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Are cellphone towers safe in residential areas?

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By Madonna T. Virola

CITY OF CALAPAN, ORIENTAL MINDORO – Genita Romero, 47, says her 84-year-old mother Rosita had tuberculosis, while her children had an abscess in their groin, which had to be removed at the health center, and coughs that don’t go away even when medicated.

Since the ‘90s, members of the Romero family living around the foot of the oldest cellphone tower in Barangay Calero in this city have increased. The Romeros believe the radiation from the tower harms their health, but they have no proof.  

Photo of Genita Romero telling how life is at the foot of the oldest tower in the City of Calapan

“We were children when we saw (that) Extelcom tower constructed, and we were made to sign a document saying we would benefit one day, but without telling us the negative effects,” said Genita, who was with her siblings on Aug. 14. 

Another resident near the tower is 21-year-old nursing student Daniela Marie. She said she had two seizures when she was 19, and then in July this year.  

“I don’t have a history of other illnesses except asthma, but I don’t get seizures with it. We do not know the cause, but when I was brought to the hospital, the doctor said it could be over fatigue and radiation.” She had not asked whether the doctor meant radiation from the tower.

Carmelita Cruz, the administrator of the nearby Mount Tabor Formation Center for Mangyan college students, said they were among the Calero tower petitioners.  

“We had a meeting with authorities but (were) told that the project was part of development. The petition eventually died down, and then we learned that it was already Smart [using] the tower,” said Cruz, who now stays at the Mangyan Center in her senior years with her lay missionary colleague. 

They are worried that prolonged exposure to cell tower radiation could take a toll on their health.  

Councilor Ma. Yvette Macaruyo, chair of the village’s health committee, says she knows of cases of brain and breast cancer, and weakness in the lungs, especially among those financially struggling to live within the tower area. “But we don’t know why there are these illnesses,” she said.

Asked if there were recent DOH issuances on the effects of 5G cell tower radiation, a DOH officer in Oriental Mindoro on Sept. 5 immediately coordinated with the Center for Health Development – Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, Palawan through the Field Health Operations. 

The officer later received a message from the Occupational Health of the central office in Manila which said it could not directly correlate radiation to health effects because no studies back it up. 

“Until such time that there are several studies and research, only then can we say that there are direct health effects,” it said.

“We do not have [many] research or studies regarding this worldwide. Expert organizations around the world like the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the American Cancer Society, and even the U.S. National Toxicology Program have yet to issue any official statement or position because studies are not enough and cannot yet be correlated to any health effects,” it said. 

Cancer-related deaths 

Annie Reniva, a registered physical therapist, has been advocating for the right to a safe environment with their experiences in Sitio Calvary in Barangay Apas in Cebu City.

She said she was barely six months back in the area after corporate work in the United States in 2009, and adapting to living in Apas, where her parents lived, when she learned about the nine cancer cases. 

“The first thing that shocked me was that the husband of the shopkeeper died of cancer, then also a neighbor, until I learned more and there were those donation drivesin the community.  Me coming from the healthcare sector, I got to thinking, why?” said Reniva.

She learned that two cell towers were installed in the area—Globe Telecom in 2000 and Sun Cellular in 2004. She eventually met people who started the tower petition and formed themselves into Calvary Hills Apas Residents’ Organization (CHARO) in 2012 with Porponio Lapa Jr., a Ph.D., as the president. They wanted the facilities relocated to non-residential areas.

Reniva said they delegated tasks among members, did awareness and petition campaigns, lobbied at the city council for lack of hearing and consultation and violations in permits, met with the lawyers of the companies, and lobbied for corporate social responsibility.

“We asked government leaders and politicians to give us a voice, held rallies, human barricades and blocked the cell sites (between 2013 and 2015). We prayed hard though we came from different religions,” she said.

Globe Telecom then released a statement saying using information communication technology and mobile technologies brings progress to large cities like Cebu. It banked on a DOH statement that no clinical studies proved that exposure to radiofrequency emission causes cancer.  

“Radiofrequency emissions from cell sites are categorized as non-ionizing and will not impact human cells or organs. Even renowned international agencies like the World Health Organization have indicated that the level of radiofrequency exposure from cell sites is so low and does not affect human health,” said Globe. 

