FRESH concern is being raised about the potential dangers of cellphone usage — especially as SA begins to roll out higher-power broadband technologies.
The radiation generated by cellphones and base stations has been under scrutiny for years. But for every report proclaiming a health risk, another proves inconclusive or dismisses previous research as scare-mongering.
Now the local branch of the Electromagnetic Action Group (Emag SA) has collated studies from around the world and is calling on network operators and Icasa, the industry regulator, to recognise and minimise the risks.
"This proliferation of broadband wireless is going to cause absolutely catastrophic health problems," says Karl Muller of Emag SA's managing committee.
The operators care more about getting a good signal than they care about public health, he says.
Emag SA has expressed its fears to the national operator, Neotel, which plans to use broadband WiMax wireless technology on its network. "WiMax is a disastrous technology that will do incalculable harm to the health of South Africans," Muller claims.
Handsets communicate with base stations via low-power radio signals, and some of that energy may be absorbed by the body, with potential harm caused by the heating effects. Health authorities have set exposure limits to ensure that energy absorption is far below the level where harm could occur.
Neotel says its equipment complies with the most stringent guidelines so radio wave exposure is well below the limits. Even so, it would be advisable to keep about 60cm away from a base station, its website says.
Neotel's chief technology officer, Angus Hay, says all its equipment is fully tested to be entirely safe to people. "This is one area that the South African Bureau of Standards and Icasa are very careful about," he says.
Emag SA has spoken to lawyers regarding class action lawsuits, and expects future litigation to be rife.
"Given that we have no choice about being irradiated by masts, and that most of the world's population now uses cellphones, our estimate is that this will be much, much, much bigger than tobacco," Muller says.
Yet the World Health Organisation (WHO) is unconvinced. Radio frequency exposure from base stations and wireless networks in public areas, including schools and hospitals, is thousands of times below international safety standards and so low that it does not affect human health, it says.
"None of the recent reviews have concluded that exposure to radio frequency from mobile phones or their base stations causes any adverse health consequence."
In fact, the body absorbs up to five times more energy from radios and TVs than from base stations, WHO says. If people are concerned, they can limit their exposure by making shorter calls, or by using hands-free kits to keep the phone away from their head, WHO says.
The GSM Association, which represents the industry itself, naturally loathes the incessant scaremongering. No ill-effects have been detected from the higher-speed technologies that have rekindled fears among bodies such as Emag SA, says Dr Jack Rowley, its director of research and sustainability.
"There is a concern in some scientist and activist communities that particular signals are more biologically active. Thirty expert reports say there is no scientific rationale to say that. In fact, handsets using newer technologies actually generate less power," Rowley says.
He also denies that health scares will prove well founded in a decade or so. Radio frequencies have been used for communications for more than 100 years, and more research has been conducted on them than on most chemicals. "Studies over five to 10 years of use haven't shown any increased risk. The balance of evidence is that if we comply with WHO standards there is no scientific basis on which to believe there is any risk."
Much of the concern about broadband is based on frightening findings by Prof Franz Adlkofer, who warns of genetic damage and a higher risk of cancer because broadband wireless radiation is 10 times more toxic than ordinary cellphone radiation. Adlkofer heads the European Union's Reflex project, which studies genetic damage caused by cellphone radiation.
He also says there is a higher risk of brain tumours after several years of cellphone use, as the cancerous effects may not become apparent for 10 years.
Yet in May this year, the Medical University of Vienna said one of its laboratory technicians had confessed to fabricating data supposedly showing that cellphone radiation caused DNA breakage.
"The data were not measured experimentally, but fabricated," the university said in a statement asking for the researchers to withdraw their publications.
Undeterred, Emag SA says numerous studies worldwide show increased illnesses around base stations, including sleep disorders, headaches, chronic fatigue, muscular weakness, attention problems, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, mood swings, depression, infertility, lowered immunity, lingering flu, increased allergies and higher cancer rates.
"We have observed this entire spectrum of illnesses around masts in Johannesburg, and also noted that symptoms improve as soon as people move away," Muller says.
Vodacom says radio wave exposure from base stations in public sites is thousands of times lower than the permitted limit.
