Friday, September 26, 2008

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

I've been closely following the developments in Atawhai and Titahi Bay relating to Telecom's difficulties with the local community following its proposals to install mobile phone sites adjacent / near to local schools.

Some background if you don't know me...

When I joined Telecom I was part of its mobile engineering group. Over my time at Telecom I was involved in probably the most contentious period that the local mobile industry faced. Networks were moving from being carphone based to needing to meet customer requirements for mobile handsets that were used indoors. Network sites were moving from relatively invisible locations to being required to be located in the community.

I personally fronted up to numerous community meetings, resource consent hearings and also gave evidence in the Environment Court. I also spent a lot of time visiting concerned residents in their homes to talk *with* them (as opposed *to* them) about their concerns and options we had to address them.

I was often asked whether I would consider installing a mobile phone site next to my own house. I was (and remain) so confident about their safety that my desk was located about 15 m away from a very busy urban site , on the same level.  I ate my own dogfood.

At that time, as of now, the most contentious element of mobile phone sites  was the issue of whether they were safe from a health perspective.

It's a totally understandable question - these installations are characterised as being physically out of proportion (15 - 20 m high) with the local environment (especially suburban areas), emitting something you could not see, hear, taste, smell or feel. It's the perfect unknown threat.

Furthermore there is a sense of lack of choice about these types of installations - no-one really wants them around yet they do want the utility that mobile phones provide.

In short I seriously empathise with people who have genuine concerns about mobile phone sites, and moreso if they are concerned about their children. They are feeling a real emotion.

What I take issue with is people who should know better, and who confuse this issue with many others. They stir up the local community and quite often, in my opinion, raise a spectre of concern that causes so much stress for the individuals that is much more damaging to the health than anything a mobile phone site could possible cause. These types of sites are the result. 

The two main arguments being used now are the same as 10 years ago

1. Mobile phones are new - not enough time to prove whether there are long term effects.
Some studies are showing health issues related to mobile phone sites - we should be cautious about their implementation.

2. Mobile phone sites are like power lines and there are cancerous effects from power lines so the same must be true.

I have to answer these points 

1. This technology is not new. Mobile phone technology has been around for 20 years. Furthermore it's based on radio technology that has been around for over 100 years. If long term safety issues were going to arise they would be found by now. 

Furthermore the World Health Organisation has spent $250m on this issue and continues to research it. 

2. Mobile phone sites are based on Electromagnetic frequency (EMF) transmission. High Voltage power lines are based on Extra Low Frequency (ELF)  electromagnetic frequency (EMF).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) rates ELF as a possibly carcinogenic to humans. This is on a three point scale of carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic and possible carcinogenic. Note that gasoline engine exhaust is in the same category of possibly carcinogenic.

So that's the ELF side (ie high voltage power lines)

WHO has this to say about EMFs specifically from mobile phone sites.

From all evidence accumulated so far, no adverse short- or long-term health effects have been shown to occur from the RF signals produced by base stations

Telecom has clearly made some errors on judgement in how the consultation was (or more importantly wasn't undertaken). This can be resolved by respecting that those who have fears are genuinely concerned, respecting that and trying to find a mutually agreeable solution.

But to see Nick Smith and Sue Kedgeley suggesting that radiations levels are high and that the Crown would be liable for compensation if there are health affects are purely grandstanding and not adding to the debate. Both of these people should know that the Environment Court in NZ has made it clear in its judgement related to the case of Shirley School that other communities should refer to this decision. 

What is key for Telecom now is to spend lots of one on one time with this community to rebuild trust and come to an understanding of how to best work together. It will only be through respecting the community's concern will any progress be made.

It doesn't really matter what I say I guess - it's what I do.

Ella has just started at a pre-school two days a week. There are two sites within 100 m of the pre-school. My position on this issue is clear.


Ramon said...

Great unbiased views on an ongoing issue in our communities. Always great reading your posts mate. :)

Gabor said...

I'm with you, bro!

It makes my blood boil when I hear these so called "voices of the people" (ie. Nick & Sue) soapboxing from a completely baseless standpoint. But hey, what do you expect in election year.

Personally, I think they would be better served addressing the real undetectable dangers that face our iocane powder

Gripnostril said...

Good post, apparently correct as no "response" from those apparently better informed who regularly are more than willing to tell everyone the "truth". At least Ella will soon to be able to call for a lift home to :-D

Robin said...

I consider EMF and ELF to be pollution and take exception to the source of such pollution being proximate to where I or my family spend anything more than brief periods of time. So, our residence, their pre-school, kindy, school, etc.

I also take exception to other things that we know little about yet have profound implications. Childhood vaccinations, our immune system, petro-chemical exhaust, certain types of fertiliser, pesticides, etc.

