Health controversy grows as spread of telecoms masts continues apace
MICHAEL RUSSELL on the debate over the proliferation of the TETRA microwave communications system, due to go live in Skye and Lochalsh next week
Wild salmon and sea trout returned in near-record numbers to the Snizort River in north Skye last year in what has
Chris Butterfield suffers from a rare condition called electro-sensitivity. Put simply, the Fife-based photographer is allergic to mobile phone technology, specifically the microwave signals which let the rest of us talk, text and cook.
As allergies go, this is about as bad as it gets. Skin rashes, headaches, disorientation and nosebleeds are what 30-year-old Chris has to contend with whenever he passes a base station mast, or when someone nearby uses the latest whizzbang 3G phone. It all makes for a very uncomfortable and difficult life. A trip to the shops or a walk in the country can suddenly turn into a very painful experience.
Naturally his mother, Liz, wants to help. Last month she visited the offices of the Free Press to place an advert seeking accommodation on Skye. “There are wide open spaces in the Highlands where there are no masts,” she explained. “Chris is looking for somewhere he can live without being afraid to go for a drive or a walk.”
Fife to Skye is a long drive, especially for someone who herself suffers from ME. Evidently a son’s health is more important than a mother’s discomfort. She spent a few days house-hunting, placed the advert, then went back to Leven to wait for the good news.
What she got, however, was bad news. Now she and Chris will be staying put, at least for the time being. The Highlands and Islands, it transpires, are no longer the safe haven sought by mother and son. They know what to blame for that.
As of this month, Northern Constabulary started switching on its new “Airwave” system of microwave communication, promising police officers unprecedented access to data, encrypted security and inter-force capability.
Activating a vast network of Airwave antennae across Northern Constabulary’s eight area commands means a lot more masts, and a lot more radiation, for people like Chris Butterfield to dodge. The roll-out started in Lochaber at the beginning of this month, and is due to end when Skye and Lochalsh “goes live” next week.
According to Northern Constabulary, the whole Integrated Communication Development Programme — of which Airwave is the central element — has cost £4.5 million. Nationally, almost £3 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent to date on putting the basic Airwave system in place, so the Government is expecting big things from it. The rush to complete the national roll-out as soon as possible was driven by Gordon Brown’s decision four years ago to sell all the police frequencies to an expectant mobile phone industry desperate to recoup the huge amounts spent on 3G technology. But many global players, both commercial and military, also want Airwave up and running because of its own intrinsic value.
Already various upgrades and add-ons, many with future military applications, are coming on the market. American telecoms giant Motorola — which dominates the UK Airwave market —launched the next generation of masts just three months ago. Arms giants Thales, EADS and Northrop Grumman also offer Airwave products and services. Inevitably, the cost is bound to increase over the course of the 15-year contract. This is a world-first, after all.
Over the last five years around 3,500 Airwave antennae, most of them site-sharing with other operators and thus free from the usual planning constraints, have been put up nationwide. Northern Constabulary Chief Constable Ian Latimer initially said the force needed 287 Airwave sites to cover the Highlands and Islands. That figure now stands at 150, raising concerns about how full coverage can be achieved with fewer masts. All the UK’s 51 police forces are committed to Airwave, and this makes thousands of electro-sensitives like Chris nervous. They are not alone.
Since the system was piloted in Lancashire in 2000, there has been a steady stream of complaints from both users (police officers) and communities near to transmitters. Violent reactions like those experienced by Chris Butterfield have occurred in people not known as electro-sensitive. What is it about Airwave that might affect ordinary people in this way? And are its effects being ignored — or worse, covered up — by the industry?
THE health controversy centres on two aspects of the system —the alleged pulsing of the microwave signals from Airwave police handsets and base stations, and the fact that base station transmitters are on full power 24/7. Ordinary mobile phone masts, by contrast, respond to demand, adjusting their power output accordingly.
Airwave is the light and fluffy brand name chosen for this technology by mobile company O2, which was formerly part of BT. The system is more accurately known as TErrestrial Trunked RAdio — TETRA.
During the Lancashire pilot study, 177 police officers complained of the same symptoms described by Chris Butterfield. Behavioural and emotional changes were also noted. Such was the concern within the police service at the time that the Police Federation commissioned Government microwave expert Barrie Trower to investigate the technology. His findings were shocking.