Its website allows users to click on a map to review the measurements taken at various sites around SA, and to assess the amount of energy their model of handset exposes them to.
News from 2006 - also from South Africa
This week on Special Assignment
SABC 3 at 21h30 on May 16, 2006
While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Special Assignment or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.
FENLEY: Cellular phone technology has taken over the world. In
UPS: - DINO ANASTASSIOU - If it's killing the plants, what's it doing to us?
UPS: - LESLIE HILTON - I felt like I was literally dying.
UPS: - CORNEE BORNMSAN – I changed colour. I was pale, extremely pale. A lot of time people always used to say are you feeling ok?
UPS: - MEYNDERT BORNMSAN - It sounds so unreal. I f you tell people this I think they away and say what an idiot. Because it's a different story Hey.
A DIFFERENT STORY
UPS: - VOICER - A year ago, electronic technician Meyndert Bornman didn't have the energy to play ball with his dog. At school, he was nicknamed “tomato”, because of his pink complexion. But in 2004, he began changing colour and became grey. He has a lung condition, so he thought it was related to that. Eventually he turned dark blue, and began receiving preferential treatment at medical centres.
UPS: - MEYNDERT BORNMSAN - The doctor would walk past and say: “Sister, put that man on oxygen and they would give me special attention because of the colour change that I had. People would say: “what wrong with you?” Because I was getting this ash grey colour and later on it would become real blue like.
UPS: - VOICER - Then his wife began changing colour too.
UPS: - RENEE BORNMAN - I saw gee but I was aldo turning grey and I could really understand what the concern was. But they couldn't find anything they had the water tested because we thought maybe I was a lead pipe, but it was normal.
UPS: - VOICER - At the time, the Bornmans lived in close proximity to a low cell phone mast. They believe it developed a technical fault. First they began hearing a droning sound, particularly at night, when all was quiet.
UPS: - MEYNDERT BORNMSAN - When I started hearing it, obviously I didn't just accuse the tower. I started looking for where the noise was coming from. It was so omni-directional, it engulfs you. And when you are really awake you do not hear it.
UPS: - VOICER - The
UPS: - VICKY BENJAMIN; ELECTROMAGNETIC ACTION GROUP - We've discovered quite a few people who are living next to cell phone towers and experiencing physical problems. Early warning are high blood pressure, sleeplessness, anxiety, a lot of them hear the noise from the tower, we call that microwave hearing. We have groups of people in this city who report that they can hear this radiation at night.
UPS: - VOICER - One of these groups is in the vicinity of a cell mast in the Westdene Sophiatown area.
UPS: - LUCRITIA MANKUROANE - In the night when I sleep I hear that noise and my mother says: “What is it?” And I say mummy can't you hear that noise and my mother says no try to sleep maybe you are dreaming.
UPS: - LORRAINE BOSMAN - The people that stay in our house everybody hears it. It says zzwing in your ears.
UPS: - VOICER - Some are packing up and leaving the area because of it. They've had one to many sleepless nights.
UPS: - ALKI KOUTOUVIDES - At the moment I am trying to sell my house just to get away from it. But where do you go? They all over the place, you know. You can't get away from them.
UPS: - VOICER - Meyndert and Renee Bornman lived with the noise and their strange colour until their normally healthy daughter, Cornee, began feeling out of sorts. In fact, they all became tired, aggressive and developed highly sensitive teeth.
UPS: - MEYNDERT BORNMSAN - It's like when your nerves are exposed, but not on the ends of he teeth, but where the roots are in the bone. And my daughter started complaining when I am at work there is nothing wrong with me, but I get home and after about half an hour I get this teeth ache.
UPS: - CORNEE BORNMSAN - I started noticing that I was sleeping often. Constant sleeping during the day. Sleeping when I got home until the next morning and still being tired waking up and going to work and eventually it started happening at work.
UPS: - VOICER - She began blacking out, sometimes while driving her car, and she noticed changes in her body.
UPS: - CORNEE BORNMSAN - Even my cycle changed tremendously. Because I stayed in that house from the age of seventeen up to twenty that was the time where my physical body changed and went into womanhood and all that was slowed down by the fact that my body couldn't generate normally.
