Democracy probably provides the best form of government, but the principles of democracy can hardly be applied to decide the results of scientific research. Even when nine out of ten studies point to a particular conclusion, the assumptions arrived at in the tenth cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, particularly when it comes to subjects like health.
The harmful effects of mobile telecom towers on people residing in their neighbourhood are now engaging increasing public attention. That there is no conclusive evidence yet of mobile towers causing cancer, brain haemorrhageshaemorrhages and high blood pressure to people staying within the vicinity of 50 metres is a moot point. But that has generally been found to be the case in a number of studies, carried out from time to time in different parts of the world.
Du, the UAE telecom services provider, which has mobile towers atop residential building in thickly populated areas, has sought to allay fears expressed by local residents that these towers are causing them, among other things, fatigue, sleep disturbances, memory loss and cardiovascular disorders. Du says its towers are all in accordance with the Telecom Regulatory Authority’s safety provisions and follow internationally accepted practices.
Nothing to fear
If the towers do meet all the TRA requirements, the telecom operators may be justified in whatever positions they are taking, but it would have been more appropriate if the TRA itself came forward to assure the affected people that the safety regulations required to be followed by the telecom players do make the grade and that people have nothing to fear.
Is TRA in a position to guarantee this? The TRA stipulations, as provided in regulatory policy documents, are at best vague and inadequate at their worst, as these enjoin the operators to adopt the “best possible” safeguards, rather than spell out clearly what exactly needs to be done. Given that radiation health hazards caused by telecom towers are a highly contentious issue, with conflicting interests pulling in different directions, guidelines that do not bind the players to specifics can hardly be expected to be effective.
Telecom operators around the world continue to assert that cell phone towers pose no health risk, but all the studies are pointing to the opposite, or at least asserting that such assurances cannot be proved faultless.
Globally, there has been a trade-off between convenience and health risks when it came to positioning of the mobile telecom base stations. Telecom operators, who compete for business, tend to put up towers as close to dwelling units or work places as possible, the choice often falling on building roof tops, to improve signal reception. But while boosting the signals, the towers produce strong electromagnetic radiation, harmful to people within a certain radius. You cannot have one without risking the other.
That the operators are implementing internationally-accepted practices is no consolation for the affected people as these norms are influenced more by economic and political considerations rather than the results of health and safety research.
For instance, the US has the most lenient regulations in this respect as the Telecommunication Act signed in 1996 gives the telecom companies the right to put up towers wherever they want and the action cannot be challenged on the ground of health safety. Many other countries have enforced levels that are hundred times lower than the US standards.
India, which is expected to have one billion mobile phone subscribers by 2015, has taken a lead in controlling telecom tower-related health hazards by enforcing stringent new anti-radiation regulations from the first of this month. With this, the Indian radiation regulatory standards have become 10 times more stringent than 90 per cent of the countries in the world.
Under the new regulations, the use of telecom towers or base stations on the roof top of buildings has been restricted and stringent conditions stipulated for their operation. Electromagnetic exposure limits for base station emissions have been lowered to one-tenth of the existing level while specific permissible values have been assigned to all new handsets that can be used in the country. A deadline of one year has also been set for the replacement of all existing phones with a higher value.
The UAE has always followed high safety and security standards in areas that involve public health. Less than stringent regulations for the operation of mobile telecom towers need not spoil the country’s impeccable record in this respect any longer as improved regulations standards are now available for adoption.
Going by past experience, hopefully the UAE might too have the most stringent safeguards in terms of mobile tower radiation levels sooner than later and that should be the biggest reassurance to people who feel disturbed.
The writer is a UAE-based journalist