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India's illegal telecom towers raise cancer concerns

Residents in Mumbai are worried about the possible health risk posed by the numerous mobile phone towers that dot the city.

MUMBAI: Residents in Mumbai are worried about the possible health risk posed by the numerous mobile phone towers that dot the city.

Some people say the telecommunication towers, which ensure good reception for mobile phones in a big city like Mumbai, are responsible for the increasing number of cancer cases.

There are about 5,000 towers to be found in India's commercial capital. But only a quarter are authorised, with the rest put up illegally to boost cellphone signals.

The towers causing concern are those on residential buildings.

"First, I had some pain in my stomach. When I showed it to the doctor, I was told that I'd have to undergo an operation,” said Hansa Shah, a resident at the Hina Kunj Towers.

“So I had it done, and the treatment lasted for a year. Then I had an injection, and that lessened the pain in my stomach a little.

“I think it was caused by the mobile tower. I've never been ill before, never, and then this happened. After this happened to me, several other people on many floors in the building were also affected."

Hansa is not the only person worried about the negative effects of telecom towers.

Bhavna Dave's 74-year-old mother died of colon cancer in 2011. She said it was because they lived near a cellphone tower.

Doctors agree that low levels of radiation can increase the risk of cancer.

"Most of the time we say that one cell tower cannot be ionising. Ionising means that it cannot penetrate the body and damage the cells as to cause mutation of the cell”, said Dr Vivek J Anand, consultant radiation oncologist at Hinduja Hospital.

“Now we know that (with) multiple cell towers in densely populated areas, if the person is continuously exposed to these kind of low radiation, can be affected with cancer."

Civic authorities have thrown the problem back to the people, saying it is the residents who decide whether to let telco operators build the mobile phone towers.

"Where towers are built without the permission of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, the people of the nearby residential complexes give operators a ‘No Objection Certificate’ and are paid (money)," said Sunil Prabhu, mayor of Mumbai.

Once residents sign the “No Objection Certificate” and the telco gets the go ahead, the Mumbai Municipal Corporation has no authority to remove the tower.

It can only remove towers that were built without consent.

"If the towers are illegal, it is the duty of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation to remove them, and if it is given the power to do so, through government policy, it will do that," said Mr Prabhu.

Some months after reports about the unusually high incidence of cancer in one apartment complex appeared, the illegal tower near it was taken down.

But it came a too little too late for those residents and for every one tower that is removed, thousands still remain standing in the densely packed city of Mumbai.  

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