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Carriers In Fight Over Towers
Margaret Hines-Randle is fighting cancer, but she is not alone. Most of the people in her road are battling the same illness.
"We are all in a line, it is quite extraordinary," said the 64-year-old, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago. "It is a very dramatic cluster of cancer. The people in the house behind us and the one at the side have it. Both the people in the first and second bungalows in the road had cancer and died. Now the person who moved in to one of them has breast cancer too."
Just down the road at St Edward's Roman Catholic primary school, Pat Ward's pockets are full of paper tissues, but he doesn't have a cold. The deputy headmaster uses them to mop up the nosebleeds of his pupils: he finds that their noses haemorrhage with such frequency that tissues are a necessity.
Next door at the Woodlands special school, no fewer than seven of the 30-strong staff have developed tumours in the past few years, including Ward's wife, who teaches there. Two have died. A nearby caretaker has been diagnosed with a prostate tumour at the age of 37. Even the lollipop lady who helped the children cross the road has died of cancer.
The cause of all this illness in Coleshill is unclear. But many in the affluent Warwickshire town in central Britain believe much of it can be attributed to a mobile phone mast, also known as a tower, which looms large over its southern half. The schools, which are adjacent to the 27m structure, have stood in its shadow for nearly 15 years.
It is already acknowledged that there is a link between electromagnetic radiation from overhead power cables and childhood leukemia -- something that was also disputed for many years. Campaigners estimate that at any one time in Britain today about a thousand active disputes are going on over phone towers.
There are already 47,000 towers in position, but the phone companies are putting more up every day and fears over their safety are growing fast.
There is no doubt among scientists that electromagnetic radiation of the type emitted by phone masts can cause cancer and genetic damage at high intensities. However, the scientific community is divided over what emission levels are safe.
The industry in Britain is subject to guideline limits for emissions, which all its masts fall well within. But some scientists believe the limits have been set far too high. They point to other European cities, notably Salzburg in Austria, which has -- on scientific advice -- imposed radiation limits that are a fraction of the levels allowed in Britain.
William Stewart, chairman of the Health Protection Agency, authored a report in 2000 that found no conclusive evidence of health implications for adults, a view echoed by the World Health Organisation.
However, in 2005 he issued a further report, Mobiles Phones and Health, in which he said young children should probably not be exposed to mobile phones. He has also said care should be taken that towers do not direct their strongest beams at schools. "I can't believe that for three- to eight-year-olds they can be readily justified," he said. On phones in general, he added: "Just because there are 50 million of them out there, doesn't mean they are absolutely safe."
A BBC survey three years ago found one in 10 schools were overlooked by a phone tower. A survey in London found almost every school has a nearby mast.
Two years ago -- prompted by reports of people developing cancer -- the parents of children attending StEdward's, together with the school authorities and a group of residents, began pushing for the mast to be removed. They organised surveys of health problems among the children, teachers and residents.
More than half the children surveyed at StEdward's suffered headaches and more than a quarter reported regular nosebleeds and nausea. Among the staff at both schools almost all those asked felt fatigued and had sleep problems, with nearly half suffering dizzy spells and humming in their ears. A survey of 1300 nearby residents threw up a further surprise. In Castle Drive, and part of adjacent roads, 31 cases of cancer were found -- about one in every second person in the immediate area.
"When I saw the results I felt sick myself," said Pat Jones, another campaigning resident. "There is big money in mobile phones and yet the operators don't seem to want to know what is happening to people."
The raw data was passed to John Walker, a physicist and member of the Electromagnetic-Radiation Research Trust who has studied cancer clusters around other mobile phone masts elsewhere in the UK. "The masts typically throw out microwaves in three directions, and where the beams hit the ground is where you will usually find the cluster of cancers or disease," he said.
"Coleshill has the largest single cluster I have yet seen, and this may be explained by the fact that Castle Drive is sited at the point where the beams from two masts converge, one of them at the school and another on the other side of the town.
"Residents and teachers are more likely to have health problems because they tend to be exposed to the microwaves for more years than pupils, who eventually leave the school."
For a while, tensions ran very high among the community. Parent protests were organised, with one day "strikes" in which they kept their children out of school.
For 12 months the campaign intensified. Letters declaring an intent to sue phone company O2 if the medical evidence became stronger in the future were sent to the company, while the diocese sent protest letters too.
Mike O'Brien, the area's MP, was then asked by the campaigners to help. He approached the operators but deliberately fought shy of leading off with the residents' health concerns.
"I said to O2 that I wasn't going to put the case on medical grounds, which they don't accept are an issue, but on the fact that the school wanted the land on which the mast stands and the fact that it is an old mast and rather ugly and due for replacement," he said.
His approach, backed up by the campaigners and their research, has resulted in O2 agreeing to tear down their mast.
However, for Hines-Randle and her neighbours who have developed tumours, the fight goes on. "I don't know whether my cancer was caused by the masts," she said. "But it is worth someone looking further into it."