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Rising Cell Phone Use Fuels Fears Of Health Hazards From Antennas
Interpress News Service

Journalist: Daniela Estrada
March 16, 2005

Hundreds of Chileans are keeping watch day and night over lots next to their homes, to block plans to install mobile phone antennas, because they are worried about the possible effects they could have on human health.

”We have to keep watch over the spot every night, since these companies usually come and install the antennas in the middle of the night,” Sandra Mancilla, the head of a group of 50 residents of the low-income neighbourhood of La Florida, on the southeast side of the capital, told IPS.

The members of the group take turns standing guard over a lot that has been leased in La Florida by the Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica.

Teresa López, president of the National Coalition for Defence of the Environment (CONADEMA), a group set up in 2000 by Chileans who say their health has been affected by the radiation emitted by cell-phone towers, told IPS that ”The citizens have been forced to take these measures because the government privileges the economic interests of telephone companies over the well-being of the population.”

The number of cell-phone users has risen steadily in Chile, to more than nine million (out of a total population of 16 million).

Due to the fast-growing demand, the companies have installed cell phone antennas all over the country, even in schools and child care centres, medical centres, churches and nursing homes, the concerned citizens complain.

According to the government's Under-Secretariat of Telecommunications (SUBTEL), there are around 6,000 cell-phone towers in the country, most of which are in the capital.

Cell phone antennas are typically mounted on towers, water tanks, rooftops or the sides of buildings, at an average height of 30 metres in urban areas and 60 metres in rural areas.

”We are not opposed to technology, we just want the government to listen to us, so that we can reach an agreement that benefits everyone,” said López, who has also criticised local residents who lease their land for around 1,000 dollars a month to telephone companies for installing antennas.

CONADEMA, the National Ecological Network and Legal Training for Action (FORJA), representing 25,000 people in Chile and several other countries of Latin America, brought legal action against the Chilean state in the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2002. The case is still being considered.

According to those who complain about the effects of the antennas, their unregulated installation violates the constitution on several points, including the rights to health and to live in an environment free of pollution.

The concerned citizens also protest that the presence of cellular towers drives down the value of nearby homes, a phenomenon that has been confirmed by Chile's Real Estate Institute.

López said that in the coastal city of Concón, in central Chile, there are 24 antennas within a radius of one kilometre, and clusters of people suffering from cancer have been found in that small area. She added that similar cases have been found in other urban areas in Chile.

”It is up to the citizens to prove that exposure to electromagnetic radiation has adverse health effects, because the authorities have no intention of applying the precautionary approach or respecting the right to information,” which are guaranteed by legislation in other countries, FORJA attorney Alejandra Arriaza remarked to IPS.

Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which was signed by the world's nations, including Chile, at the 1992 Earth Summit, states that ”In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities.

”Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation,” it adds.

”The government has lacked sufficient political will to push through the bill aimed at regulating the installation of this kind of equipment in the country,” socialist parliamentary Deputy Carlos Montes, the author of the bill, told IPS.

The lawmaker believes there is little chance that the new law will be passed any time soon, because ”it is not among the government's priorities.”

”The government prefers to apply SUBTEL resolution 505,” which states that the antennas cannot exceed a power density of 435 microwatts per square centimetre, said Montes.

But a source at SUBTEL told IPS that the government complies with the precautionary approach by monitoring levels of radiofrequency emissions from cellular antennas, and underlined that the power density limit that SUBTEL has set is much stricter than the limit of 1,000 microwatts per square centimetre recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In addition, the source pointed out, a Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning decree issued in 2001 regulates the minimum distance that must separate antennas from neighbouring lots.

The activists complain that city governments have failed to establish regulations limiting the areas where cellular base stations can be sited.

However, concerned local residents may take hope from a statute being drawn up by the municipal government of El Bosque, in south Santiago, which would regulate the installation of antennas.

The bill sponsored by Montes, which has been debated by Congress for four years, would, among other things, give municipal governments greater authority to prevent the installation of cell phone antennas, and set the minimum distance between cellular towers and schools and homes at 100 metres.

Mobile phone companies have protested the bill, arguing that there are no conclusive scientific studies showing that the level of radiation emitted by the antennas poses a threat to human health, and noting that they already comply with the safety limits set by SUBTEL.

They also point out that they provide many jobs, and say that changing the rules of the game would discourage investment in the sector. The phone companies especially criticise the retroactive character of the bill.

Both mobile phones and cellular base stations emit non-ionising electromagnetic radiation, as do high-voltage power lines, home appliances like microwave ovens and TV sets, and radio and TV broadcast antennas.

Dr. Andrei Tchernitchin, a medical researcher at the University of Chile, commented to IPS that although it has not been scientifically proven that the radiation emitted by cell phone antennas poses health hazards, he believes that long-term exposure is likely to create problems.

He noted that a number of studies have found that exposure to non-ionising electromagnetic fields is a risk factor due to both thermal effects (increase in body temperature) and non-thermal effects, which were not taken into account in the past and whose impact would only be detectable in the long-term.

Some of the health problems associated with exposure to high levels of this kind of radiation are leukemia, brain tumours, breast cancer, miscarriages, Alzheimer's disease and heart attacks, said the researcher.

In his view, cell phone antennas should be placed on hills.

”There are preliminary studies that have suggested, in an inconclusive manner, that a higher incidence of brain tumours has been found among (long-time) users of cell phones,” said Tchernitchin, who was specifically referring to the acoustic neuroma, which is benign but can be life-threatening if not treated.

”This reminds me of what happened with tobacco: the cigarette companies pressured the government, saying there was not enough information, and that it was necessary to continue investigating (the health risks), and in the end delayed the passage of new legislation,” he said.

”The government should discourage the use of cell phones, which would reduce the need to install new antennas; encourage the use of 'hands-free' devices (headsets) as an alternative; and inform the public about the possible risks” posed by mobile phones, said Tchernitchin.

As does the WHO, the expert recommended using cell phones only in cases of emergency, keeping phone calls short, and keeping cell phones away from children, who are most vulnerable to any possible negative effects.

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