Pseudoscience kills
Sunday January 11th 2009, 9:59 am

cellular telephone towerI live in the incredibly beautiful Blue Mountains, around 100km west of the Sydney CBD. Get a look at the area in Google Maps. Sydney’s sprawl stops dead, right at the Nepean River. Place names in the Blue Mountains National Park, such as ‘The Devil’s Wilderness‘ and ‘The Blue Labyrinth‘ ought to give anyone with some commonsense a fairly big clue as to just how rough and rugged the undeveloped, virgin bushland in the Blue Mountains really is, despite its proximity to a city of over 4 million people. This undisturbed nature makes it a massive attraction to international visitors and domestic tourists alike.

Because of the Blue Mountains’ deceptively close proximity to civilisation, many tourists are blithely unaware of the dangers caused by general inaccessibility to most places where they go exploring. I’m not talking about simply 4WD accessible places, I’m talking about those where the only motorised transport going in or out are helicopters. About 10 people die each year abseiling or bushwalking in the Blue Mountains. Many more survivors are winched out by rescue helicopters. This is of course after emergency services actually locate the distressed hikers. Rescue helicopters flying at low altitude mark our seasons- on summery days and holiday weekends, they’re like mosquitoes around here. Well, it’s summertime again… and more tourists are lost in the Blue Mountains.

While a few well-prepared tourists carry water, maps, GPS units, general survival gear and other supplies with them, many don’t. Why would you, when you’re so close to a city of 4 million? About the only thing classifiable as survival equipment which most tourists carry is a mobile phone. However, the vast majority of the Blue Mountains area, aside from a ribbon of villages alongside the Great Western Highway, has poor or no mobile phone coverage. Coverage even along the well-travelled GWH corridor is dodgy in many places. Even at my house, in the populated corridor, about half our mobile calls drop out.

Despite this potentially lethal tourist trap, some underinformed and unnecessarily fearful Blue Mountains residents actively oppose the expansion and improvement of mobile phone base station coverage along the GWH corridor, on the basis that mobile phone towers are rumoured to pose a danger to human health. These beliefs are based in ignorant suppositions and cherry-picked pseudoscience. The fact that no deleterious effect on human health from base stations (or the mobile phones themselves) has ever been identified or proven means nothing to those purveyors of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

At a community meeting in Springwood not long back, where the installation of a new Vodafone/Optus base station in tiny Faulconbridge NSW was being debated, some unenlightened members of the public, including those from the local P&C group, all but screamed ‘won’t someone think of the children?‘ The proposed tower site is about 1km from an elementary school, so the P&C group demanded to know exactly why a cell site HAD to be located there. The short and simple answer is that most kids these days have mobile phones. They’re useless without coverage by base stations. If you give your kid a mobile so they can call you in case of trouble, you’re not doing them or yourself any favours by opposing the installation of adequate base station coverage.

Before my working life was cut short by a drink driver who plowed me off a motorcycle, I was a radio broadcast engineer and electronics prototyping specialist. I obtained an Amateur Radio licence when I was 8 years old. Most of my life has been spent in very close proximity to some manner of radio transmitting equipment, some in the 50,000-100,000 watt class, much closer than most normal folks ever get to them. All of them were several orders of magnitude more powerful than the roughly 50 watt output of a mobile phone base station. However, I’m not a walking lump of cancer cells. Why not?

There’s a lot more proven, replicatable medical science indicating why radio transmitters are completely safe than there is describing any horror of cancers or other maladies induced by them. However, this doesn’t shift the opinions of the conspiracy theorists, who insist that the dangers are being downplayed by commercial interests, whom they say would happily make a buck over the dead bodies of their children. Hint: dead children don’t rack up a lot of billable airtime.

Amongst those conspiracy theorists is EMR Australia, who profit from exploiting public ignorance and fears of electromagnetic signals, claiming evidence of harm where there simply is none.

‘A little bit of radiation is all that it takes . . . around the world there’s evidence of people getting sick, and not just getting sick, getting cancer,’ [EMR Australia director Lyn McLean] said.