UPS: - VOICER - Their home, and particularly the rooms facing the mast, began getting warmer. The heat would make wax leak from Meyndert Bornmans ears onto his pillow at night. In winter, their bedroom had always been particularly cold.
UPS: - RENEE BORNMSAN - It became so hot in that room that you couldn't sleep under the blanket. You had to lie on top of the bed in the middle of winter, there was no sign of that cold anymore. So I am sure it was that radiation coming into our bedroom especially.
UPS: - VOICER - Technicians who serviced the mast didn't agree.
UPS: - MEYNDERT BORNMSAN - At that stage I felt like getting a truck and driving over it because nobody was responding. It was just “ag man you are an idiot it's just in your head.
UPS: - VOICER - A doctor eventually ascribed their blue colour to hypoxia, a lack of oxygen supply to the blood. But doctors couldn't say for certain that it was linked to the cell mast.
UPS: - MEYNDERT BORNMSAN - I am convinced and I am speculating, that what happened to us, happened because of that tower.
UPS: - KARL MULLER; ELECTROMAGNETIC ACTION GROUP - The effects are very real and we've spoken to a lot of people staying around base station in
UPS: - VOICER - The independent ElectroMagnetic Action Group says it recorded high radiation levels and unusual hotspots inside and around the Bornmans home.
UPS: - VICKY BENJAMIN; ELECTROMAGNETIC ACTION GROUP - I tried desperately to get hold of a government organisation that would actually come in and measure the fields. I have meter and measures but we needed something that was done with authority. So I tried first at local level and got hold of the department of health who said it was not their concern, we should try the department of environment, they said it was not their concern, it was the department of health etc. The buck was passed beautifully in this instance.
UPS: - VOICER - Eventually, the Department of Health admitted that the buck stopped with its radiation division.
UPS: LEON DU TOIT; HEALTH DEPARTMENT: RADIATION CONTROL - At his point in time nobody checks the levels. If you mean that somebody has to go around to the base stations and check the levels? We are three people in this section and there are twenty thousand base stations out there.
UPS: - MEYNDERT BORNMSAN - To me the tragedy of the things is, is that even though they know that these things can be dangerous, government isn't interested in checking. They don't have even have the people that understand these things. They do not even have the instrument.
UPS: - LEON DU TOIT; HEALTH DEPARTMENT: RADIATION CONTROL - There have been many measurement surveys done internationally and even here a few have been done by some private companies and they've experienced precisely that the levels even at worst would be in the order of a hundredth of a percent of the limit.
UPS: - KARL MULLER; ELECTROMAGNETIC ACTION GROUP - But their guidelines are based only on the fact cell phone radiation may heat up your body a bit a bad thing. So they set a guideline to make sure that you don't heat up too much. But they don't recognize all these biological effects which are caused by cell phone radiation.
UPS: - LEON DU TOIT; HEALTH DEPARTMENT: RADIATION CONTROL - Not to say their illnesses are imaginary but it could be anything.
UPS: - VOICER - The increasingly blue Bornmans decided to move house.
Within months, their health improved.
UPS: - MEYNDERT BORNMSAN - The government was not interested, so where do you go? What we did I spend a lot of money to move away from the house. We are getting our lives together and what worries me is that other people's lives will be turned upside down like ours without anybody learning from our experience.
UPS: - VOICER - Dino Anastassiou lives within metres of a cell mast in Hurlingham,
UPS: - DINO ANASTASSIOU - The cellular mast is sitting right in front of us, spoiling our view, devaluating our home, ruining our health, we can't sleep at night. It's like being in jail for eight years.
UPS: - VOICER - Some of the trees and shrubs near the mast started objecting.]
UPS: - DINO ANASTASSIOU - Four years ago I planted a tree facing the cellular mast normally a tree would carry on it’s growth but this tree actually burnt away like the rest of the trees. This is totally abnormal for a bush to grow like that. You can see these roses aren't happy.
