Dominion Post 30 August 2008
TOWERS OF BABBLE
OPPOSITION to cellphone towers is nothing new. The latest example is in the sleepy beach community of Titahi Bay, north of Wellington, which awoke in angry protest when Telecom tried to build a cellphone tower in Tireti Rd this month.
Telecom-owned company Chorus sent letters to residents about the tower only after work had started — a “consultation” exercise that its own chief executive, Mark Ratcliffe, called woeful.
Now protest signs hang from nearly every fence in the area and Telecom has temporarily stopped construction.
Telecom is upgrading its 1000 cellphone towers nationwide to 3G — third- generation mobile phone technology, offering more advanced services — and is erecting 300 others, like the one planned for Titahi Bay.
The company faces similar opposition in Nelson after residents discovered a tower was planned next to the Atawhai playcentre.
Campaigns against towers near homes and schools is mainly brought about by concerns that the electromagnetic radiation they emit could lead to cancer.
What are the effects on health?
There have been studies that have indicated possible links between low-level electromagnetic radiation and childhood leukaemia and other cancers, and debilitating symptoms including nausea, fatigue and skin rashes.
Radio frequencies emitted by cellphone towers are non-ionising, which means that, unlike X-ray machines, they are not considered energetic enough to change dna and bring about cancer.
Public health professor Bruce Armstrong, from Sydney University, says studies to date have proven no links to adverse health.
The only uncertainty is that cellphone use and infrastructure have increased dramatically in the past five years.
“There really isn’t any clear mechanism whereby mobile phone energy can cause cancer,” he says. “They have been around now for 10 to 15 years . . . It would be likely that if something was going on and it was big, we would be seeing it. I don’t think we’re seeing it at the moment.”
The National Radiation Laboratory, a Health Ministry special unit, regulates and monitors radiation sources. Laboratory senior science adviser Martin Gledhill says the public exposure limit set by the New Zealand standard is at least 50 times lower than is known to harm health, but there is an added safeguard to the public — on average the towers emit about 1 per cent only of the standard.
He says there are thousands of studies, but no study can stand alone. “Science is never clean. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. You rely on a careful evaluation of the studies that are done to form your overall [position].”
While some countries have extra safety measures, practically all Western countries observe the same standard. “You can never prove that something’s safe. It doesn’t matter how much research you do. Based on the research that’s been done, you have to be fully confident that the limits we have are doing a good job.”
Who should be notified, and when?
Environment Ministryspokesman Craig Mallett says most cellphone towers are a permitted resource management activity and, if they meet the New Zealand standard, can be erected without consultation.
However, ministry guidelines include a recommendation to telecoms companies to consult the public on the issue.
The National Radiation Laboratory says transmissions from antennas are always at low power, typically less than one ten-thousandth the power used by a microwave oven. Other common sources of electromagnetic radiation are radio and television transmitters, cordless phones and remote controls.
Mr Mallett says that, if communities want to stop towers being built in certain areas, they need to enter into their local councils’ District Plan Change processes, which could result in stricter rules.
Nelson environmental lawyer and scientist Sue Grey says the Government needs to take a more precautionary approach while the long-term effect of the towers is uncertain.
The safety margin is a guess, she says. “Because there are so many different sources [of radiation] there’s no way ever of testing the combined effects. If there’s a doubt, why don’t we protect the people?”
A petition to a parliamentary select committee from Nelson residents’ group Ban the Tower says: “Despite the acknowledged gaps in information, the telecommunication industry and the Ministry of Health have largely adopted the view that electromagnetic radiation can be assumed to be safe in the absence of conclusive evidence of harm. This ‘she’ll be right’ approach is not a sound basis for decision-making that affects community health.”
The petition says many governments — including those of Israel, France, India and Russia — recognise risks from cellphones and cellphone towers.
A letter in support of the petition from a Titahi Bay residents’ anti-tower group says: “Titahi Bay already has high rates of cancer that some locals believe are related to the radio masts. We have all had to put our lives on hold to try and fight this.”
Mr Gledhill says that, if telecommunications companies have a choice of sites, they must choose the site that will cause the least exposure to the public.
What does the World Health Organisation say?
In 30 years about 25,000 articles have been completed on non-ionising radiation, which cellphone towers emit.
The WHO says scientists are continuing to research gaps in knowledge but “to date, no adverse health effects from low- level, long-term exposure to radio frequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed”.
Links to cancer are the main thrust of current research, but the WHO says: “A number of epidemiological studies suggest small increases in risk of childhood leukaemia with exposure to low- frequency magnetic fields in the home.
“However, scientists have not generally concluded that these results indicate a cause-effect relation between exposure to the fields and disease.
“Most scientists and clinicians agree that any health effects of low-level electromagnetic fields, if they exist at all, are likely to be very small compared to other health risks that people face in everyday life.”Leave a reply →