remains a lack of consensus among the experts about whether and at what levels electric magnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation can affect humans. The reality is also that there is a high level of concern regarding possible effects. The best approach to adopt, therefore, is a precautionary one. Should health be put at potential risk by waiting for proof of harm beyond all reasonable doubts before preventative action is taken; or should the action be taken as a precaution before any conclusive evidence is found to prevent any potential harm?


It is possible that EMFs and EMR at the current levels are harmless, but it may not be the case. The question is whether we wait for overwhelmingly convincing proof, by which time many people may have been harmed or whether we take precautionary preventative steps now. At the rate that demand for mobile phones is increasing, there will soon be more mobile phone towers standing than trees.


Without waiting for a single day, the municipal authorities need to immediately assess the safety of all buildings where mobile towers have been erected and ensure that in future no permission is given unless the building is certified to be structurally safe and is capable of taking the load of the tower and bear all effects of earthquake and severe winds. On our part, we should prefer landline phones over cell phones and wherever we use cell phones, we should use a proper head-set.
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