Nepali Times
Mobile tower row heats up


The good news is: mobile telephones are now everywhere. The bad news is: so are the transmitter towers.

Wireless technology is convenient because it uses microwave transmissions from the caller's phone to reach a transmitter tower near the recipient to make the connection. But these are the same rays of the electro-magnetic spectrum used to heat yesterday's leftovers in your household microwave oven. The phone transmissions are not as powerful, but the jury is still out on the harm that cell phones can cause to human health-especially if they are used for frequent and long conversations.

But how about the cell phone towers themselves? No one knows for certain, but as a precaution European and American regulations prohibit base station towers to be located within 100m of residential buildings.

Boudha residents are objecting to a new cell phone tower that has been put up right on top of a family house. Not only does this destroy what little is left of the traditional skyline of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they say, but it is also a serious health hazard.

"We are just guests in this country but we are concerned that people here are not aware of how dangerous it is living so close to the towers," says an expat who has been living in Boudha for the past 30 years. Neighbours have got together to set up an action committee to get the tower relocated to a non-residential area. They organised two public meetings at Boudha lat week which ended up as a slinging match between the expats and the Indian partners of the joint venture United Telecom (UTL).

UTL has already installed 14 transmission towers in residential areas around the city and is planning to add 10 more to service 25,000 clients through its wireless local loop technology.

"We will not stop protesting until the tower is removed," says Gyan B Shakya, a Boudha resident. Shakya admits he and his friends used to be unaware of the potential health hazards of cell phone towers and being exposed to radio waves 24 hours a day.

The situation could turn nasty, and UTL asked for protection from the government after locals threatened to cut cables leading up to the tower. "If there is proof that the tower can cause serious health problems then I am willing to remove it," says Raju Shakya, who permitted UTL to install the tower on top of his five-story house in Boudha, "But it has to be proven scientifically."

The uncertainty about long exposures to radio frequencies transmitted by base stations or cell phones have polarised debate internationally. Media reporting on the subject is scant because mobile phone companies contribute so much ad revenue that newspapers and television stations prefer to play down the issue.

One report suggests that exposure to radiation causes immune disorders, nausea, memory loss, lack of concentration, high blood pressure, eye infection, asthma, pneumonia, body pains, hearing disability and even brain tumours. Another report claims there is no conclusive medical proof of any of this.

The anti-cellular phone campaign has been actively led by the Cellular Phone Taskforce ( taskforce_eng.html) which believes that governments around the world are trying to suppress real scientific findings. Scientists in Australia and elsewhere have alleged that they have been forced to quit jobs in universities and government departments because of their findings showing that GSM phones increase the risk of cancer.

"We don't want to start a row with anyone. All we want is to sit down together and talk about this issue for the sake of people's health, especially the children," says Noah Gordon, a frequent visitor to Nepal. "There must be a reason why there is so much uncertainty. Can we afford to take the risk?"

The cell phone companies call them scaremongers and dismiss the findings. "Wireless and mobile services have been used for decades and there is really no proof at all that radio frequency signals affect anyone's health," says an Indian staffer from UTL, requesting anonymity and hinting that his company may be targeted because it is partly Indian-owned. "How come other radio transmitters like Nepal Telecom, Nepal Television and Radio Nepal have never been targeted?" he asks.

However serious or negligible the danger, Boudha residents say that by the time the truth comes out it may be too late for many people. They say there are plenty of offices, warehouses and factory buildings in the neighbourhood that could host towers-there was no reason to choose a residential building.

"We really need to start a public debate on this matter and we will also investigate" says UTL's Rajendra Aryal.

Boudha residents want the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology to measure the radiation levels from the towers and investigate possible health impacts. But such research is expensive and would require a large number of lab animals. For the time being, the activists say their only course of action is to mobilise families to pressurise the government into moving towers to safer areas.

Cell phone base station tower installations have met with stiff opposition in Europe and elsewhere from families concerned about their children's health. A few years ago a judge in Spain ordered 49 phone towers be removed from rooftops in the town of Valladolid after an active campaign by parents.

A Nepal Telecom official who requested anonymity said a 100m rule was proposed when cell phones were first allowed into Nepal five years ago, but it was never implemented

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)