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Cell Tower Plan Sparks Health Effects Controversy
Neighbours of proposed 18-storey tower fear health effects

James Weldon, North Shore News

Published: Sunday, August 03, 2008

SOME residents of North Vancouver's Edgemont neighbourhood are up in arms over a plan by Bell Mobility to erect an 18-storey cell tower in close proximity to their homes. The plan, announced in May, will see a large 55-metre pole and aerial and a small service building appear on a site near the Edgemont Boulevard overpass at Hwy 1. The structure will be used by both Bell and Rogers Communications to improve cell coverage in the area. An artist's rendering illustrates Bell Mobility's plan to install a 55-metre cell tower next to Edgemont Boulevard near Hwy 1 in North Vancouver.Cell tower plan.

The proposal has some neighbours worried not only for the visual appeal of the area, but for their health. The tower will emit radio waves 24 hours a day. With discussion ongoing in the media about the possible cancer-causing effects of cellphones, they worry that these types of emissions might be dangerous.

"My main concern is that I have children," said Matthew Wild, a resident of Edgemont whose house lies within a few hundred metres of the site. "No one can convince me that it's completely safe." Wild's fears are shared by a number of his neighbours, who have begun to organize themselves in opposition to the proposal. Concerns have also been raised by district council. "I'm philosophically opposed to putting anything that emits electromagnetic radiation close to residences," said Coun. Doug MacKay-Dunn. "I know the science says there is no risk. That's in 2008. What are we going to find out in 2028?"

Certainly the science on the matter is somewhat grey.

Electromagnetic radiation is simply a term for light, but light in the broadest sense. It includes both the visible spectrum -- that is the wavelengths of light that make up the rainbow -- and wavelengths that are either too long or too short for our eyes to detect. Those on the short side include ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays, and on the long side are radio waves, microwaves and infrared. The first grouping has been quite clearly linked to cancer. This is why, for instance, we wear sunblock, don lead aprons when getting X-rays and avoid nuclear bombs. The health effects, if any, of the latter group are much less clear. And it is in this latter group that the emissions from cell towers fall. There appears to be no conclusive proof that radio waves are carcinogenic, but nor is there proof they are not.

"At 4 o'clock in the morning when (people are) asleep in beds they want to feel they're not being irradiated," said MacKay-Dunn. "People want to feel safe in their homes."

The Canadian Cancer Society, the largest charitable funder of cancer research in Canada, has no position in relation to cell towers specifically. But with regard to emissions from cellphones, it takes a cautious line. The World Health Organization is currently undertaking a massive international study of the devices and their effects on users in an attempt to settle the question. When the results of that project are published next year, the cancer society will formulate a recommendation.

"The research does not show a link between cellphone use and cancer," said Kathryn Seeley, a spokeswoman for the society. "But definitely more research is needed to be sure."

Whether or not the neighbourhood organization or district council could actually do anything to stop the project is uncertain. Cell towers fall within the purview of Industry Canada, meaning it is up to Ottawa whether or not the project goes ahead. Bell Mobility has been very clear on this.

"Consultation must respect the federal government's exclusive jurisdiction and specifically does not give a municipality the right to veto the proposal," wrote the company in a notice circulated to nearby residents. An environmental impact study has already concluded the structure will have no adverse effect on the ecology of the area, and the tower's emissions fall within federal guidelines.

"This installation will in fact be many thousands of times below the safe operating limit as prescribed by Health Canada," said Allison Johnson, a spokeswoman for the company, in an e-mail to the North Shore News.

Because the site falls on a highway allowance, Bell still has to get approval from the provincial Ministry of Transportation, but it will only be weighing the potential impact on traffic in considering the proposal.

"We have to make sure of the effect of the cell tower on the safe operation of the highway," said Jeff Knight, a spokesman for the ministry. "We couldn't allow something in there if it was unsafe for the highway network." Those safety concerns do not extend to human health, however. EM emissions are purely the concern of Health Canada, he said.

With regulation outside of local control, the tower's opponents are concerned they will have no say in the plan. Bell invited residents to make written submissions on the proposal in line with the federal government's requirements, but the deadline for those submissions passed on June 23 -- 30 days after the original information package was distributed. That package, in accordance with the law, only went to homes within 165 metres of the proposed tower.

A yet-to-be scheduled open house will be held in mid-September, but how much influence feedback from the public will have at that point is uncertain. "People will be able to give input," wrote Bell's Johnson. "All feedback will be taken into consideration."

That, said Wild, just isn't good enough. His family lives just outside the 165-metre radius, meaning it never got the Bell mail-out. They only heard about the proposal through worried neighbours. "I want a completely transparent process," said Wild. "If the community turns around and votes in favour of (it), then that's fine . . . but I personally think that's not terribly likely."

MacKay-Dunn is hoping the district can stop the proposal through the power of public opinion. To that end, he has directed staff to draw up a resolution to put before council voicing its official opposition to the plan.

"The only leverage we have as a council -- and I could be wrong -- is the public relations card," he said. "Bell wants to wear the white hat. . . . We could make it a little bit more difficult in terms of the branding they're trying to project here in British Columbia."

Wild has invited fellow Edgemont residents to contact him for information on neighbourhood action. He can be reached via e-mail at matthewpwild@gmail.com.


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