Towering menace

Rating: NNNNN Forget the amorous geckos and anthropomorphous dogs. The future may not be so friendly after all. Imagine that.

Rating: NNNNN

Forget the amorous geckos and anthropomorphous dogs. The future may not be so friendly after all.

Imagine that something you live with is so deadly that the U.S. Department of Defence spent $100 million testing it as weaponry, so lethal that the Cold War Soviets studied its effects for 20 years, so problematic that scientists commissioned to certify it safe regularly come forward to warn of its dangers.

I’m talking about the fastest-growing business in the world, one currently suffering the pangs of litigation and class action suits: the cellphone industry.

When residents of Richmond Hill came home one afternoon to find their homes darkened by the shadow of a hastily erected 162-foot transmitter, they found themselves plunged into a series of headaches all too familiar to communities around the (wireless) world.

As it turns out, anti-tower activists north of the city won themselves a reprieve through lobbying finesse. Those of us here have had no such luck. Toronto is host to 7,000 cellphone towers, most no bigger than a box of Rice Krispies, strapped to apartment buildings and water towers. The city has been leasing out the rooftops of its public housing since 1988 as a way of generating revenue. From its leases with Clearnet, Fido, Rogers Cantel and Bell Mobility, the city rakes in over half a million dollars a year.

Residents living among the transmitters hardly seem to notice them. But Toronto’s board of health has. Last February, after a group of residents in North York tried to fight the erection of a tower, city council asked the board to investigate the effects of this kind of radiation.

The public health department consulted a range of experts, prepared a report and, as a result, has asked Health Canada to review Safety Code 6, the guidelines for allowable emissions. These regulations state that any emissions in the 3kHz to 300Ghz range cannot exceed 10 million microwatts per centimetre squared (a measure of intensity). T.O.’s department of health wants the standard tightened by a factor of 100 (100,000 microwatts) to bring Canada in line with Italy and Switzerland, two of the strictest countries in Europe. Health Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When I ask Ronald McFarlane, a research consultant with the health department, whether he himself would live beside a cellphone tower, he can’t give me an unequivocal yes.

“We felt there was a need for concern,” he says. “There are a few effects that low-level frequencies might have: they might promote cancer, impact sleep or affect the immune system. We recommended Toronto accept prudent avoidance.”

What the health department discovered in preparing its report is that the question of what is safe in this industry worth billions of dollars in investment and profit is highly contentious.

The dispute centres on the distinction between the thermal and non-thermal effects of electromagnetic radiation. Scientists have long known that when a radiation device like a radio, microwave or cellphone heats up your brain or your spleen, bad things happen. What scientists and press agents for wireless companies cannot agree on is whether these frequencies can cause damage without heating up the human body — the so-called non-thermal effects.

Some contend that there is no evidence for such effects, and McFarlane concedes that science is still looking for a “biological mechanism” to explain them. But he goes on to say, “There is a general sense that, yes, radio frequency (RF) has some non-thermal effect. The question is, at what point?”

If this is the case, then people could be in danger from exposure to “safe,” government-approved levels of radiation. McFarlane agrees: “There is a problem with Code 6 and what humans are allowed to be exposed to.”

One of the experts called in by the health department was Magda Havas, professor of environmental science at Trent University. “There are records that cells (exposed to these transmitted rays) divide more rapidly, so the rays may not create cancer-causing cells but accelerate already cancerous cell growth,” she says.

The towers should, she points out, be kept away from more populated areas and especially from schools and playgrounds “because children are more susceptible to the radiation.”

Another contributing scientist was Henry Lai from the department of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. In a research paper on the effects of towers, Lai points out that a person living close to a transmitter experiences exposure to low-intensity radio-frequency radiation for many hours over years.

Lai tells NOW, “At this point we don’t really know whether (the low-frequency radiation is) harmful. In studies done on rats exposed to radiation levels identical to those found 100 to 200 feet from cell towers, DNA damage was observed along with changes in the way cells proliferate.”

Further studies, he says, show that effects on rats over time are cumulative. “There is no good study on humans who are chronically exposed.” His conclusion? “Wireless communication devices and transmission towers should be limited to a minimum.”