I reject outright the suggestion that we do know what we need to know about these technologies to make a safe call. Usually pro- arguements have some element of "you get more radiation from your microwave" angle. The fact is, the more one can avoid of toxins and pollution in life, the better one's health will be. Taken one by one, many issues can be quite minor, but it's the cumulative effect that leads to health issues.

I'd guess that if a cell-site was to be constructed right in front of your house you'd have an issue with it. Even if you believed that it was entirely safe you'd be unwise to not oppose it as it is of course perceptions (accurate or otherwise) that affect the value of your property (yes I'm assuming that you care about the value of your property).

I often find when discussing issues like this with people that nimbyism is all relative: those who can't stand nimbyism are often the biggest nimby-proponents out there. There must be a psychological theory about this ...

@Ramon: hardly un-biased in my estimation.

@gabor: get over the personalities. It looks like you have personal issues with the two individuals you mention rather than anything else.

Miki Szikszai said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this. The pollution argument is an existing one

I understand your position on avoiding ELF. Especially since they are considered possibly carcinogenic by the WHO.

I guess it's pretty hard to avoid EMF though. EMFs are everywhere. Humans emit EMF's as does the sun. The only way I know to avoid EMF successfully is to live in very remote and isolated areas away from people, electrical based technology and away from the sun. That's a completely legitimate choice.

I can understand why people feel aggrieved when a business installs something in their community - they feel their sense of choice is removed.

There are some facts and rulings to guide us. The Environment Court has clearly stated it won't entertain any appeal against cellsites on the basis of health effects from EMF. There is just no evidence to support a health effects argument - short-term or long-term.

So the arguments now being put include impact on property values. I have also been in a very well argued case regarding the impact on the wahi tapu values that a cellsite can affect.

Firstly property values - i *would* support a cellsite in front of my house. Furthermore I would engage with the telco involved to ensure that visually and location wise I had the most influence. My approach is to work with people to get the best result. I think that is wise - to have the best influence as opposed to opposing something and hope it goes away.

For every person that opposes cellsites there are several more that want the amenity value that they bring. People check cellphone coverage and broadband availability when they buy property in this world of hyper-connectedness. In fact the people in my neighbourhood are generally unhappy with the level of coverage received and have lobbied both Telecom and Vodafone to install a cellsite in the neighbourhood.

As i said in my post - my position is clear - I can't say that I think the technology is safe and then say I don't want one at my home, or around my family. My position comes from looking at both sides for a number of years. And from the position that I could not stand up in front of people and say that I believe it's safe without assuring myself of that first.

Secondly - the wahi tapu case. It was clear in that particular case that very good people had been put up to make an argument that a proposed cellsite would impinge on the wahi tapu (or sacredness) of Mt Te Aroha. To the point where they said that in the Environment Court. It was very sad - someone being used as a pawn by someone else who wanted a cellsite not to be installed for perceived health effects. They knew that argument wouldn't fly so they found something else.

I had a lot of empathy for the local hapu - mainly because they really engaged with us. They invited us to their marae (we attended) we worked out what we agreed with, and what we disagreed with. I had the privilege of learning about their history. We shared a meal. We knew that while we disagreed with each other we respected each other as individuals and could still exist with our different views. A very powerful lesson.

lastly Nimby-ism - this story is a perfect example of the Nimby-ism you describe - and I agree with your view!

I am not anti-Nimby. People have the legitimate right to state their point of view. I am anti scare-mongering raising the risk of heath issues when there is no evidence for it.

I am not trying to convince you - I just want to share some stories from someone with a different point of view. I don't have a vested interest anymore other than holding Telecom shares - maybe that's not so wise these days based on the shareprice....

Robin said...

Hey Miki

Good reponse!

I guess you are pretty untypical when it comes to walking your talk: well done - it is quite a rare situation.

You wrote:
I am anti scare-mongering raising the risk of heath issues when there is no evidence for it.

My position is similar: I am anti people (usually big business) bulldozing "smaller" (individuals, families, communities) by claiming things are safe because there is (currently) no evidence of harm.

(I think we can both agree that scare-mongering is dishonest whatever the background)

Many of these entities know full well that if there are issues 1. they probably won't be around to carry the can (especially the individuals within), and 2. even if they may be they can always claim that they used the best available knowledge, so what more could they do?

Now there is of course a balance to be struck, otherwise we would never make progress on anything, but personally (and for those who missed that last word ... "in my view") I prefer the more conservative Scandinavian approach to these issues. Does this halt progress in its tracks? Nope - there's more "innovation" going on in that part of the world than here for sure. Plenty of windmills - they only started at least twenty years before us.

Nina permata sari said...