Danger in the air?

VICKI ANDERSON
Last updated 09:56 18/06/2011

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What threats lurk in our glorious hi- tech wi-fi new world? Decades-old fears have had a new lease of life.

If you can't see, hear, taste or smell something, could it still be dangerous to your health?

In October 1996, The Press published a story about Christchurch resident Penny Hargreaves. She and more than 100 other residents were worried that a high-frequency radio mast at Ouruhia, near Bottle Lake, was causing widespread health problems in the area.

In a muddled, disputed way the mast was tested and the fears dismissed.

But the fears never went away and 15 years later Hargreaves is still fighting to get her case heard in the High Court.

"I'm never going to give up," she says. Especially not now that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a warning that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields could cause cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer issued a formal ruling on the danger of cellphone use after a panel of 31 scientists concluded that using cellphones for long periods could lead to brain cancer.

The danger is found in electromagnetic radiation which cellphones emit. Cellphone users are now urged to limit their cellphone exposure.

WHO acknowledges cellphones in the same carcinogenic danger area as poisonous lead and the pesticide poison DDT.

They vary hugely in strength but a low-powered cellphone tower is 50 watts. The 137m Ouruhia radio tower has transmitted at 150,000 watts.

A growing chorus of scientists around the world are now calling for independent research into the hidden dangers of radiation from cellphones, cordless phones, wi-fi, radio and electricity towers and even baby monitors.

Meanwhile, in May the Supreme Court of Italy ordered Vatican Radio to compensate Cesano, a small town near Rome, following allegations the broadcaster's high-powered, inappropriately sited, AM/FM transmitters put children at a higher risk of cancer.

Reports emerged in 2001 that electromagnetic radiation produced by Vatican Radio's transmitters near the town was above the legal limit.

A health authority released a study claiming that children in the area were six times more likely to develop leukaemia.

The 300-page report prepared by Italy's most prestigious cancer research hospital called the connection between Vatican antennas and childhood cancer "coherent and significant".

Hargreaves believes all this underlines she was right to battle on and says she'll keep fighting for future generations.

The fight to remove the radio tower at Ouruhia started in 1996 when residents called for the Christchurch City Council to commission a proper health survey, after an informal survey by one resident found many people were suffering similar symptoms, including joint pains, headaches, insomnia, fatigue and dizziness.

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When residents stayed away from the area, the symptoms went away.

An informal survey of 20 or so properties within a kilometre of the Radio Network mast revealed all but two households had significant health problems, including numerous instances of heart disease.

In October 1996, the National Radiation Laboratory (NRL) was commissioned to monitor radiation levels.

One resident, an electrician who had a section near the tower, requested a private NRL check of radiation levels in August 1996. These readings were so high they went off the meter. When NRL monitored on behalf of the Radio Network in November the readings complied with the conditions of the consent.

NRL scientist Martin Gledhill said then that the higher recorded levels were due to his "not using the instrument properly".

He had taken greater precautions for the November readings. Reduced power could explain the lower readings but he had no reason to believe this had occurred, he said.

In 1996, Waimakariri MP Mike Moore and Canterbury Regional Councillor Dr Neil Cherry wrote to the then Minister of Health, Jenny Shipley, asking for an independent inquiry.

At the Ouruhia resource consent hearing in 1997 residents and Radio Network provided conflicting expert evidence on the effects of radio waves.

On behalf of Radio Network, Dr David Black said there was no evidence that RF radiation affected health. No ionising radiation was emitted from the Ouruhia mast so there could be no analogy with the known health hazards of X-rays and gamma rays.

Speaking for residents, Dr Neil Cherry said there was scientific evidence that radio-frequency radiation changed the biological nature of people's cells.

In December 1999, Ouruhia was monitored again at two locations and readings were found to be outside the permitted conditions of the consent. One reading was taken 2km from the tower.

Other residents, worn down by the ongoing David and Goliath struggle, gave up the fight.

But Hargreaves is still determined to find justice.

"Dr Hocking diagnosed me with the symptoms of radiation sickness. It's ironic that I've been fighting all these years to get it down but in the end Mother Nature took care of it for me."

The September 4, 2010, earthquake saw the 151m tower at Ouruhia engulfed in liquefaction and it tilted severely. It was still transmitting but the February 22 earthquake finished it off. It was removed recently.

The Press visited in March and photographed the tower leaning.

Access to the site, which now sports a newly erected 25m tower for Civil Defence, is patrolled by Armourguard 24 hours a day.

"They think I'm going to blow it up," Hargreaves says. "Surely if I had wanted to blow it up I would have done it by now. Although the tower is smaller it is more dangerous because it is suppressing energy into the ground. Wet ground multiplies it four times. Towers are normally on top of hills, like Sugarloaf, not on low-lying sites beaming through people."

Director of Engineering for the Radio Network, Norm Collison said the attempt to link the WHO study to the Ouruhia transmissions was not appropriate.

"The signal levels from a cellular handset being held against the head generate energy in the body that is hundreds or thousands of times greater than what the public could be exposed to from our transmissions. The public should have no concerns, particularly as the emr from transmissions is well below New Zealand standards, which are well below the level shown to have minor heating effects."

Hargreaves, an internationally respected horse trainer, no longer lives at her Ouruhia farm. Her horses have also experienced problems. As metal acts as magnifiers of the frequencies horses wearing metal, such as horseshoes and halters, get electric shocks.

She bought the property intending to build an international horse centre.