What crap.

McLean spouts the buzzword ‘radiation’ without offering a qualification of it as ionising or non-ionising. “A little bit” of ionising radiation, from sources above the frequency of UV light, including x-rays, cosmic rays and gamma rays from radionuclear materials (eg plutonium, uranium, etc.) does have the potential to cause cancers.

image US EPA

All the non-ionising radiation in the world, from sources like radio transmitters, has no possibility to cause cancers. Exploiting scientific ignorance for fun and profit is utterly reprehensible. If Ms McLean were truly concerned about health effects from radio signals, she’d be giving away field strength meters and radio shielding paint (the next best thing to a tinfoil hat), not selling them.

At the aforementioned community meeting, I made a point of asking anti-base-station advocate parents if they had a microwave oven in their home. All of them had one. I then asked how many kilometres of separation they maintained between their children and their microwave oven while it was operating. Of course, I was laughed at. None of these people insisted that their children leave town before they warmed up a cup of coffee. At that point, I raised the facts that an ordinary 1000 watt microwave oven operates on almost the same frequency as a mobile phone base station and puts out at least 20 times the RF power of said stations, often more. You should have seen their eyes bug out to the size of 50 cent pieces. I then proposed that microwave ovens be banned in a 20km radius from elementary schools. Funnily enough, I got no support. The very people who want to save their children from evil mobile phone signals had no problem with a much more ‘dangerous’ source of radio frequency emissions in much closer proximity to their children than they would ever be to a phone base station tower.

Quite simply, many, many more lives are saved every year by base stations than ever have been harmed by them. Wives tales, conspiracy theories and technological ignorance should not be allowed to imperil the lives of those in the general public who may depend on good mobile phone coverage to save their bacon.

Mind you, the ‘dangers of mobile phones’ furphy is the mere tip of the iceberg. Also out in my neck of the woods are a family who will not have their kids vaccinated against common childhood diseases because of their fear of the little precious snowflakes being poisoned by the vaccines, despite almost no evidence indicating such is any sort of common occurrence. Never you mind the potential danger these little prepubescent biohazards become when they are sent to public schools. The hazards posed to children (both of vaccination objectors and sensible people) from wholly preventable illnesses are much better known than any possible injury from a vaccine.

An independent UK group called Sense About Science maintain a website which contains good, corroboratable scientific information about vaccines, mobile phone towers and a host of other topics where a good dose of good science would make a lot of people sleep better at night. Ought to be on every parent’s required reading list.

If only ignorance were painful there’d be a lot less of it. At this moment, the only pain the ignorant suffer is in obtaining the knowledge necessary to rid themselves of it.


13 Comments so far
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Wow – what an awesome description of the problem. It constantly bugs me but I never really do much about it other then get angry with people and stew about it 😉

I do know that P&C, so its kind of depressing to find that attitude around.

I try to educate people about this stuff, but I think the best comment is “I then asked how many kilometres of separation they maintained between their children and their microwave oven while it was operating.” – AWESOME.

I talked to a lot of people about mobile towers – the only logical answer I could find was that it hurts property values of those nearby – so I think working backwards from that you could possibly realise its peoples hidden agenda to defend their property value – now that makes sense (although its a bit meta circular).

However, in many cases its non-science that causes the real problem.

I never thought of the safety issue with tourists (having grown up here I guess I find it hard to relate to people that get themselves lost – maybe I am a bit mean !).

Well keep it up !

Comment by Michael Neale 01.13.09 @ 9:06 am

Thanks, Michael.

I certainly agree that base station towers can be unsympathetically designed or poorly aesthetically placed. Not hard to do out in the mountains, unless you can disguise your tower as a big gum tree or something.

However, to object to them over any perceived health threats is not just scientifically unsupportable but indicative of the complainant’s limited level of understanding of the science in this issue.

