Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator David Norris: This is turning into a bit of a Laois love-in and I am quite happy to participate in such an event. I welcome the Minister of State, who has been in and out of the Chamber very busily and very positively all day. I hope he will be able to be positive about this matter which is rather scientific and technical. It is the concern a number of people in Leixlip have about low-frequency microwave radiation emanating from masts used to broadcast mobile telephone signals and in particular a specific form of this that has been acquired by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for the Garda Síochána. There is a very significant mast attached to the Garda station in Leixlip which is within 500 m of a series of schools that contain 2,000 students.
There does not seem to have been any real research done and people are interested in a base level of research to understand what kind of impact such masts have. The fact that such radiation is unseen does not mean there is not a physical reality. The Minister of State may or may not have the experience I have had. Indeed, I just had it once more.
I have a small transistor radio, a little pocket wireless, on which I listen to the news. As I travel along the corridors of Leinster House it is frequently interrupted by various kinds of buzzing, whirring, whizzing, cheeping and so on. It can go off the air altogether. That indicates to me that various kinds of radiation are passing through the ether and also obviously passing through my body. Luckily, I have survived to the age of 65 and I may well go on for another little while. However, I am kind of settled in my ways. My skeletal structure is established and my brain, such as it is, is perhaps inured to these things. However, it does concern me that there is a physical presence and there may well be a physical effect. We are nowadays blanketed by wireless radiation.
As people were concerned about the matter, various distinguished eminent scientists were invited to address a local meeting in Leixlip. They included Professor Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. This is a very prestigious world-ranking science institute. Also in attendance was Dr. Magda Havas who, like Professor Johansson, is an expert on the biological effects of low-frequency electrical and magnetic fields. Dr. Havas was invited by the city of San Francisco to prepare a report on this kind of radiation as a result of which San Francisco dumped the entire project. They at least took it seriously. She has been very strident in her criticism of this particular system that involves WiMax. She describes it as “Wi-Fi on steroids”. That is a fairly highly coloured description from a distinguished international scientist.
Professor Johansson has had some worrying things to say. He has done research on the matter at the Karolinska Institute that examined the impact on children. As a result of his studies he felt there might be an effect, including increased rates of leukaemia and brain cancer. He also stated as a fact — not a speculation — that after only 45 minutes exposure rats obtained retarded learning and mice that had been exposed to the radiation became irreversibly infertile after five generations. I should not perhaps allow myself the following aside. I have to say that would put me on its side because when I consider the vast explosion of population, I think that a little bit of infertility would not be any harm at all in addition to the form of infertility which I enjoy. I do not say I suffer it — I enjoy it.
A test of children showed that after only one minute’s exposure to microwaves from mobile phones, it resulted in changes in brainwaves in the child for up to one hour after the exposure. That does not actually prove that they would get malignancy. However, it shows a detectable physical effect. Malformed calves are another effect that has been claimed. A lady from Clontarf with a mast next door to her house describes having been told to shield her windows from the radiation with tin foil. However, she found there were holes in it and she claims this came from the radiation.
This is not always met with great sympathy, but they are important things to consider. There is a political aspect to this as the Minister of State knows. In that equation it is important to point out that recently the European Parliament voted by 522 votes to 16 in favour of significantly lowering the exposure guidelines based on biology rather than on the technical measures that were presented as a possibility by commercial interests. Over the past two years a number of health agencies have changed their view. In the old days they used to say there was no risk whatever. They now recommend we should observe the precautionary principle. Again it is significant that when one of the agencies with a financial interest in installing this material gave a presentation to Leixlip town councillors, in complete contradiction to their normal pattern of behaviour they held the meeting in private rather than admitting the public. That is of concern.
I am not a scientist. My father was, but I am not. I am not even particularly scientifically gifted or interested. However, I am concerned because I believe there may be concealed effects from this which could be detrimental. I look forward to the Minister of State’s reply.
Deputy John Moloney: I read a comment made by Deputy Joan Burton last week that Ministers of State used to be sent out at night to give replies. I thank God I have a prepared statement to respond to the matter raised by Senator Norris.
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this issue. The potential health effects of electromagnetic fields were the subject of an expert group report published by the then Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in March 2007. The report, titled Health Effects of Electromagnetic Fields, is available on the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government’s website, www.environ.ie.
