COLUMN: Council ponders electromagnetic risks

Councillor Valerie Warmington looks into the placement of communications towers in Nelson.

Recently, an issue over which the city has little authority has again come to council’s attention. The issue relates to the placement of cell and other communications towers and antennas (base stations) within city limits.

The authority to approve placement of this infrastructure is federal rather than municipal. Nevertheless, some residents have expressed concern about the growing number of towers and antennas located in and near Nelson due to the microwave radiation they collectively produce and the potential for adverse health effects.

According to Nelson Citizens for Safer Technology, microwave and electromagnetic emissions in Nelson have risen dramatically in recent years. One concern the group points to are the poorly-considered impacts of clusters of several closely-located base stations. They point to one such cluster of towers and antennas located near the intersection of Victoria and Stanley streets where three towers are located less than a half block from one another.

The tallest of these sits atop the Telus building and is thought to have been grandfathered to remain within the city when current regulations came into effect. Heightening concerns about the high emissions already produced in this small area, Rogers Communications has indicated its intention to add another tower to the mix.

In seeking to respond in an informed manner, I did some research into the effects of the microwave radiation produced by the equipment in question and found that there is significant global scientific debate on the subject. Very credible studies have linked microwave exposure to neurological and reproductive problems, higher incidence and growth rates of cancer, inflammatory responses, depression, attention deficit disorder and various other conditions and symptoms.

Many of these effects were found to be enhanced in children due to deeper penetration of radiation into their smaller brains. Other, equally credible studies report little or no evidence to support a link between exposure to microwave radiation and health problems.

With respect to this debate it is worth noting that although longer-term health outcomes are disputed, it is widely accepted that microwave radiation does disrupt biological systems during exposure to them. It is also worth noting that few health studies are based on current concentrations of emissions which continue to increase each year.

Nor have many studies considered the increased frequency and length of time people are exposed to emissions currently. This situation has come about as society’s continued, rapid adoption of cell phones, WiFi, smart meters and similarly-functioning technologies require ever more continuously-emitting base stations.

The trend toward greater exposure coupled with inconclusive health information has led many health authorities to acknowledge a potential health risk. The World Health Organization has responded by recommending a precautionary approach that includes maximizing the distance between base stations and human beings as microwave radiation declines rapidly with distance.

Accordingly, and as just two of many examples of this precautionary principle in action, France’s Versailles Court of Appeal ordered a company to remove a tower deeming the concerns of residents serious and reasonable in light of health uncertainties. The government of India reduced allowable emissions to one tenth of the international standard and banned base stations from residential, school and hospital zones.

Industry has responded to these precautions by arguing that existing safety limits for base stations are conservative enough to account for any safety concerns. Similarly, Health Canada states that there is no need for additional precautions because exposure levels are typically below regulatory standards.

Despite these assurances, Toronto city council has adopted a “prudent avoidance policy” that sets emissions levels at 100 times below Health Canada recommendations in densely populated areas. Although not legally enforceable, city staff works with industry to encourage voluntary compliance. As a result, the initiative has been notably successful at influencing the location and size of cell towers and wireless antennas. This success demonstrates that stricter regulations do not over-burden industry, and that a shift from decision-making based primarily on cost and convenience, to decision-making based primarily on mitigating potential health risks, is possible.

Nelson city council has asked the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for a review of work done by and options available to municipalities in responding to this issue.

Nelson city councillor Valerie Warmington shares this space weekly with her council colleagues.

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