Lyn McLean’s exploitation of fear, uncertainty and doubt- for pay– is what I find the most reprehensible. She’s every bit as bad as the scammers who sell magnets to put on your car’s fuel line, ostensibly to ‘align the fuel molecules’ to improve fuel economy. One simply should not be able to legally make a buck off of pseudoscientifically scaremongering about mobile phone towers, any more than one should be able to sell shares in ‘free energy’ or perpetual motion schemes.

If Ms McLean drops in here at mgk, I’d like to encourage her to go back to her airy-fairy dowsing and crystal-gazing- and to get the hell off my patch. Radio frequency electronics technology is my bag and has been since about 1970.

Comment by weez 01.13.09 @ 9:58 am

Yes the health aspect is either dishonest, or dangerously mal-informed (by people like the Lyn McLean you mention).

Once upon a time I was into radio – VK2XOD was me, but the growth of computers into the electronics hobby world in the 80s, and then the internet in the 90s kind of took me away from it.

I went to UNSW many years ago, and there was public debate even back then on HF “radiation” (many years later and people still don’t know different between ionising and non ionising). We would look at our spectrum analysers and see the MASSIVE pulse from nearby radars at the airport – far beyond anything you could get from a mobile tower. I just wish I had a portable one of those.

That could be a business ! have a little “e-meter” like thing and go around peoples houses finding the HF, VHF and UHF “demons” and charge them for shielding 😉 Oh wait, I think someone else already does that. Well I guess I could just sell crack or something more honest for a living 😉

Enjoy !

Comment by Michael Neale 01.13.09 @ 10:07 am

Well I guess I could just sell crack or something more honest for a living

bwaaaaaaaaaaahahahahahh 😆

What an astute observation.

In actual fact, selling crack would indeed be a more honest pursuit. At least the buyer is getting some actual happy smoke that does something for them, even if it’s not blown up their bum. 😆

Comment by weez 01.13.09 @ 10:44 am

I agree with a lot of what you guys have had to say on this page and found it to be quite an informative read. However. Potential health issues do not, nor should not, have to studied ad nauseum and proven beyond any reasonable doubt before action is taken.

If such pseudoscientific claims are nonsense, then feel free to take your pregnant wife underneath high-voltage power lines, or allow her to eat fish out of sydney harbour, or live in groundwater contaminated areas (a la Erin Brokovich). After all, I’m sure that’s not proven to your satisfaction either.

On the other hand, I could just be playing devil’s advocate. Lets face it, we’re not so technologically primitive that we can’t innovate and come up with alternative commercially viable technologies for such purposes.

Again, on yet another hand (yep I have three hands I was eating that harbour fish as a child) this isn’t so much a case of people blocking it, as the companies involved not being able to make a massive profit and therefore not actively pursuing it.

I would call that The Truth, having worked for one of those companies for about 6 years. If the companies wanted it to happen, it would happen and no amount of tree-hugging protest would stop it.


Comment by Andrew Hardy 01.13.09 @ 5:11 pm

@Andrew, I have no problem with hi voltage lines, nor HF. You can’t equate that with fish out of the harbour either.

The fact *is* that non ionising radiation has been around for a long time, longer then ionising radiation. And even IF it was bad, and there was a collossal cover up by the phone companies (which would be impressive) it would in any case be completely irrelevant, given that we are constantly bathed in much greater strength non ionising radiation every day. Ever slept with an electric blanket? lived within 10km of an airport? Used a microwave, watched TV (especially cathode ray – remember the fear over that?)

If non ionising radition, at moderate doses proves dangerous, we will cease to exist. Yes, that is somewhat of a concern, but nothing to do with false pretenses for not wanting a mobile phone tower (if people come out and admit its about real estate values, that is completely fine, understood).

Comment by Michael Neale 01.13.09 @ 5:26 pm

Hi Andrew, thanks for popping in.

