NEWS September 14th 2004
Cancer on the Beat
TETRA, a new police communication system, is being linked to a cancer epidemic among both cops and civilians living near transmission masts. The government, meanwhile, is rolling out the system as if nothing is wrong.
By Jay Griffiths
“If people want to know how it feels to have your brother die in your arms, fighting for 48 hours for every breath, then I’ll tell them. It was a death you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.” Those are the words of Dr. Ian Dring, whose brother Neil, a police officer from the Leicester constabulary, died in agony of oesophageal cancer this summer. Neil, he said, was convinced that it was TETRA technology which caused his death. TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) is a new digital communication system for a national police radio network.
Dr. Ian Dring, himself a scientist, monitored his brother’s condition. “As soon as he started using TETRA, he got severe headaches. And the site of the tumour was where he mounted the handset.” Neil had none of the preconditions for oesophageal cancer; he was only 38, was a non-smoking, light-drinking triathlete with no stomach problems and whose diet was good. “To us,” said Dr. Dring, “that’s suspicious. And then another officer of similar age and equally healthy has been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in the Leicester force and in the same place.” Dring quotes the U.S. Cancer Society as saying that for a man under forty without preconditions, the incidence rate would be one in 100,000 and, they added, the chances of two people getting that kind of cancer simultaneously would be millions to one.
This is one tragic chapter in the staggering story of TETRA. A story which involves science being “perverted for political ends”; technology which is not properly tested; a company which openly confesses to taking no responsibility for the safety of what they produce; a whistleblower; a political scandal and a health scandal above all. And it involves you directly, if you live near a TETRA mast. And considering that at least 3,200 such masts will be erected in the UK, there will be one near you.
At Drumcarrow Hill in Fife, Scotland, a TETRA transmitter has been “live” since the late ‘90s. Only about two hundred people live around the mast but there are at least seven recent cases of cancer and five cases of Motor Neurone Disease diagnosed over the past five years (the normal yearly rate for diagnosis with MND is one person in 50,000 to 100,000). Scientist Dr Neil Cherry researched the potential health hazards of low frequency radiation: he died of MND in 2003, convinced he contracted it as a consequence of his long exposure. Research suggests MND as being potentially linked to TETRA technology. Other illnesses thought to be caused by long-term low level electromagnetic radiation include: depression; difficulty in concentration; neurological illnesses; headaches; fatigue; miscarriage; infertility; and a reduction in melatonin.
The feature of TETRA that is considered potentially risky is that the modulated part of the signal comes in bursts with a frequency of 17.6Hz, close to the 16Hz at which the brain “loses” calcium (calcium efflux) and also within the frequencies used by the brain’s beta waves. The first warning over this came in the influential independent “Stewart Report” on mobile phones in 2000, which stated that frequencies around 16Hz “should be avoided, if possible.” Because of that caution, the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) was commissioned to write a report on TETRA’s possible health effects in 2001. This report includes worrying statements such as this: studies “do not exclude the possibility of a risk of cancer that appears only after many years of exposure, nor of a hazard from RF radiation modulated specifically at around 16 Hz.”
The Police Federation commissioned independent research scientist Barrie Trower to write a report on the possible risks of TETRA, completed in September 2001. Trower was a courageous whistleblower. “I believe,” he says, “that the government, government scientists and this industry will be responsible for more civilian deaths in peacetime than all the terrorist organisations put together.” Dr. Gerard Hyland, expert in low level radiation and biophysicist from the International Institute of Biophysics, and a prominent TETRA critic, states: “With the TETRA roll-out, we could be seeing a pandemic of brain tumours in ten years.” Low frequency radiation, says Hyland, affects brain function and the blood/brain barrier and degrades the immune system.
When a TETRA mast was switched on in Dursley in Gloucestershire, people reported being “shocked awake” up to fifteen times a night; migraines; sleeplessness; nose bleeds, none of which they had routinely suffered before. At a school in Littlehampton, Sussex, eleven children had to be sent home from school on the day that a nearby TETRA mast was switched on, because they were ill with severe headaches, nosebleeds and dizziness. (Interestingly, residents did not know the mast had been switched on, so the children’s reaction could not have been psychosomatic.)
Low frequency electromagnetic and microwave radiation were identified in the 1960s as a potential anti-personnel weapon and the Pentagon has confirmed that it has developed microwave crowd control weapons. Can a system which is developed as weaponry be considered safe for the police and public?
