War against cell phone towersThere is a 360 degree view of Johannesburg from the Northcliff water tower and if the weather is not cloudy, you will be able to see the Magaliesberg mountains. The skyline landmark teeters on what was once known as Aasvöelkop. This is the same ridge where Mzilikazi, the founder of Matabeleland, stood before he travelled to the north of Zimbabwe. Now, that area is a conservancy  in the center of Northcliff, called the Northcliff Ecopark.

If you look out from the back of the tall grey structure, the view will be totally different. You will be able to see some red and grey structures on the border of the ecopark. As you close in on those tall red and grey structures, you will find yourself to be in a forest filled with cell phone masts having 300 to 400 antennas, which send and receive voice and data signals from the people living on the cliff and in the valleys.

The cell phone companies have set up their masts and antennas in the outcrops of the Northcliff, which happens to be upsetting for the people living in the neighborhood. Murray Hewlett lives in a fortress right behind the houses  where cell providers have taken up some space on lease to set up their towers.

Hewlett’s house looks posh and classy from the outside, but unfortunately, he had to cover his house with steel plates to protect himself and his family from electromagnetic radiation. Being the chief executive of an asset management company, Hewlett says, “The microwave radiation from these antennas is making residents sick and every third household is suffering from cancer, nausea and mood swings.” He has gained support for the war against cell phone masts among the community. It is a battle like situation between the cell phone companies and those who are of the view that their health and property (having as much as R2.5 million of worth) are adversely affected by the radiation. Around 100 households support Hewlett and have collected R.40,000 for legal fees.

Hewlett says, “People are dying. It is easy to get them to support (the legal battle), especially when they have no hair, no wife, no stomach.” He was basically talking about a man in the neighborhood who had gotten some part of his stomach removed due to cancer.

He also registered his complaint with the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (Icasa), the mobile phone companies and the City of Johannesburg, but it didn’t prove to be fruitful.

After the application from Yolande Woolford-Le Roux for setting up cell-mast on her property, the Mail and Guardian contacted the city but the planning department required more information and said that it “has received so many cell-mast applications from Northcliff and unfortunately, they cannot be sure which one you are referring to in this instance.” The replied, “No approval exists nor can our office recall any complaints referring to this site.”

Hewlett says, “We have resorted to attorneys.” The main target of the attorneys are now the residents with towers. Woolford-Le Roux, being one of them, is now subjected to criticism by the anti-cell phone tower residents. Unashamed with putting up a cell phone tower at her place, the 46 year old mother currently has just a mast without antennas due to the legal action brought up against her by the neighbours.

Woolford-Le Roux says, “It’s not like I do it for the money. I get R2000 a month for this thing and it takes up quite a lot of space.” If one had to purchase a house of R2.5 million with a 100% bond over 20 years at an interest rate of 8.5%, the repayments would total to R27000 each month. This means that R2000 will convert into something big.

“They held guns to my head, to my children’s heads,” she says, “They were here for half an hour… and we had no cell phone reception.”

She did not want to be without cell phone reception again so she complied. She stated, “People say there is going to be a war, that no one will be friends with you… I’ve been living here for 15 years and no one greets you anyway.”

Woolford-Le Roux believes that no harm will be meant to her or her children by putting up a mast at her property, which is why she took the decision of setting it up in the first place. “I think people are ignorant. I did my homework before I made a decision,” she says. She also said that she had talked to the specialists from Stellenbosch on the subject and did not rely  on MTN alone. Woolford was promised by the specialists that the masts would not have health consequences. Even the South African department of health and WHO were of the same view. WHO says on its website, “to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone usage.” The department’s deputy director for radiation control reiterated this stance in a memo of March 2011.

Hewlett believes that banning antenna “would be like saying sunshine is bad for you. That’s nonsense, but if it’s magnified, it burns.”

Icasa is responsible for licensing the mobile phone masts and base stations. Paseka Maleka, an Icasa’s spokesperson, said that Icasa is not accountable for the placement of towers because its job is about licensing cellular operations on a national scale only. Maleka refused to answer several follow-up questions related to the number of licenses that were issued by Icasa.

The director of EMSS Consulting, Marnus Van Wyk, stated that the problem does not lie in the number of masts or antennas that were being put up. “It’s the systems and the power of the transmiters. The number of antennas is not indicative of exposure. Fifteen microwave dishes can transmit less power than one television system,” he says. He talked about the EMSS’s involvement in the erection of masts and antennas all over the country and included “when we leave a site, we do everything to make sure it is compliant.”

“This is one of two cell phone-mast matters being dealt with by the firm; the other one is in Fourways, also in Johannesburg,” says Denis Warren-Tangney, the director of law firm, Thomson Wilks in Sandton. “There is a lot of information gathering, and it is  a long and slow process because there’s no legal precedent in this country,” says Denis.

Despite the residents’ concerns about their health, Warren-Tangney is using issues like visual pollution and decreasing property values  “because of the expense in proving health issues” to prove his case. He goes on to further say, “We have precedent regarding visual pollution and decrease in (property) value,” and believed that spending on health will “cost a fortune because we’d have to get medical specialists for each and every (resident blaming ill health on the cellphone masts).”