But that was unacceptable for Reniva’s group, so they did study and research. “I found out just in Sitio Calvary in Apas that we had 31 people who died from varying stages of cancer. 

“Sineryoso namin ang pakikipaglaban, kasi [We took the fight seriously because] people have been dying because of it. There had been opposition before,” she said.

Community-based research

Reniva said they had to do the research themselves. 

“Based on research worldwide, in different epidemiological studies, the zero-to-600 meters radius around a cellphone tower or base station is considered the hazardous distance,” said Reniva.

“I saw the first three years of exposure, [when the] initial electromagnetic hypersensitivity reactions manifest, like insomnia, difficulty in eating, anxiety, depression, and aggravation of existing conditions such as hypertension, heart ailments, etc., and worst of all – cancer,” she said.  

“[Not all listened to us], but this led me to producing a visual PowerPoint presentation where I highlighted the people with their photos – those who are fighting for the petition and their lives because they were cancer survivors undergoing chemotherapy,” she said.

“These people are taxpayers, the electorate. This was my selling point to the local government. It was alarming because most of the cancer cases had no history of such in the family,” Reniva said.

Annie Reniva telling radio listeners their fight against cell tower in Apas, Cebu City. She shows the materials she presented to authorities.

Tough battle

The fight of the Apas community was published in community papers. The city council in 2015 revoked the special permits they gave to the two companies and ordered them deactivated, which prompted the companies to file cases in court.  

Sun Cellular’s tower was spared from the scheduled deactivation after the company secured a 72-hour Temporary Restraining Order from the Regional Trial Court. Globe did not seek injunctive relief.

In 2016, Globe eventually removed its tower after a compromise agreement with the residents.  

But CHARO became inactive during the administration of President Duterte, which was keen on putting up telcos, said Lapa.

He said Sun tower continues to operate, but with a legal case. “It was Vice Mayor Labella who helped us through the Sanggunian in our legal fight. However, he became Mayor under Duterte. Wala nang magagawa [Nothing can be done],” he said and refused to elaborate.   

Reniva also changed residency because of work, but tells people not to give up.  

“This battle is difficult. You get tired. But when you talk with cancer survivors, like a mother told me, Annie, I don’t want to die. My children are still small, who will take care of them?“ 

Streamlined permits, procedures 

In Camia Street in Sitio 1 in Barangay Suqui in Calapan City, Rosendo Rojas, 69, was surprised in May to come home in time for the elections from a month-long vacation in Tarlac. A telecommunications tower was being built quickly right beside his fence.

With residents around, they petitioned for its “immediate stoppage because they were not consulted,” but the local government denied their petition twice.  

Engineer Redentor Reyes Jr, then city housing and urban settlements officer/zoning administrator, said the new requirements and processes for tower construction had been streamlined for greater connectivity during the pandemic.  

In the case of Camia and Daisy Streets in  Sitio 1, where there is no homeowner’s association, consent, and social preparation are no longer required. He said the company complied with all requirements, and if the LGU delays approval, it can file a case.  

The most that petitioners could do is hang tarps in front of their houses saying “Telco Tower Itigil, Hindi Kinunsulta ang mga Tao, Banta sa Kalusugan” [Telco Tower stop, people not consulted, threat to health]

Tarps opposing the tower construction hang in front of houses in Sitio 1 in Barangay Suqui, City of Calapan

In August 2020, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said the old system that took 241 days for 19 permits with 86 document requirements would be trimmed to 16 days.   

President Duterte urged telecommunication companies to report local government units hampering the permits to build cell towers. The new guidelines for tower sharing issued by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), allow independent tower companies to build their sites and lease them to telco operators.

In 2019, the DICT said the country needed at least 50,000 more cell towers to improve telecommunication services.  

There were around 16,000 cell sites against 67 million internet users, giving it the lowest cell site density in Asia, according to the Philippine News Agency. The Philippines’ population is more than 100 million.

In his first state-of-the-nation address, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the government should digitalize its services for easier access. 

Moratorium

Meantime, tower petitioners find support and strength as they come together through an online community of volunteers called Stop 5G Philippines.

