The ultimatum from the teachers at Eldorado Park Senior Secondary School was clear: either the planned cellphone mast went, or they did. For Lionel Billings, it wasn’t a hard decision to make.
“I thought that I could rather lose the mast, not the teachers,” says Billings, the chairman of the school’s governing body. “My kids also attend the school.”
The school had entered into a contract with Cell C more than two years ago and a mast would provide a guaranteed income.
“The thought of radiation was in the back of my mind… but some of the schools in the area do have these towers and I thought it can’t be that bad.”
But when construction began to get under way towards the end of last year, everything changed. “The teachers told me if the mast went up, they would leave. They had done their research and were concerned about the dangers of cellphone masts.
“Some of the research was very inconclusive, but the bottom line was that the word radiation was mentioned in every article. That was in itself enough for them to say we don’t need this at our school. I don’t want to put our school’s 1 600 learners and 50 teachers at any risk. We don’t even allow cellphones at the school.”
Tracey-Lee Dorny applauds the move by the Eldorado Park school, noting how a village in Spain has just removed a cellphone mast after 50 locals contracted cancer, and others suffered from headaches, insomnia and depression.
Too many schools in SA allow the erection of cellphone masts on their grounds, despite “burgeoning” scientific evidence about the potential health effects of electromagnetic fields emitted by cellular base stations, says Dorny, chairwoman of the Electromagnetic Radiation Research Foundation of SA.
“There are thousands of papers showing possible links to cancer, and now the increasing incidence of attention-deficit disorder, Alzheimers and diabetes from cellphone radiation.
“When I give talks to schools, the first thing I ask is who is sleeping with their cellphones under their pillows,” says Dorny.
“Almost all the hands go up. You find our children hiding their cellphones on their bodies so that they don’t miss an SMS while their poor little breasts are being fried.
“I teach the children how dangerous phones are and not to put them in their bras or panties, sleep with them under their pillows or walk with them in their pockets.”
Like most South Africans, Dorny, an events organiser, was using her cellphone regularly two years ago. But when she and her family, who live in the upmarket suburb of Craigavon in Fourways, started to fall ill, they looked to the iBurst mast just metres from their home.
“I was actually using iBurst,” recalls Dorny. “But I ended up starting to vomit until I brought up blood. I had a rash from head to toe. It felt like my eyes were melting in my head. My husband had headaches. My son would wake up screaming in the middle of night holding his head, which he said had felt like a rocket had gone off.”
Dorny says the effects were so severe the family could not live in their home for 18 months. Eventually, iBurst dismantled the mast, which residents claimed had been illegally erected, but its former chief executive maintained it had been switched off for weeks at a time and denied it was the cause of similar illnesses affecting scores of residents in the affluent suburb.
Now, Dorny believes she has another battle on her hands. Two weeks ago, the Saturday Star reported on her claim that MTN’s testing of 4G LTE (long term evolution) is “scorching” trees in her garden and the surrounding area.
She believes this testing is the source of the growing reports of illnesses including tinnitus, headaches, shooting pains, nausea and dizziness in the suburbs where it is being conducted.
4G is the fourth generation of wireless communication standards for an era of ultra-fast broadband internet access.
“People ask me if we’ve had a fire here,” says Dorny, pointing to a blackened cluster of some of the 60 burnt and blistered pine trees in her garden – she has numbered each one. “When the levels go higher, you get new scorch marks.”
She says 4G has higher penetration levels into buildings and for further distances, and “therefore into our bodies”.
“My big concern is that we’ve got so many service providers rolling out waves and levels of radiation that they keep saying is safe, but they are actually clueless about the damage they are causing… The only reason we have 4G is purely to now flog a whole generation of gadgets to the public. What sort of powers and frequencies are being transmitted to do this and what is it doing to people?”
But Dr Walter Meyer, a senior lecturer in the physics department at the University of Pretoria, disagrees. “In principle electromagnetic radiation can cause heating effects. The best example is the microwave oven, but the kind of heating effect to scorch a tree would imply a serious health hazard to people.
“You actually start heating people up, cooking them. It’s certainly possible… but the power output of such a transmitter would be much higher than that which is used for cellphone communication. I doubt whether this scorching is due to cellphone radiation. To have those kinds of thermal effects you should in principle feel the heat. It’s unlikely that any commercial planned system would come close to that. But if something like that causes trees to go black, I would seriously be worried.”
In a letter to the Saturday Star, Ivan Booth, a former Vodacom spokesman, lashes out at Dorny’s “pseudo-science”.
“I’m willing to put a R1 million bounty out there to anyone who can prove that cellular base stations scorch pine trees,” he wrote.
But Dorny shows how several studies point to the deterioration of trees around masts. “I’m not an alarmist. I wish I could shout louder. What’s happening now with the mass of towers and all the different layers of technology on top of each other, is you’re being exposed to electromagnetic radiation 24/7. You’re not having a choice of ‘I don’t want this coming into my home, it’s making me ill’. You can’t switch it off like you can your cellphone.”
SA is guided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the exposure guidelines published by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).
SA authorities believe that there is no risk to the health of the general public from their exposure to microwave emissions of cellular base stations, for example.
Barrie Trower, a military scientist from the UK, on a visit to King Kgafela II of the Bakgatla tribe in Botswana, noted there were at least 11 international committees which “vehemently” oppose both the WHO and ICNIRP’s safety levels.
“This is mostly due to the former’s safety levels being based exclusively on thermal levels whereas other international studies recognise responses to electrochemical interactions between microwaves and cellular biochemistry and set safety levels according to lower rates.”
The king had invited Trower to speak because he blamed the death of his father from a brain tumour on the fact that a cellphone mast had been erected near the royal residence.