Let’s ask those canniest of all arbiters of public safety. The insurance companies. Lloyds of London and Swiss Re have recommended to other insurance companies that exclusion clauses should be written against paying compensation for illnesses caused by exposure to continuous long-term low level radiation.
Some call it the Precautionary Principle. Some call it common sense. If something may have risks, and has not been proved safe, it must be assumed that it may be dangerous. Green MEP Jean Lambert has said: “Reports of TETRA being responsible for tumours, leukaemia, motor neurone disease and other cancers must be taken seriously... With risks like these the precautionary principle must apply.”
Clever in Hindsight
Astonishingly, the Home Office is rolling out TETRA nationwide without proper studies being done first: an act which is in Hyland’s words “totally irresponsible.” The NRPB admits: “No epidemiological study as yet has explored the risks associated with telecommunications systems such as TETRA which use RF radiation modulated at frequencies around 16Hz” and says that “Human volunteer studies should be carried out”. The Home Office last year commissioned a five million pound study from Imperial College, London, to study the effects on police officers – not volunteers – over a ten year period. The study will look at the effect of handsets (though not masts) and is being done while the system is already in use nationwide.
The TETRA handsets for the police are considered potentially dangerous because the handset is a brief but intense source of radiation close to your head. When the technology was first used in Lancashire, 177 police officers (out of 246 respondees to a questionnaire) reported symptoms including migraine, nausea, sleeplessness and lack of concentration. Norfolk Police have confirmed that six people including a chief inspector at North Walsham police station have become ill, with dizziness and headaches, since a mast on top of the station went live in late February/early March this year. Twenty five people living near the mast have reported similar illness.
In spite of people’s direct experience, the NRPB insists that TETRA is safe. The NRPB exists to regulate radiation and is half government-funded. Like many regulatory bodies, it has unhealthily close ties to the industry which it claims to regulate, and there are clear conflicts of interest.
Dr. Keith Baverstock, who was the World Health Organisation’s senior radiation adviser in Europe, addressed a conference on low-level radiation in July 2004, accusing the NRPB of “misusing” science (in studies of nuclear test veterans). He said science has been “perverted for political ends” by government agencies which should be protecting public health. Baverstock alleged a “serious flaw” in the NRPB’s methodology in these studies.
There is a yawning discrepancy between the NRPB and others over safe levels of this kind of radiation. If you compare the NRPB’s recommendations with others, in terms of miles per hour, it is as if in the UK an acceptable speed limit would be 2847mph while the EU recommends a limit of 9mph.
Why the difference? Crucially, the NRPB sets their standards only taking into account thermal effects. Dr. Hyland says: “That’s not the problem” – the non-thermal effect of radiation from TETRA handsets and masts “is far more serious.” (“Thermal effects” means that there is enough energy to heat tissue. “Non-thermal effects” means other effects on biological structure and the body’s communication systems.
The contract for TETRA was given by the Home Office to a consortium headed by BT. BT has since hived off the contract, called the "Airwave" contract, to 02 and their subsidiary mm02. One important component of the system is made by the US-based Motorola. 02’s response to public disquiet has been cavalier, saying: “The safety of what we supply is nothing to do with us.” The Home Office, meanwhile, is gung-ho for TETRA, although there is a similar system (TETRAPOL) which is both cheaper and “safer” than TETRA. But it is thought that the US government put pressure on the UK government to take the TETRA system, since TETRAPOL does not use Motorola components.
The industry dearly wants to sell the TETRA system to many countries around the world, and to do so seeks the endorsement of the British police force, seen as conservative, safety-conscious and well-equipped. For the industry, it is a kind of celebrity endorsement: a very cynical use of the police.
As I research this subject, I’m shown extracts of e-mails about TETRA from a Crime Scene Examiner in Lancashire which grow increasingly desperate over the weeks, describing how all but one member of their team “are suffering from symptoms ranging from headaches/toothache/neuralgia to high blood pressure and even a cancerous tumour in the throat...It is the tumour which has finally been the last straw...” This officer, says his colleague, had been “very pro TETRA radios – needless to say he’s changed his mind since finding out he has cancer.”
Then an e-mail arrives. The officer is now dead. As his colleague remarks: “We are a group of people who love our job and we are not 'trouble makers' – but we are genuine in our belief that these radios are killing us.”
This article is part of a longer report for The Ecologist magazine, to be published in October.