5G (5th generation) is the latest generation of mobile technology and is said to be 10 to many times faster than 4G, so thousands of 5G cell sites have been installed across the Philippines, and more are being built.

Founder and lead convener Lynn Malaya, an information technology specialist, clarifies they are “not anti-technology but for safe technology.”

On the Facebook page of “Stop 5G Philippines” with nearly 5,000 members is an online tutorial on 5G to learn how it affects people and their families, how it harms human beings and all life on the planet, and how to protect oneself.

It includes a signature campaign addressed to the President, lawmakers, and relevant cabinet secretaries and commissioners.

“In the absence of independent tests or studies to prove that these are safe for humans and the environment, we call for a moratorium on 5G wireless networks,” it said. Malaya said the “precautionary principle should prevail.”

She added, “As of June 26, 2022, an international appeal has been signed by 301,546 scientists, doctors, environmental organizations, and citizens from 216 nations and territories, addressed to the United Nations, WHO, and governments of all nations to urgently call for a stop to the deployment of 5G on Earth.”

She said the Food and Drugs Administration brushed aside their petition letter with several citations, including the Bio Initiative Report and articles from Environmental Health Trust that showed evidence of harm even below the claimed safety limits.

Malaya also cites cell tower epidemiological studies. “Within 100 meters, there is a 35-percent increase in cancers, high rates of prostate, breast, lung, kidney, and liver cancer. Within 350 meters, a fourfold increase in the incidence of cancer.”

“Among women, the increase in cancer was 10 times the norm. Within 500 meters is the highest death rate from cancer increased prevalence of adverse neurobehavioral symptoms.”

She added: “Within one kilometer, one could experience headaches, skin rashes, sleep disturbances, depression, decreased libido, increased rates of suicide, concentration problems, dizziness, memory changes, and increased risk of cancer, tremors, and other neurophysiological effects.”

The petition cited recommendations including a preference for “wired communication using fiber optic technology which has been proven to be safer, faster, and more reliable than wireless communication.”

Moving forward 

The new guidelines that streamline the permits and processes for tower construction provided in the Bayanihan to Recover as One or Republic Act No. 11494 are evoking questions among legal practitioners.  

Should it be brought to court for interpretation? Is the right to a healthy environment under the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, not in conflict with R.A. 11494?

Does the right to public consultation in the Local Government Code prevail over RA 11494, which is a specific law?  

A public attorney at the central office in Manila said the case is a novelty and would take time, endurance, and resources, which telcos may have an advantage over.

But Reniva, having encountered cancer cases in Apas says: “Our right to life, liberty, and security, as provided in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights supersedes whatever executive order because lives are at stake.”

“We will have to consult the community because they are the ones affected, who bear the brunt of effects of the mobile station, and the common tao will have to make sure he or she is aware of the effects,” she said.

“It is not enough to listen, we have to do our research, to keep an open mind because we don’t know, and one day- it will be us.”

She remembers having challenged the DOH director for instrumentation and stakeholders of the telecommunications company in Apas.  

“Why don’t they try to live within the zero to a 600-meter radius of the mobile phone station and tell me after three years if they have not experienced any of the symptoms listed in the epidemiological study. Kung wala silang maramdaman [If they don’t feel anything] or any health-related problems, then I rest my case,” said Reniva.

She clarifies, especially to young people, “We are not against improved connectivity for work-from-home jobs, and we just want relocation of towers away from residential areas where there are no humans or even animals. We need to weigh the pros and cons.”

She says most affected would be those vulnerable sectors left at home – the very old, young, pregnant, nursing mothers, those with co-morbidity, everyone is vulnerable because radiation penetrates metals and buildings.  

“I hope the executive, legislative, judicial branches of government should heed. We are taxpayers, who help improve the Philippines,” said Reniva.  

“Come to Apas and meet the children, husband, and wife of those who have gone, calling on everyone in different parts of the Philippines. Many of you are fighting, you are not alone.”

Reniva recently returned to Apas and spoke with Dr. Lapa for updates. “I found out a cancer survivor just died in 2021.”

(This story is part of the journalism fellowship of the Philippine Press Institute under the auspices of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.)

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