Last May, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the WHO reclassified radio frequency electromagnetic fields as a Class 2B carcinogen, meaning it is possibly carcinogenic to humans, because of links to certain types of brain cancer.
“But this has been ignored by the industry,” says Dorny. “They will keep quoting the ICNIRP. But those guidelines have been declared obsolete by several governments, because it’s only based on six minutes of thermal heating on an adult male… not one organisation has yet declared what they feel is a safe level for children… We’re sitting in 2012 with masses of new technology and huge cellphone use.”
But then late last year, a Danish study, billed as the largest of its kind, found that there were no increased risks of brain cancer from cellphone use after tracking 350 000 users for 18 years.
SA, says Dorny, should err on the side of caution and follow the example of Sweden, Canada, France and Switzerland, which have adopted safer limits for their citizens and even prevented wireless fidelity (wi-fi) in schools.
She accuses government departments of passing the buck and leaving SA’s cellphone industry “unregulated” and uncontrolled. “There is nobody actually going out to investigate cancer clusters or people being ill, or affected. And the government has no idea of how many cellphone masts and where all the masts and antennae are.”
The departments of Health, Environmental Affairs, Communications and the Independent Communications Authority of SA failed to respond to the Saturday Star’s queries.
Last year, Olle Johansson, an associate professor at the department of neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and a scientific adviser to Dorny’s foundation, wrote an impassioned plea to the SA government.
“While wireless communication is now being implemented in our daily life in a very fast way, it is becoming more obvious that the exposure to electromagnetic fields not only may induce acute thermal effects to living organisms, but also non-thermal effects, the latter often after longer exposures.
“Several… studies have demonstrated cellular DNA damage, disruptions and alterations of cellular functions like increases in intracellular stimulatory pathways and calcium handling, disruption of tissue structures like the blood-brain barrier, impact on vessel and immune functions, and loss of fertility.”
He says the ICNIRP/WHO public safety limits are inadequate and obsolete with respect to prolonged, low-intensity exposures. That’s why Johansson believes the precautionary principle should be in force to control the implementation of this new technology, especially when it comes to the exposure of children.
“Many researchers now believe the existing safety limits are inadequate to protect public health because they don’t consider prolonged exposure to lower emission levels that are now widespread,” says Johansson, who bemoans how “highly relevant scientific information is suppressed as high up as at the governmental level of society”.
Dorny says that her exposure to the iBurst mast made her electrosensitive, which means she becomes ill when exposed to electromagnetic radiation. She wears specially-made nets to shield her from radiation at home and when she travels.
According to her foundation, around 3 percent of the world’s citizens, are electrosensitive and the number of extremely sensitive people is surging. It’s a condition that the former head of the WHO, Gro Harlem Brundtland, told the world in 2002 that she also suffered from.
“I wasn’t born like that,” says Dorny. “But I’ve become electrosensitive since my heavy exposure to the WiMax (worldwide interoperability for microwave access) iBurst mast. Everyone has a breaking point. It just takes that one extra signal, frequency, a WiMax. A lot of people have become sensitive to WiMax or have wi-fi in their offices and are suddenly starting to become ill.
“We’ve got people who are having to desert their homes, families who have moved home three times, because the levels have just become too bad for them. We have people living in isolated areas in the Cederberg, or living in their cars because they’re trying to find spots where there may not be a signal.”
That’s the plight of Alwyn Lewise, 38, who says he has also been diagnosed with electromagnetic sensitivity for the past 12 years from exposure to a cellphone mast.
“I haven’t lived in my home, nor have I slept next to my wife on the same bed in the past six years. I have moved more than 10 times.
“At this stage, I’ve spent more than 300 nights in my car… At some point in time, the cellphone industry will have to acknowledge that we’re facing a major catastrophe that can’t be reversed,” he says.
One Glenvista resident, a company director who lives 100m from a cellphone mast, says he and his wife believe they will die in their home, south of Joburg.
“Last year, I got a refund of R17 000 from Sars because we’ve been to doctors so much. My wife has become very ill but no one can diagnose it. We’ve been to all the top-notch doctors and specialists. She has a constant headache, her hair is falling out and her liver is swollen. Her stomach is working in reverse.
“My hair has fallen out more than it’s ever done. You could say it’s middle age, but I have shooting pains all over my body. We both have pains in our teeth. Our dog died of brain cancer and so did two of our neighbours’ dogs.
“You see this stuff on TV about cellphones making people sick, I thought it was nonsense. But I have diabetes and I live a healthy life and am not overweight… If this radiation was visible, I think we would be scared out of our boots.”
Dorny is not adverse to the use of technology but believes that a properly planned optic fibre network, “from backbone to final source” is the safer way if broadband is to be expanded without last mile access for WiMax or 4G LTE.
She even owns a cellphone. “It’s an ancient old thing but I only use it for emergencies. It’s never on. I used to use my phone quite avidly. But I don’t feel well when I do use one. If I have to pick up a smartphone, it actually burns my hand.
“Which phone company is telling you don’t let your child use your phone, don’t put it against your head? All the other countries are doing it, yet we’re not. My son is 12 and not allowed to use a cellphone. France prohibits the sale of cellphones to under 14s so for me, it’s like giving him cigarettes.”
She maintains that in certain areas across Joburg “radiation levels are high and uncontrolled. And when we say high, they’ll (industry) tell you they’re perfectly safe. But how our levels compare to what other countries have as safe levels are two totally different things.
“Anything that is going to change you biologically – that is going to make you sick, is of concern.
“If it’s going to give you rashes, make you vomit, give you blurry vision, memory loss… that either happens till the signal goes down or you take yourself away.”