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The line is breaking up

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technical & practice: In the debate about the dangers of living near transmitters, people are more worried about the lack of consultation

Planning issues are seldom the subject of public protest and national political controversy in any country. But in the case of mobile phone masts, reaction has been different - particularly when telecoms companies want to site their structures near homes and schools.

In the UK, anti-mast campaigns are invariably polite requests for 'sensible' siting and the withdrawal of the 'permitted development' exemption of masts lower than 15m. In Australia, however, where community protest against masts began, reaction has been more confrontational. The issue was ignited in 1994 when residents of a Sydney suburb chained themselves to the fence surrounding a group of transmitters.More recently, in Cyprus, protests against masts ended in riots.

With the spread of anti-mast protest it is hardly surprising that at a telecoms industry forum last December there were representatives from 38 nations - all anxious to find ways of assuaging public reactions.

Despite the continued absence of a serious scientific basis for health concern about the electromagnetic (EMF) emissions from mobiles and their masts, the demand for more research has been echoed by governments around the world. Last year in the UK the government-commissioned Stewart Enquiry released its findings, and has been given a further £7 million for more research. However, in the country with the highest percentage of mobile users - Finland - complaints about the alleged health dangers associated with masts are rarely heard and have attracted no political interest.

It seems that the countries in which concerns have gained momentum are those where precautionary attitudes towards health issues are commonplace. A dramatic reaction to mobile masts is hardly surprising given the charge that emissions might cause cancer. Yet the precautionary motto 'better safe than sorry' is at the heart of the matter. If we are to be precautionary about the hypothetical possibility ofharm from mobile handsets, it is difficult to draw the line at the 'phantom risk' from masts.

The Italian parliament has passed the most restrictive laws in the world against what is now routinely known as 'electrosmog'. In April, Italy held a national day against 'electromagnetic pollution'. Political momentum on the issue led to a diplomatic stand-off with the Vatican, as the transmitters of the Papal radio station stand accused of causing leukaemia among local villagers.

Health minister Umberto Veronesi, who is also a world-renowned surgeon, questioned the scientific basis for the cancer/EMF link in a newspaper article, arguing that 'electrosmog' could possibly account for only about two cases of infantile leukaemia a year.Veronesi's article led to calls for his resignation.

His chief protagonist, environment minister Willer Bordon, did not contest the scale of the risk, but insisted that the life of even one child should merit state action. In reply, Veronesi pointed out that EMF waves did not figure among the 78 certain and 63 probable causes of cancer documented by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

He defended his humanitarian credentials, arguing that it would be better to spend the billions of lira in effect devoted to eliminating two hypothetical cases of leukaemia on more widespread conditions whose causes have been well documented. In other words, precaution was all very well in principle but in the context of precious resources was ill-considered.

Events have been less dramatic in the UK. Britain has been at the forefront of promoting an explicitly 'precautionary' approach - exemplified by the Stewart Inquiry, which concluded: 'The balance of evidence does not suggest that mobile phone technologies put the health of the general population in the UK at risk.'Most surprisingly, the ostensibly strictly scientific inquiry extended its remit to the realm of public concerns about mast siting, insisting these concerns should be accommodated regardless of their scientific basis. The government has made further concessions to mast siting anxieties, although stopping short of implementing a requirement for full planning permission. Local authorities, led by Kent County Council, have become bolder in refusing to allow masts.

The issue is not going to go away, even if the more lurid health claims have long since peaked. Thousands more mobile masts will have to be erected to pave the way for the impending roll-out of the 'third-generation' mobile Internet system.

Efforts by mobile operators have gone into minimising potential opposition, both in siting and design terms.Agreements have been signed with Railtrack and British Waterways to site masts on train and canal sidings, for example.

Masts themselves have become far more discreet, even invisible in builtup areas. BT has innovated a scheme to site transmitters in phone boxes, a move also designed to pay for the now loss-making public payphones.

So what is to be made of all this?

Most of us would be none too pleased with the unannounced appearance of an ugly structure near our homes or schools - and this is the typical story told by campaigners. The difference from other local planning disputes is that the mast issue has acquired a specific health dimension that makes it difficult to resolve. Yet this was far from spontaneous or inevitable.

Extensive interviews with antimast campaigners in the UK and abroad suggest people were concerned principally about issues of consultation and accountability (and effects on visual amenity and property prices) rather than health implications. Generally, it was only through subsequent connection with media hype and precautionary government action that previously marginal health issues came to the fore.

The Economist, for example, has shown that the Cypriot riots were protests against the arrogance of British military bases, which erected masts without consultation.

By the same token, what has become something of an interminable issue might so easily be - and in specific instances has been - nipped in the bud long before it got to a point where it acquired a life of its own as a health risk. Through better design of masts, more sensitive siting and consultation procedures that anticipate and engage suspicions, and negotiate over consultation and design, it has proven possible to defuse health worries.

As with the myriad other risks that surround our daily lives, doubt and uncertainty can never be definitely dispelled by 'the facts'. It is impossible to prove safety. But it is by no means inevitable that these latent and ultimately rather damaging suspicions are drawn out.

The irony in the case of mobile phones is that most people have shown themselves to be pragmatic - to accept the risk of using them despite intensive media campaigning.

With the manifest lack of reported side-effects from the millions of mobile phone users throughout the world - never mind the numerous lives mobile communications have saved in emergencies - it is a safe bet to assume that worrying about hypothetical risk is likely to do you more harm than speaking on a phone, still less living near a mast. If ever there were a case for clever design and appropriate siting, it is this one.

Dr Adam Burgess is the author of Mobile Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution, (NewYork:

Cambridge University Press) to be published in 2002.

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