The expert group report examined a wide range of issues related to the potential health effects of electromagnetic fields. Its findings address many of the health risk questions raised by members of the public in that regard. The views expressed and conclusions drawn in the report were informed by the principal scientific reviews available worldwide on the matter at that time, including World Health Organisation and other expert studies. The recommendations of the expert group were accordingly approved by the Government and responsibility for this policy area was subsequently transferred to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The expert group concluded there is limited scientific evidence of adverse health effects from electromagnetic fields. It recommended that Ireland continue to adopt and enforce the international limits developed by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection and endorsed by the World Health Organisation and European Commission. In addition, the group recommended that precautionary measures be used, where appropriate, and this recommendation has also been accepted by the Government.
The Department’s current advice to those living in close proximity to mobile telephone base stations, based on the conclusions of the expert group report, is that there is no scientific basis for or evidence of adverse health effects in children or adults as a result of exposure to electromagnetic fields. This applies irrespective of the location of the telephone mast.
As I indicated, all telecommunications operators in Ireland are required to adhere to internationally established limits in regard to exposure of the public to electromagnetic emissions from their masts. These are applied under the terms of their licences from the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. The limits are set by the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, a body of independent scientists who have expertise in researching the possible adverse health effects of exposure to non-ionising radiation. The Commission has published a set of guidelines on limiting human exposure to electromagnetic fields, which are freely available from its website.
In recent years, ComReg has conducted measurement surveys to verify compliance with these limits by its licensees. The detailed measurement results from 600 sites have been published on its website. All measurements have so far shown total compliance with the international limits.
My colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, will forward to Senator Norris a number of frequently asked questions and answers on the subject of electromagnetic fields.
With regard to planning issues, Garda stations or other buildings, premises or installations, or other structures or facilities, used for the purposes of or in connection with the operations of the Garda Síochána are exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission. However, the planning regulations prescribe a public consultation process in the case of such developments. The public must be notified by the State authority concerned regarding the proposed development by means of a notice on the site and given the opportunity, for a period of six weeks, to make submissions or observations to the State authority. The State authority is also required to notify the planning authority in whose area the proposed development would be situated.
When making its decision the State authority must take into consideration any submissions or observations received from the planning authority or any other person or body. The State authority may decide to carry out the proposed development, make variations or modifications to the proposed development or decide not to continue with the proposed development. Anyone concerned about a particular mast on a Garda station should take up his or her concerns directly with the Office of Public Works, the State Authority with responsibility in this case.
Senator David Norris: I thank the Minister of State for his reply, even though he engagingly admits that, like myself, he is not a world ranking scientist. I note the statement refers to the “Department’s current advice to those living in close proximity”. The use of the word “current” is interesting because it suggests there may be developments in this area. Some eminent scientists have expressed more than hesitation in this regard.
I am grateful to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for this reply. It is interesting that a Green Party Minister should be in charge of this area and involved in implementing this programme. One listens with respect to what he has to say.
While I will read the questions and answers the Minister will supply, I am familiar with these types of documents and the Minister does not overestimate my intelligence in choosing to send me such a document. They often take the form of Jimmy asking whether there is a danger to the brain from radiation and Seán replying that there could not possibly be such a danger and asking why people would live next door if that were the case. Notwithstanding my reservations, I will pass on the questions and answers.
It would be more effective if the Minister could be persuaded to engage more directly with the people who have been in touch with me. They have suggested, and this has surprised me, that he seems reluctant to do so and has not answered some of their queries and communications. Perhaps the Minister of State will be kind enough to inform the Minister that I am prepared to read the stuff provided, which will not mean much to me, before shoving it on to the people in question. They will not be impressed by it and would prefer to have some degree of direct engagement.
Deputy John Moloney: I did not come before the House to pretend for a second that I am an expert in this area. I will inform the Minister that the Senator would prefer to have a face-to-face discussion with officials rather than a question and answer document.
As former councillors in County Laois, Senator Phelan and I are familiar with this issue as it is a regular and significant cause of concern. Members of the public often believe we are jumping ahead through the planning guidelines.
I also note the Senator’s point that the statement refers to “current advice”. As someone who worked in Dublin Airport, which is strongly dependent on radio and support services in air traffic control, I am aware that those who lived near the airfield at that time were worried that the electromagnetic field could cause health problems. While I ceased working in Dublin Airport more than 20 years ago, I know this concern persists. Clearly, therefore, it is important that as much clarification as possible should be provided to those seeking information on the issue.
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