UPS: - VOICER - An assessment by the South African Arboricultural Association concluded that microwave antennas had a definite effect on certain vegetation, depending on its position in relation to the mast. Dino Anastassiou took legal action in terms of city bylaws to have the mast shifted, but was unsuccessful. His lawyer has all but given up on getting it removed on health grounds.
UPS: - SHAUN MITCHELL; ATTORNEY - I think it is going to be extremely difficult to find causality between his health and the ill health of his family and the introduction of that mast. Any reasonable person visiting that house or visiting the family will say something is wrong. If you have a look a tree that is growing sideways - nature wouldn't lie. But I don't believe the community and people specifically affected by these masts are going to be sufficiently protected by the local authority and by the department of environmental affairs
UPS: - KARL MULLER; ELECTROMAGNETIC ACTION GROUP - The environmental regulations only take into account the visual impact of the mast. They take no account of the health effects
UPS: - DINO ANASTASSIOU - Where's the health department I want to know? What are they doing?
UPS: - VOICER - The Health Department admits that there are no regulations being enforced. Current legislation was written before the advent of cellular technology.
UPS: - LEON DU TOIT; HEALTH DEPARTMENT: RADIATION CONTROL - The lack of regulation enforcement is not to the detriment of the public at large. If we had any indication that the health of the public was somehow in jeopardy as a result of this, then obviously we would have taken the necessary steps.
UPS: - VOICER - Others in this street don't agree. Although Dino's house is very close to the mast, it doesn't lie in its direct beam. The property of Ami and Tom Buckle, just up the road, does. Like Dino, they began feeling the effects a few years after the mast went up. It began with insomnia, cluster headaches and that noise.
UPS: - AMI BUCKLE - Definitely aware of a zing-ing noise in your head. Never stops never. Also times that we felt something changed and that the intensity went higher.
UPS: - VOICER - Then the trees in their garden reacted.
UPS: - AMI BUCKLE - They all pulled away from the tower. They really curved away from the radiation and they were burned, brown dead trees and one by one with a little bit of wind we had from time to time, they would just fall over and we had to take them out
UPS: - VOICER - When their pets reacted too, they decided it was time to move.
Their cat was particularly sensitive.
UPS: - AMI BUCKLE - When you touched her, it was just hair coming off her and I took her to the vet, had her treated, tried a lot of things. It never helped. Since we moved eight weeks later the cat is sleeping on my bed, no hair loss
UPS: - VOICER - Now they only use the property as an office.
UPS: - AMI BUCKLE - We just felt we had to make a move. Obviously our life savings you can’t just decide to say it’s dangerous to stay here and move it takes money but we had to wait for the opportunity to get an alternative place to stay and now we are only spending time here during the day. So at least at night we are not exposed to any radiation
UPS: - VOICER - She doesn't believe cell masts should be put up in residential areas. Some studies done overseas recommend that no-one should live within four hundred metres of a mast.
UPS: - AMI BUCKLE - They'll have to look at frequencies, they'll have to look at exposure and they'll have to look at residential areas because putting these things next to schools and churches that need the funds is criminal criminal!
UPS: - LEON DU TOIT; HEALTH DEPARTMENT: RADIATION CONTROL - I don't have kids but I wouldn't be worried in the least about the cell phone mast. But officially speaking the only thing that I go on is being charged with this responsibility.
UPS: - VOICER - Leslie Hilton lives near a mast on a school property. She too has linked her ill health to exposure to microwaves from the tower.
UPS: - LESLIE HILTON - I had like yuppie flu symptoms. I was going blue menstrual problems, fatigue. I was getting more and more tired and lethargic.
Every time I went for a blood test, my red blood cells were sticking together. I felt like I was literally dying!
UPS: - VOICER - Moving house wasn't an option, so she began wearing a protective device around her neck, designed to harmonize magnetic fields.
UPS: - LESLIE HILTON - Seventy two hours after I had put it on my blood had changed to free flowing red blood cells. So I know with a doubt that it is this and I can I feel within myself that I am steadily improving day by day. Everything is coming right
UPS: - VOICER - Some doctors are sceptical about the properties of the so-called Q-LINK and say it probably has only a placebo effect.
