Life with cell tower: Safe technology pushed amid industry rush

Tarps opposing the cell phone tower construction hang in front of houses in Sitio 1 Barangay Suqui, City of Calapan. —PHOTOS BY MADONNA T. VIROLA

(Last of two parts) Life with cell tower: Folks wary of metallic neighbor

CITY OF CALAPAN, Oriental Mindoro—When Rosendo Rojas came home from a month-long vacation in Tarlac to vote in last year’s May elections, he was startled by an unlikely neighbor beyond his fence: A rising telecommunications tower.

Rojas and the other residents of Camia Street in Calapan’s Sitio 1, Barangay Suqui, asked the local government for the “immediate stoppage” of the cell tower’s construction because they were not consulted. Their petition, however, was denied twice by the local government.  

Redentor Reyes Jr, then city housing and urban settlements officer and zoning administrator, said that during the coronavirus pandemic, the new requirements and processes for such projects had been streamlined for greater connectivity. In the case of Camia and Daisy Streets, where there is no homeowners’ association, the residents’ consent and social preparation were no longer needed. 

The company complied with all requirements and if the local government would delay approval, it could face a lawsuit, Reyes said.  

A standard cell tower stands at 50-200 feet (three to 14 stories in a building) and costs at least P15 million to build, according to experts’ estimates.

The most that the petitioners could do is hang tarps in front of their houses that read “Telco Tower Itigil, Hindi Kinunsulta ang mga Tao, Banta sa Kalusugan” (Stop Telco Tower, People Not Consulted, Threat to Health). 

Fast document processing

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

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

According to the Asian Development Bank, the Philippines had about 27,000 telecom towers as of 2021, or only 167 cell towers per 1 million people—one of the lowest cell site densities in the region. With only about 16,000 cell towers in 2019, the DICT said the country needed at least 50,000 more cell towers to improve telecommunication services ad by 2031, 60,000 more in unserved and underserved areas. 

Duterte’s successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., stressed in his first State of the Nation address that the government should digitalize its operations for easier access to its services. 

In June 2021, the DICT, as directed by Duterte, announced the “common tower policy” amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the policy, the department, along with the Anti-Red Tape Authority and other agencies, expanded a joint circular to fast-track the processing of documents and authorizations of “Passive Telecommunications Tower Infrastructures.” 

The new guidelines that streamline the permits and processes for cell tower construction provided in the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act 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?  

The case, according to a public attorney at the central office in Manila, is a novelty and would take time, endurance and resources, which telcos may have to their advantage.


Meantime, cell tower petitioners find support and strength in 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 country, and more are being built.

Stop 5G Philippines is “not anti-technology but for safe technology,” its founder and lead convener Lynn Malaya, an IT specialist, clarified. 

On its Facebook page, 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 concerned 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 Philippines’ Food and Drugs Administration brushed aside the group’s petition letter that cited, among others, the BioInitiative Report 2012 and articles from the Environmental Health Trust that showed evidence of harm even below the claimed safety limits of RF exposure.

The BioInitiative Report 2012, prepared by 29 experts from 10 countries, laid down a rationale for biologically based public exposure standards for electromagnetic fields. 

Malaya also quoted from cell tower epidemiological studies. “Within 100 meters, there is a 35% 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 and increased prevalence of adverse neurobehavioral symptoms,” she said.

Malaya pointed out that “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.”

In Barangay Apas, Cebu City, Annie Reniva, a physical therapist who has been among those leading the campaign against cell towers in her community, challenged the DOH director for instrumentation and stakeholders of the telecommunications company:  

cell towers
Annie Reniva tells radio listeners about her group’s demand to relocate cell towers in Apas, Cebu City.

“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.

Relocation call

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

The most affected, she said, would be those vulnerable sectors left at home—the very old, young, pregnant, nursing mothers, and those with comorbidity because, she pointed out, radiation penetrates metals and buildings.  

The Stop 5G Philippines 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.”

But Reniva, having encountered cancer cases in Apas, said: “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.”

Reniva said she hoped the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government would heed their call. 

“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, where a Sun Cellular tower still operates, and asked Porponio Lapa Jr., a doctoral degree holder who is the president of the Calvary Hills Apas Residents’ Organization Prospero Lapa, for updates. “I found out a cancer survivor just died in 2021.”

(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.)

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