Sunday, March 11, 2007

Irish author join the ranks


Irish writer Maeve Binchy

article by Colin Coyle

One of Ireland's most successful authors has become involved in her own local drama, playing a concerned citizen against a phalanx of mobile phone companies. Maeve Binchy has objected to a mobile phone mast being erected beside her home in Dalkey [south Dublin coastal village], arguing that it could be a health hazard. Binchy, 66, said the mast at Dalkey garda station was only two doors away from the house she shares with her husband, Gordon Snell, and would overlook her terrace.

The author of Tara Road and Circle of Friends says her opposition to the mast isn't merely a case of nimbyism [not in my back yard]. "I have a mobile phone and I'm not completely hostile to them, but we do not know of the possible health hazards involved with the masts," she said. "More research is needed." Binchy is also concerned the mast will be near several schools.

There is already a telecommunications mast attached to the garda station, but the new structure, which will provide 3G reception for all four Irish mobile phone companies, will be significantly taller and bulkier: a 30 metre-high structure with antennae and equipment cabins, according to Vilicom's plans. Binchy could be about to do for Ireland what Jasper Carrott has done for Britain: the comedian has become an unlikely figurehead for the anti-mast lobby after discovering one near his home in Birmingham.

Carrott recently met anti-mast activists in Ireland and attended a lecture in Dublin by Dr George Carlo, chairman of the Science and Public Policy Institute in Washington. Carlo, a former mobile phone company employee-turned-opponent, believes children should not be allowed to use mobiles because they could damage growing cells. Binchy has no plans to take up the cudgels on behalf of other communities , confining herself to sorting out her own backyard. The novelist wrote to her local council last month to highlight her concerns, arguing that a decision on the mast should be deferred "until all the safety issues have been ironed out." Snell wrote a separate letter, objecting strongly to "the potential health risks of the structure, which have yet to be thoroughly evaluated." He said the siting of the mast in the centre of the coastal village could damage its reputation as a heritage area.

Objections were lodged by 13 others, and a lobby group, Dalkey Community Against Radiation, has been set up. Oliver McCabe, a spokesman, said: "The mast will be within 10 metres of three houses and close to six schools, in contravention of a motion tabled in the council calling for masts to be at least 600 metres from the nearest school." A report from an expert group appointed by the Department of Communications has concluded "there are no adverse short or long-term health effects from exposure to the radio frequency (RF) signals produced by mobile phones and base station transmitters". The report, to be published this week, is also expected to find that RF signals have not been found to cause cancer.

Tommy McCabe, director or the Irish Cellular Industry Association, said: "Irish mobile operators comply with all emissions guidelines and these are monitored constantly by ComReg. 3G masts emit less power than 2G masts and generate only the same power as a light bulb." McCabe said the distance from a mast to a house or school bore no relevance to safety. There are now 6,000 masts in Ireland, more than 400 of which were erected last year. Con Colbert, of the Irish Doctors' Environmental Association, disputes the findings of the government report, saying other scientists had established a link between the radiation emitted by mobile phones and adverse health effects.

John Cummins, of Better Environmental and Safer Telecommunications (Best), a lobby group, said: "The latest government report is biased because raising questions about the safety of mobile phones in Ireland at this stage could damage the economy. We're in a similar situation now with mobile phones as we were with smoking and asbestos in the 1960s and 1970s." Pat O'Donovan, a Limerick-based auctioneer and member of Best, said: "You only have to look at how masts affect property prices to show that people aren't convinced by the industry's arguments."

The Department of the Environment encourage mobile phone companies to group together to share sites, minimising the number of structures, but it is up to councils to decide how near they can be sited to houses and schools. Public buildings charge mobile phone companies to locate masts in their grounds.

THE SUNDAY TIMES, MARCH 11, 2007, NEWS SECTION [page 9 of print, Irish edition)


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