UPS: - DR JOHAN MALAN; HOMEOPATH - Having an object like this with copper wiring and a magnet and a crystal from a physics point of view, that is not really going to have much of an effect on the entire body's exposure to a specific magnetic field.
UPS: - VOICER - He says it's almost impossible for a doctor to link cell phone masts to ill health.
UPS: - DR JOHAN MALAN; HOMEOPATH - The likelihood is that you are going to have a lot of external factors impacting on a complex biological system such as a human being. So to ascribe linear cause effect relationships between things like cell mast radiation and disease within a particular person is very, very difficult because that person may have an enormous range of other influences so we don't know and that's the Difficulty.
UPS: - VOICER - Norman McFarlane lives in Somerset-West, about eighty five metres from where a cell phone mast is due to be erected. He's been doing a lot of reading and has found as many studies linking cell masts to cancer and leukemia, as those refuting any connection to ill-health. He's objected, but feels no-one's taking him seriously.
UPS: -NORMAN MCFARLANE; HERITAGE PARK OWNER’S ASSOCIATION - I see scant regard for the fact that there could well be substantial health risks associated with living in proximity to a cell phone mast. I'm not seeing responses which I want to hear which is we understand there is a potential problem, we will look into it and make a concerted effort to prove to you that there is no risk, but I am not getting that. I am being stone-walled. I am being given reports that are years old and it's a stock standard response and that is unacceptable and it should be unacceptable to every single human being that runs the risk of exposure to living in proximity to a cell phone mast.
UPS: - VOICER - The Health Department admits there is some uncertainty, but says it follows the World Health Organization guidelines. They date back to the year 2000.
UPS: - LEON DU TOIT; HEALTH DEPARTMENT: RADIATION CONTROL - It is my responsibility to champion the new regulation process and this is the way I have chosen to go about it - to use the WHO as our primary source of information
UPS: - NORMAN MCFARLANE; HERITAGE PARK OWNER’S ASSOCIATION - Since 2000, a number of further studies have been conducted and my argument is if that is the case, why have they not been taken into consideration?
UPS: - LEON DU TOIT; HEALTH DEPARTMENT: RADIATION CONTROL - I am not a research scientist I don't try to evaluate individual studies, I just wait for the WHO to put together a panel or organize a workshop or whatever and come out with a conclusion.
UPS: - NORMAN MCFARLANE; HERITAGE PARK OWNER’S ASSOCIATION - I have a problem with that because at the end of the day, complacency is what leads to domination in circumstances like this and I don't want to discover in five years time that I am one of the statistics that proves that there is a real health problem living in proximity to a cell phone mast. I don't want to be one of those statistics or my wife to be or my daughters to be I'm not interested! I will fight it truth and nail
UPS: - VICKY BENJAMIN; ELECTROMAGNETIC ACTION GROUP - I am hearing every week of people with brain tumors, cancers, living near cell phone towers
UPS: - VOICER - Vicky Benjamin, a cancer survivor, has met Dr George Carlo, an American public health consultant who was commissioned by industry to prove that cell phone technology was safe. He was unable to do so.
UPS: - VICKY BENJAMIN; ELECTROMAGNETIC ACTION GROUP - He says: we are at the start of an epidemic, the likes of which the world has never seen and which is going to have an unprecedented effect on every single one of us.
UPS: - VOICER - Dr Carlo was given twenty eight-million US dollars to fund research, but his findings weren't published by those who commissioned him.
UPS: - GEORGE CARLO; SAFE WIRELESS INITIATIVE - I will tell you that there are no studies that prove safety. There are no studies that would give anybody a reasonable measure of assurance that they can use a cellular phone without there being a danger
UPS: - VOICER - Special Assignment put questions to SACTA, the Cellular Telecommunications Association, which represents network operators within
UPS: - GEORGE CARLO; SAFE WIRELESS INITIATIVE - What's happening is your governments act based on politics and politics are determined by money and you have a trillion dollar industry. So if you follow the money, you get the answer. governments are not going to take any steps to protect consumers, children, until they are absolutely forced and that is probably five to ten years away…
UPS: - VOICER - And that will be a different story.