(First of two parts) Life with cell tower: Safe technology pushed amid industry rush
CITY OF CALAPAN, Oriental Mindoro—As far back as Genita Romero could recall, it was in the 1990s when her family’s health troubles began: Her 84-year-old mother Rosita had been plagued with tuberculosis, while her children had abscesses in the groin that had to be surgically removed at the health center. They also coughed persistently despite medication.
The Romeros have been living near the foot of Calapan City’s oldest cell phone tower in Barangay Calero, and they believe, with their experiences, that radio-frequency (RF) radiation emitted by the metal frame structure was harming them physically.
“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, now 47.
Medical science has attributed tuberculosis and abscesses to bacterial infection. It has so far found no evidence of noticeable harm to humans from exposure to RF radiation from cell phone towers, even cell phones, computers, WiFi, microwave ovens and other electronic devices.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RF is a form of “non-ionizing radiation” with the lowest energy in the electromagnetic spectrum, “not enough energy to remove electrons from atoms and molecules but has enough energy to heat substances such as in a microwave.”
Some groups, however, seek to stop cell tower projects as a precautionary step to protect public health.
The divergence of views has seen micro-pockets of protests in communities surrounding cell phone towers in Calapan and elsewhere. Some residents still feed stories of malaise, though doubtful, to the neighborhood narrative, unconvinced of the safety assurance coming from the telecommunications giants.
Daniela Marie, 21, another Calero resident, said she suffered two seizures three years ago, and another in July last year. “I don’t have a history of other illnesses except asthma, but I don’t get seizures with it. … When I was brought to the hospital, the doctor said it could be overfatigue and radiation.” She failed to ask the doctor if it could be radiation from the cell tower.
In Cebu City, Annie Reniva, a physical therapist and an advocate of the right to a safe environment, learned about nine cancer cases in her parents’ hometown in Sitio Calvary in Barangay Apas, after two cell towers were installed. She was staying barely six months in the area after working in the United States in 2009.
“The first thing that shocked me was that the husband of the shopkeeper died of cancer, then a neighbor, until I learned more and there were those donation drives in the community. Me coming from the healthcare sector, I got to thinking, why?” said Reniva.
One of the cell towers was erected by Globe Telecom in 2000 and another by Sun Cellular in 2004. Reniva eventually met people who started a petition to relocate the towers to nonresidential areas. In 2012, they formed the Calvary Hills Apas Residents’ Organization (Charo).
“We asked government leaders and politicians to give us a voice, held rallies, set up human barricades and blocked the cell sites (between 2013 and 2015). We prayed hard though we came from different religions,” Reniva said.
“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?” she said.
Globe Telecom, in a statement, reiterated that no clinical studies have proved that exposure to RF emission causes cancer, citing remarks from the Department of Health.
“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,” Globe said.
It added that information and communication technology brings progress to large cities like Cebu.
Charo said her group did its own research on the issue. “I found out just in Sitio Calvary in Apas that we had 31 people who died from varying stages of cancer,” Reniva said. “We took the fight seriously because] people have been dying … . There had been opposition before,” she said in Filipino.
Reniva, citing epidemiological studies worldwide, said the radius of zero to 600 meters around a cellphone tower or base station is considered “the hazardous distance.”
“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 added: “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 presented the materials to the local authorities and the local press. In 2015, the Cebu City council revoked the special permits they gave to Globe Telecom and Sun Cellular and ordered the cell towers deactivated, which prompted the companies to file cases in court. Some believe that the officials’ decision was politically motivated, not health-related.
Sun Cellular secured a 72-hour temporary restraining order from the Regional Trial Court and its tower was spared from the scheduled deactivation. Globe did not seek injunctive relief but eventually removed its tower a year later after a compromise agreement with the residents.
In Calapan, similar community actions, including petition signing and tarp displays, took place but resulted in little success.
“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 Carmelita Cruz, the administrator of the nearby Mount Tabor Formation Center for Mangyan college students.
The Calero residents were worried that prolonged exposure to cell tower radiation could take a toll on their health, said Cruz, who now stays at the Mangyan Center in her senior years with her lay missionary colleague.
Ma. Yvette Macaruyo, chair of the barangay’s health committee, said she knew of cases of brain and breast cancer, and weak 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 the DOH had issued any advisories on the effects of 5G cell tower radiation last year, a DOH officer in Oriental Mindoro immediately coordinated with the regional Center for Health Development through its Field Health Operations. The officer later received a message from the Occupational Health and Safety Center in Manila stating that it could not directly correlate radiation to health effects for lack of validating studies.
“Until such time that there are several studies and research, only then can we say that there are direct health effects,” the center said, adding:
“We do not have [much] 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 US 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.”
(Madonna T. Virola wrote this article as part of the journalism fellowship of the Philippine Press Institute under the auspices of the Hanns Seidel Foundation. — Ed.)