When her horses began dying mysteriously, foul play was suspected and a police watch was in place for six months. Over the next two years animals suffered from unexplained symptoms including swollen lymphs and muscle weakness.

"In August 1996, we discovered high-powered FM had been added to an AM-only tower without consent and that it had increased from 30,000 watts to 150,000 watts."

Jan Zervos, who kept horses around the tower for over a decade, has a similar story.

"I had my horses there from 1986 to 1998. When I first went to the doctor it was because I always felt tired. Then I had a major collapse. I had ECGs and nothing was picked up. In the end they shrugged their shoulders and said it was chronic fatigue.

"At the time I thought it was weird because it was a good time in my life. I was 26 and very fit. You think it's just happening to you, you don't realise . . . I struggled through and it wasn't until Penny approached me and told me I shouldn't be down by the tower, and why, that I realised it wasn't just me it was happening to.

"Even then I was sceptical, I loved the place. I didn't want to believe it but in the end it was too compelling."

Zervos moved out in 1998 but didn't realise she had a tumour growing on her uterus.

"Tumours on thyroids aren't unusual but mine was two-thirds the size of a baby's head. I was very lucky. If I'd been living there I don't think I'd be alive now. No- one ever told us that the tower wasn't safe. We used to talk to the technicians. They weren't allowed to work there for longer than four hours yet people living there were exposed to it 24 hours a day."

Zervos's doctor told her that to have a tumour as large as she had was unusual.

"I try not to think about it now, I don't want to hold any bitterness about it all. But I don't see it as any different from the disaster at Cave Creek, it's just not as in your face."

Nelson-based environment lawyer Sue Grey was so incensed by the situation at Ouruhia that she is now representing Hargreaves in her High Court case.

"To me, Penny's case is a landmark case. The New Zealand standard is only designed to protect people from immediate health effects - burns and death. It is not designed to protect against long term biological cumulative effects. There's a huge gap in safety."

New Zealand Standard 2772.1:1999 was based on the International Commission on Non- Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) guidelines2. The Chairman of ICNIRP has been quoted as saying that the ICNIRP limits are only intended to protect against established, acute effect (that exhibit thresholds). The inference being that the guidelines only seek to prevent short-term heat damage, and not chronic effects and non-thermal biological effects.

While the standard only takes into account heating effects, it does still provide (in Clause 10(d)) a requirement that public exposure should be minimised where possible.

Together with Green MP Sue Kedgley, Grey is putting an appeal to the select committee, hoping to persuade the Government to adopt the precautionary principle as other countries have done.

Speaking from London, Andrew Goldsworthy, MSc PhD, says that in Europe, telecommunication companies themselves are acknowledging that there are problems.

His interest in the biological effects of electromagnetic fields dates "off and on over 40 years". He is a member of the Life Sciences Advisory Group for the European Space Agency.

In 2007, he wrote a paper The Biological Effects of Weak Electromagnetic Fields, which deals with their effects on humans and animals and, in particular, the dangers from mobile phones.

This month he published an article based on studies he has done which link autism to the use of baby monitors.

He believes that the world is on the brink of a major health crisis and that the health effects from technology currently in use might not be felt for 10-30 years but could eventually reach epidemic proportions.

The number of mobile phone subscriptions is estimated at five billion globally.

"They know that there is a problem with microwave-based telecommunications. I've just been looking at a patent by Swisscom. The patent is essentially saying it recognises there are problems with the health effects of wi-fi and that they have devised the means of reducing the radiation so that it doesn't transmit when you are actively using it.

"New Zealand's approach to this issue is the approach of big business trying to protect their interests. They know there are dangers but if people discover this they will lose a huge amount of money," Goldsworthy said.

"I became interested in the effect of radio waves on living organisms, both animals and plants. At first I didn't believe the signals could do any damage at all, it went against my whole instincts, but then when I went more deeply into it I could see the mechanism by which it was happening and why everything fitted together. It was like a eureka moment in reverse. Instead of feeing elated at having discovered something, I felt sick."

New Zealand scientist Bruce Rapley, retired Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences at Massey University, believes the New Zealand standard is a joke.

"We know this is not about science, this is about money.

"One of the things I became famous for is the effect of fields from powerlines on cell division. My research shows that a tiny amount of energy can change the way DNA folds itself. If I can show that please don't tell me a cellphone has no effect because it doesn't cook a chicken.

"This is not an argument about science. It's about 'how can I get my cellphones sold'."

Gledhill, who took the radiation reading at Ouruhia in 1996, is now senior science adviser to the NRL.

After the WHO warning in May, Gledhill told The Press that most of the studies had been done using old technology and that the new 3G or XT phones exposed people to 20 to 50 times less transmitting power than older phones.

"I don't think people should be alarmed," he said. "The risk that has shown up in some of the panel studies on users of cellphones has only been in the very highest category of users."

A high user is someone who uses a cellphone for 30 minutes a day.

Black is overseas and did not respond to attempts to contact him.

As she walks across the paddock, Hargreaves' horses call to her in unison.

"It's all right my babies, here I am," she shouts, gumboots clacking.

"I'm nearly 60 now but I'll probably still be fighting that thing when I'm 75," she says, flinging her arm in the direction of the tower.

So why not give up, sell up and move on?

"How can I sell it in case children move in here and they get sick? Knowing what I know and what I've seen so many other people go through, I just couldn't live with myself. I'm as good as stuffed now. I'm still fighting this for our children."

- The Press

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