But how can this be accomplished when restrictions on the industry’s towers are non-binding? Industry Canada has given cellphone companies a mandate, and there seems to be little anyone can do to slow the proliferation of transmitters. All that municipalities can enforce are local building codes.

James Rich of the city of Toronto telecommunications steering committee explains that there are voluntary guidelines for placement and aesthetics, but no enforceable legislation.

And besides, he explains, since most transmitters are on private property, few have permits anyway.

Is this an industry out of control? Perhaps the extravagant licensing fees — companies spent $1.5 billion last week in a mop-up of leftover frequencies — make the telecom business seem pretty appealing to the government.

At the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, spokesperson Marc Choma answers questions about health concerns, saying, “There’s lots of misinformation out there on the Internet, (but) the research states there are no demonstrated risks.”

The organization’s vice-president, Roger Pourrier, says that what gets people’s dander up is the eyesore. “Health issues,” he says, “tend to be a pretext.”

But pretext or no, there hasn’t been a lot of activism around tower intrusions. While some forms of pollution and suspicious technology can galvanize communities (think Adams Mine and genetically engineered food), there has been very little resistance to the transmitters in Toronto.

Perhaps this is because, while we can always ship our garbage to Michigan and we can live without GM food, we cannot do without our cellphones.

But potential activists have plenty of cause to rethink their indifference. The next generation of wireless services (3G) is right around the corner. And according to Sharyn Gravelle, director of network access for central region at Microcell Connexions (the technical arm of Fido), Fido’s network is only about 50-per-cent complete.

In the meantime, the Richmond Hill tower detractors calling themselves “Tower Down” have actually won themselves some limited satisfaction. When they were suddenly confronted with the ugliness of the skeletal tower, activist Rick Popp got in touch with ward councillor Lynn Foster.

They managed to hammer out a deal with Microcell to have the transmitter moved by the end of 2001 if the company can find a “more suitable site.”

When I ask Gravelle why her company has been so cooperative when cell companies have a history of bulldozing local protest, she says: “There is one reason and one reason only. We’re good corporate citizens.”

Councillor Foster says she would “like to be Pollyanna” and believe that Fido will depart for the right reasons, but she is far from reassured.

Gravelle is quick to assert that her company has done nothing wrong, but the Tower Down people are not so sure. For one thing, while Microcell met its obligation to forewarn the citizens of Vaughan, where the tower has been erected, they did not consult the residents across the street in Richmond Hill — the people closest to the transmitter.

Foster asserts, “It’s shocking that it didn’t occur to anyone that you have to conform to the sprit of the law.”

Moreover, when Popp took time off work to do the rounds of the municipal bureaucracy to try to contest the tower, he was told repeatedly that there was nothing he could do.

It was only later, when he hired a lawyer, that he found out that there was a 20-day waiting period during which the public could object to the project. Not only had the period not yet expired when he tried to object, Popp explains, but the tower was fully built before the waiting period was over.

Far from making Fido a villain of the world of cellphones, the saga in Richmond Hill makes them seem, at worst, typical.

Mary McKeigan, known as the “tower lady,” became involved in the Richmond Hill protest as soon as she heard about it. She goes from municipality to municipality fighting transmitter towers wherever they sprout up.

She was minding her own business on her farm near King City when Clearnet proposed to build a 250-foot transmitter close to her property line. When they offered to loft a balloon to show her how high it would look, she snapped back, “Well, honey buns, I know what 250 feet looks like it’s seven times the height of my house.”

Two years, three trips to municipal council, countless headaches and over $14,000 in legal bills later, McKeigan has managed to get the tower moved a few yards away and out of her field of vision. In the process, she’s become an implacable crusader and has also been forced back to part-time work at age 75 to pay her lawyer.

So Microcell looks positively neighbourly in comparison. Still, once the Richmond Hill tower has undergone a few tests, it is scheduled to begin transmitting at the end of the month. Which opens a new can of worms. Apart from the eyesore and the consequent drop in real estate values (McKeigan shows me a letter from a local realtor arguing that properties near towers take a $50,000 hit), residents are bracing themselves for a cold shower of radiation.

The big question remains — what will it do to them?

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