Vodacom, being indifferent to this legal dispute, got its spokesperson, Richard Boorman, to talk to M&G. Boorman talked about how people had given all their attention to the masts, while mobile phones create radiation that is much greater as it is held near the body. He didn’t agree that masts and antennae could be the factors of sickness, because if that was true then all the people living within 237m of high Sentech tower in Bixton would be falling sick and the Johannesburg’s hospital would be filled with patients.

Van Wyke’s theory says ‘radiation exposure depends on your position relative to the structure.’ Sentech, being the major broadcaster, covering signals over more than 100km has a much wider reach as compared to mobile phone antennas. It was revealed in the 2009 information sheet of his company, which was on electromagnetic radiation from cell phone base stations, that the ‘main beam’ of radiation is at right angles with the antenna and ‘typically points in the direction of the horizon’.

It is written in the information sheet that “The result is that only a very small percentage of the radiated energy will be present in the regions outside the main beam.” This means that the ‘main beam’ would be directed towards the horizon and not on the people.

Fear is rising among the Northcliff residents. The crime rate has also taken a hike in the community, which is why Hewlett is now in charge of leasing the area around the Northcliff water tower for the ecopark. The adjoining roads have been boomed off and big fences have been put up with one point of entry, thus making it impossible for the criminals to enter the place unnoticed.

However, Woodford-Le Roux acknowledges Hewlett’s efforts in making the suburb safer in the following words, “Murray succeeded in closing off the area, and I’m thankful.” A lot of people are now understanding the war against cell phone towers. Alex Rutte is one such person, living in Louie Avenue. He believes he does not “know a lot about cell-mast technology… the aesthetics of such a structure are definitely an issue, especially in an area where homes are expensive.” He realizes the serious health concerns are an outcome of these towers, but he did not specify them.

A unit of WHO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen and put it under the ‘group 2B’ in 2011. It can’t be said for sure whether cell phones really cause cancer because they are just as much carcinogenic as coffee, pickled vegetables and titanium dioxide are.

The Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in the Danish Cancer Society conducted a study in 2004, which looked into the number of cancer cases among cell phone users. This study was also published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006. The research was carried out over the period of 21 years and included 420,000 people who had taken mobile phone subscriptions between 1982 and 1995. No possibility of cancer was observed from the study.

Another study conducted by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer involved 13 nations, comprising 21 scientists, had the same findings. There was no relationship between cell phone usage and brain tumours.

Industry has been the source of €5.5 million of funds, out of a total of €19.2 million. It was discovered that in Britain, Sweden and Germany, same studies were carried out with the results being same.

Hewlett, on the other hand does not find the accepted science to be satisfying and instead, refers to the BioInitiative and its report of 2013. The website says that the report “has been done independent of governments, existing bodies and industry professional societies that have clung to old standards” and was compiled by “29 authors from 10 countries, 10 holding medical degrees, 21 PhDs and three (master’s degrees)”. The findings of the research are that neurological damage and gene damage, risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, sperm damage, foetal development impairment and cancer, are all caused by electromagnetic radiation.

Hewlett only believes in the BioInitiative report and not the industry sources that which the government health authorities believe in. He showed a list of residents that had fallen ill, as found out by 50 survey responses. A few of the residents ticked all ailments, ranging from headaches to nausea and insomnia. Others did not experience any illness. Though, nothing can be concluded by this survey.

In order to measure the strength of the electric field of microwave radiation, Hewlett uses a machine, which is known as microwave power meters. Industries use this machine to check for any microwave radiation leakage in the operations. Consumers also use it to detect any kind of fault in their microwaves. It’s yellow in colour and is similar to a scientific calculator in appearance.

According to him, a minimum radiation level of 20 millivolts per metre has been set in the urban areas of some of the first-world countries. A reading of 16000mV/m has been recorded outside Hewlett’s house and within the steel walls and reflective windows, 600mV/m  has been recorded. Hewlett finds this shocking and wants to flee the area. When Hewlett looked into the guidelines of the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, he found that the maximum standard radiation is 87000mV/m. This means that the radiation of 16000mV/min Northcliff area is well below the international standard.

The report on non-ionising radiation of 1998 consisted of the guideline which said that as the radiation levels increase, the body temperature also rises. The body temperature increases by more than a degree at 87000mV/m of radiation. This poses a threat to the body cells and human health. Hewlett does not find the common place views of the people or the studies or even the doctors who say that everything will be fine, to be satisfying. He believes that regulators and research bodies are being pressurized by the big businesses. Also, the interference by the MTN’s lawyers in the case of Woolford-Le Roux was seen by the public.

He says, “You’ll never win against cell phone companies,” while comparing it to the battle against tobacco companies. Warren-Tangney confirms that one of the companies’ case, related to the harmful effects of radiation, did not go to the court in  South Africa. Cases of such nature are always concluded without having to go to court because they are not considered legal by nature.

The cell phone companies have not experienced too many problems and Vodacom’s Boorman says, “While we have had some objections (or) complaints, there has been no litigation.” A few personal injury lawsuits have been brought into court against the cell phone companies, but none of them have won in the US. Despite all this, Hewlett stands by his stance, “I spend enough money to make myself and my family safe.”

He has spent more than R350,000 and his house is still under construction. The house’s armour will be complete after a coating of specialized paint that he has ordered from Germany. He believes that his home improvements have kept him alive up til now.

Hewlett further says, “We had headaches, nausea, insomnia, our two-day old baby started to pop out teeth at the same time as I discovered two precancerous moles on my own arm. The instant I put up the shielding, they were gone.”