Microwaves from the UK’s 40,000 mobile phone masts are bad news. Pulsed microwaves from TETRA are even worse. Mr Trower said both interfere with the electrical processes within the body and, depending on their frequency, can produce very specific effects and will even degrade immune systems in the long term. The 17.6 Hz frequency used by TETRA is especially significant: that is slap bang in the middle of the 15-20 Hz range which characterises the brain’s electrical activity when engaged in complex mental tasks. Referred to in neuroscience as Beta Waves, this frequency range is also evident during the dream-state of sleep, which sufferers say is disrupted because of TETRA. Strobe lights are banned from flashing at this rate for this very reason, in case they induce an epileptic fit.
When he was head of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, Sir William Stewart, now chairman of the Health Protection Agency and formerly chairman of the National Radiological Protection Board, warned in 2000 that this frequency should be avoided. The Group noted that there “is now scientific evidence which suggests that there may be biological effects” occurring at exposure levels below official limits for microwaves from mobile phone (known in the industry as GSM) technology. Children under eight, said Sir William, should never use a mobile phone at all as they have thinner skulls than adults and their nervous systems are still developing.
As a result of the IEGMP’s findings, microwave emissions from mobile phone masts and TETRA transmitters now have to stick to stringent international limits, which came into force in the UK in 2004. In an effort to allay public fears, the NRPB told the telecoms regulator OFCOM in 2004 to put all emissions data from GSM and TETRA base stations on their website. So far, only four masts in Scotland have been listed on Ofcom’s Sitefinder facility. None of the four is north of Falkirk, and no TETRA masts are included.
OFCOM spokesman Simon Bates told me that the Home Office had prevented the publication of any TETRA readings on security grounds. Verifying industry claims that TETRA complies with official microwave limits is therefore impossible.
But crucially for Mr Trower, and a growing body of expert opinion, those official limits — enforced by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection — are badly flawed because they only cover the body heating effects of the radiation.
Since the Stewart Report of 2000, IEGMP consultees Dr Gerald Hyland and Dr Roger Coghill have published several papers which suggest, in common with Mr Trower, that key frequencies emitted by TETRA and mobile phone masts produce specific effects for entirely different reasons.
In a paper prepared for the European Parliament, Dr Hyland wrote: “Unlike the heating effect exposure to microwaves which can, if excessive, cause actual material damage, non-thermal influences act in a more subtle way, via their potentiality to interfere with biological functionality — in particular, it would appear, with bioprocesses which are intended to afford (natural) protection against adverse health effects of various kinds.”
The industry, including its paid researchers and political advocates, is unmoved. Recognising non-thermal effects, despite Sir William Stewart’s admission, is still some way off. In fact, the official line is that TETRA signals from base stations do not pulse.
This assertion, say the Scottish Green Party, is a “hair-splitting” argument which averages out the signal over a set time period. Messrs Trower, Hyland and Coghill say the same. However, O2 do admit that the police handsets and car-mounted antennae do pulse. Makers of rival system TETRAPOL, which is used by the emergency services across Europe, say that UK TETRA base stations do pulse, though you might expect the competition to say that.
SEEKING some kind of clarity, I spoke to a man who should be able to give a definitive answer to the pulsing question.
Dr Michael Clark is a leading radiation expert who works for the Health Protection Agency, the body which absorbed Sir William Stewart’s NRPB in April of last year. The HPA acknowledge that TETRA is different from other microwave technologies. But how different? Does it pulse?
According to Dr Clark, any electrical signal has to drop to zero to qualify as pulsed. “That is the official definition that has been recognised for 30 years,” he explained. “However, the TETRA signal does rise and fall at specific frequencies.”
Could this rising and falling produce a biological effect? “That cannot be ruled out,” he replied.
Dr Clark also acknowledged that all the current research being conducted by the Home Office was focused on the handsets and car-mounted antennae used by police officers. Not a single health study has been conducted on communities near any of the 3,500 TETRA sites in the UK. “We do need more research in this area,” Dr Clark observed.
Such a move would certainly be welcomed by concerned residents across the UK. Groups from as far afield as Bognor Regis and Perthshire have reported the same symptoms as those felt by Chris Butterfield. And very few of them qualify as electro-sensitives.
Arthur Jarrett, an anti-TETRA activist from Wormit in Fife — where councillors refused O2 planning permission for a TETRA mast last year — said more and more ordinary people were reporting microwave symptoms because the technology had changed so rapidly in such a short space of time. The proliferation of masts and phones (the latter increasing in number tenfold in the UK between 1995 and 2005) and the advent of 3G meant, he said, that power outputs had increased considerably to give full coverage and to “do all the wonderful things” the industry promises. “TETRA is an added nuisance,” Mr Jarret commented.
