From The Age Melbourne, May 12, 2006:
Phone tower cancer fears
A SPATE of brain tumours among staff has forced RMIT University to close part of its business school and test for radiation emissions from rooftop phone towers.
As staff reacted with shock, the university yesterday shut the top two floors of the Bourke Street building and ordered more than 100 employees to work from home for the next fortnight.
The closure follows the discovery of five brain tumours in the past month and two others in 1999 and 2001. Two were malignant and five were benign.
WorkCover has launched an investigation and RMIT has promised its own inquiry.
The academics’ union last night expressed concern that the tumours were caused by the communications towers on the roof of the former Tivoli Theatre site.
National Tertiary Education Union state secretary Matthew McGowan warned that anecdotal reports from hastily arranged staff meetings yesterday suggested the number of people affected would grow.
“You have to ask some pretty serious questions and we’re obviously concerned that it could be linked to the tower,” he said.
“This would appear to be much more than coincidence and RMIT has a responsibility to leave no stone unturned in seeking the truth.”
Five of the seven affected work on the top floor of the 17-storey building. All except one have worked in the building for at least a decade.
An RMIT academic who did not want to be named said staff — the 16th and 17th floors are home to offices of senior management and lecturers — were “in disbelief, concerned and upset” as they attended meetings and left the building late yesterday.
Medical experts contacted by The Age said no definitive link had been proved between mobile phone tower radiation and cancer.
Australian Medical Association president Mukesh Haikerwal said there was no proof of a connection but “if you get clusters of disease it’s sensible to investigate.”
Dr John Gall, from private health company Southern Medical Services, which has been called in to assess the sick, said last night three of those affected had tumours showing symptoms consistent with radiation.
But he said there was no causal link with the building based on preliminary observations.
A spokesman for state Health Minister Bronwyn Pike said WorkCover would investigate the matter and the Department of Human Services would provide any expertise needed.
RMIT chief operating officer Steve Somogyi said testing was carried out on the building after the first two of the seven tumours were reported in 1999 and 2001. It found radiation and air quality levels within recommended guidelines.
“We value the health and safety of our staff and students veryhighly. The incidence of illness is disturbing and we shallcontinue to check for any possible cause connected to thebuilding,” Mr Somogyi said.
But RMIT union branch president Jeanette Pierce said the university agreed to shut the two floors only after being pressuredby the union. “I’m a bit mystified that the university wasn’t planning to vacate and that we had to make the point that theyneeded to vacate those two floors,” she said.
There are more than 160 mobile phone towers in central Melbournealone. A Telstra spokeswoman said last night the company had twotowers at the Tivoli site, but both met health and safety standardsand were tested regularly.
“An enormous amount of medical research has been conductedwithout any substantiated evidence of a link between mobile phonetechnology and adverse health effects, including cancer,” she said.
RMIT management emailed all staff and students late yesterdayand said health check-ups and counselling would be made available.About 600 staff work in the building.
Mr McGowan said shutting the two floors should be just the firststep. “We think they should be testing all staff who have worked onthose levels and not just for tumours. We need to understand whatare the health risks that people are suffering,” he said.
A help line for students and family members is available on 1800155 945.
Tanya Stoianoff, the executive director of the Mobile CarriersForum, which represents mobile phone companies, said there was nocredible scientific evidence of health effects from living or working near a mobile phone base station.
Shocked students to avoid suspect floors
By Chee Chee Leung and Adam Morton
May 12, 2006
RMIT STUDENTS waiting to enter classes late yesterday afternoon were shocked by news of the tumour scare, with many yet to receive official notification from the university.
Business management student Deb Ferguson said she was surprised it had been going on for so many years, and considers herself lucky to be only a part-time student — and one that doesn’t venture higher than the 10th floor.
“I’ll just quickly pop in and out,” she said.
“I think it will freak out full-time students, especially if they have been here a long time … but it’s reassuring to know that something will be done about it.”
Business Information Technology research director Bill Martin said people were scared, but relieved the university was shutting the floors.
“As soon as I’ve finished this meeting we’ve been told to go home and not come back for two weeks,” he said.
“Everyone thought they will announce an inquiry and it will drag on and while it’s dragging on we’ll all be getting sick, but to my amazement they’ve acted.”
Staff approached by The Age declined to comment about it by name, but one said: “I think everybody’s pretty scared … You don’t know why and it seems very unusual there’s five (affected) on the one floor.”
Another said she was horrified that academics were not told of an earlier investigation into the first two tumours — discovered in 1999 and 2001 — until yesterday.
That investigation found the radiation and air quality levels were within recommended guidelines.
“That’s horrible — that they knew that five years ago but didn’t tell us,” she said.
“It’s spooky, everyone is a little shaken.”
She said staff were in disbelief and upset and confused, with wild rumours circulating about staff members having died.
The university said all seven people with tumours were alive.
MBA student Mark McCormack doesn’t go past the 11th floor, which he reckons is “a good thing”.
“It’s just a bit hard to fathom … I’m actually starting to feel a bit worried about going up there. It’s sort of overwhelming.”
Other students felt it might not be anything more than coincidence, including banking and finance student Yared Haile.
“It’s a shock. We go to level 13 and 14 at least once a week to submit our assignments and talk to teachers. (Floors) 16 and 17 is not that far,” he said.
“But it could be a coincidence. We don’t know until the investigation is done.”
Accounting student Peter Bateman expressed a similar view.
“Of course it would concern you, but how do you know it’s actually the building? It could be anything, it could be coincidence.”Leave a reply →