I’d not only take my pregnant wife dancing under HV power lines, I might even send the subsequent little pumpkins to a school that has a power pylon in the playground, as at Annangrove. While HV pylons and lines are dog-ugly and often make a buzzy racket (esp when it’s raining), EMR from power lines is even less potentially hazardous than radio signals, due to the extremely low 50Hz frequency of the HV. I’d be infinitely more worried about the thing falling on our heads in a windstorm.

I tend to agree that profit is the greatest motivating factor for the placement of any radio transmitting tower. As a site engineer, you’d be looking to put your transmitter/s as near as possible to the people who will be using it, to avoid poor coverage complaints. If you’re designing a multi-transmitter system to cover a certain area, you plan it to cover the greatest number of places where people are with the fewest transmitter sites. You can either use a few very tall towers with very powerful transmitters or a greater number of shorter towers with less powerful transmitters. The compromise is somewhere between good coverage and low op/maint cost.

Exposure to hexavalent chromium (ie. Brockovich v. PG&E) is a completely different and unrelated issue, but I’m pretty well satisfied that I don’t want to be exposed to a whole lot of anything that IS proven scientifically to cause cancers, which simply is NOT the case with exposure to non-ionising EMR.

Comment by weez 01.13.09 @ 5:27 pm

non ionising radiation has been around for a long time, longer then ionising radiation.

Ionising radiation, specifically in the forms of UV & cosmic rays, has been around as long as we’ve had a sun to bake under. You get a fair old amount of ionising radiation from lightning strikes, too.

Comment by weez 01.13.09 @ 5:32 pm

Ionising radiation, specifically in the forms of UV & cosmic rays, has been around as long as we’ve had a sun to bake under.

Sorry I meant human generated (ie ever since scientists started dying).

I remember someone saying that once the capacitor was discovered, there was a rash of deaths of scientists 😉

Comment by Michael Neale 01.13.09 @ 5:37 pm

I remember someone saying that once the capacitor was discovered, there was a rash of deaths of scientists 😉

Yeah, probably caused by other larrikin scientists charging up the capacitors with a couple kV and chucking them to an unsuspecting prank victim. 😯

Bored techos actually do that sort of silly crap. 😀

Comment by weez 01.13.09 @ 10:56 pm

good article weez, the P&C’s poor little dears are in far more danger from using a mobile phone (and even that danger is very, very low) than standing near a mobile phone tower.

Bored techos actually do that sort of silly crap. Yes we do, erm I mean did.

Comment by OzAtheist 01.15.09 @ 1:41 pm

Thanks, Oz.

The P&C’s precious snowflakes are in much greater danger from those pernicious microwave ovens than any communications device, if not due to exposure to leaked RF, then definitely due to the evils of processed and preserved foods in frozen ready-to-eat dinners. Want some trans-fat with that? 😆

Comment by weez 01.15.09 @ 1:53 pm

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, while being an industry body, has the good oil on mobile phone myths on their ‘EMF Explained‘ website. Check out their Mobile Myths – Fact or Fiction pages.

Australian Centre for RF Bioeffects Research debunks a common internet myth about mobile phones and base stations being able to cook eggs in their video here.

Those who insist there’s a hazard from mobile phones or base stations will surely invoke some sort of doubt based in the fact that the sources just cited are from industry body groups, but these tests are duplicatable by absolutely anyone.

I find the funniest (and most potentially dangerous to duplicate) of all of them is the ‘mobile phones can pop popcorn’ hoax, as seen on YouTube. That one involves disassembling a microwave oven and fixing the magnetron (RF signal generator) underneath a wooden or plastic table, with an unseen assistant controlling the magnetron.

This “test” is particularly dangerous in this humble techie’s opinion, not because of the potential exposure to an extremely high level of radiated RF signal, but rather because disassembling the microwave oven defeats all the high voltage protections. Duplication of this test can be fatal- to your phone! Your mobile isn’t designed to cope with a nearby 1000W signal on 2450MHz and you can induce voltages in the phone’s circuitry which can damage it- permanently.

Just so you know, this pernicious hoax can be “duplicated” with highly dangerous… bananas.

Comment by weez 01.19.09 @ 7:54 am

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