For some it is more than a minor irritant. When a TETRA mast went live just a few hundred yards from Littlehamptom Primary School in Sussex in 2004, 11 children were sent home with headaches and nosebleeds.
Originally from Ness in Lewis, Graham Morrison now stays in Partick, Glasgow, and last week chaired a public meeting in the local baptist church. “It was the cheapest venue we could afford,” he said.
There’s nothing funny about his microwave symptoms, or those of around 50 fellow sufferers who stay in just two streets in Thornwood. “It started about a year ago with headaches, tiredness and muscular pains,” Mr Morrison added. “The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, but the problems persisted. Then others came forward with the same symptoms.”
According to Mr Morrison, all the Thornwood sufferers began reporting microwave symptoms at the same time as two masts, 3G and TETRA, were put up in the area. “There are now 15 masts in the Partick area,” he added. “The worst affected are those who live in the cross-lines between the 3G and TETRA masts.
“People here are getting angry because they feel they are being ignored. Everyone wants to know why the authorities won’t recognise what’s going on — why are they covering this up?”
David Baron, who lives in Chichester, told me that five local police officers had complained of similar symptoms when using TETRA handsets there. “They have been told not to go anywhere near the press because they will lose their jobs,” he added.
Rural police users of TETRA, it seems, may have more to fear from the technology than their urban counterparts. Home Office research conducted by the University of Birmingham in 2004 warned that PCs working night shift in rural areas should be given “special attention” as their usage of TETRA equipment is likely to be heavier in comparison to city police forces, where staffing levels are higher.
These concerns were given added weight by a study conducted by Sweden’s University Hospital last year which found that the risk of developing a brain tumour was six times higher among mobile phone users in rural areas than in cities. The reason stated by the authors was the greater distance between base stations in rural areas, and thus the higher power output of masts to achieve full coverage.
The University of Birmingham report, entitled “Airwave Patterns of Use Study”, also warns that microwave exposure levels for the general public could exceed official ICNIRP limits if a person’s head were within a “few centimetres” of a police car’s antenna. However, the report then goes on to state that no data on microwave emissions was forthcoming from the only manufacturers of the car-mounted antennae chosen to take part in the study, Welsh firm Cleartone.
Other police health studies, such as the long-term project being conducted by Imperial College London, bemoan the difficulty in obtaining accurate call-duration records from O2 so that exposure can be measured. The latest ICL study also found that linking an individual TETRA user’s subscriber number with a PC’s collar ID was an “immediate concern” and far from straightforward.
LOCHCARRON councillor Ewen Mackinnon, who has served on the Northern Joint Police Board for several years, acknowledged there did seem to be a degree of uncertainty with regard to the health effects of TETRA on both users and the public. However, the board’s main concern had been the financial implications of the new system, he said. Indeed, he told me last week that members were still awaiting clarification from the Scottish Executive about fully funding Airwave through Grant Aided Expenditure.
As the council tax accounts for 20 per cent Northern Constabulary’s total budget, Mr Mackinnon wanted assurances that the cost of Airwave — the jewel in the crown of the force’s Integrated Communications Development Programme — would not be passed on to taxpayers. This, he said, was especially significant in the Highlands and Islands as the basic TETRA package cannot give full coverage over our mountainous terrain.
Northern Constabulary say that 98 per cent of the funding for ICDP has come from the executive in the GAE settlement.
Mr Mackinnon added: “Northern Constabulary had no option about taking Airwave. The Scottish Executive forced them and said ‘this is what’s going to happen’.”
This view is reinforced by a look at the minutes of the Northern Police Board.
On 25th January 2002, the minutes noted: “A contract for central procurement had been offered to this force, among others, through a Consortium, inviting Forces to commit to its terms by 26th February 2002.
“The chief constable was currently seeking legal advice, sight of the contract documents and advice from the Scottish Executive on the financial implications of the proposed contract before making a recommendation to Members on the proposed procurement arrangement.”
But at the next Board meeting on 11th April the deal was done and dusted, without members getting a look at the documents or getting to meet Justice Minister Jim Wallace — a move agreed at the meeting of 25th January.
Board members had been given one month to consider taking Airwave before the 26th February deadline, but were given no contract information and no costings on which to base their conclusions.
The minutes of 11th April make it clear that only the Chief Constable had access to any kind of detailed information in the interim, which included a meeting with the Scottish Executive.
Was he given no choice, as Mr Mackinnon maintained, but to accept TETRA at this meeting?
This leads on to another question: who is pushing TETRA so hard, and why?