Cell Phone Towers in the Mother City

Private Property South Africa
Anna-Marie Smith

Although driven by commercialisation, local council policies determine the outcomes, no matter how contentious the issue. And while revised city management policies, as in this case addressing perceived public health risks remain works in progress, existing zoning schemes, current land use rights, and municipal bylaws are the deciding factors.

In 2011 the City of Cape Town published a draft policy on telecommunication infrastructure open for public comment, on its revised Cellular Telecommunication Policy of 2002. Not yet legislated, the new policy in addition to the impacts on infrastructure, places special emphasis on risks of exposure to electromagnetic energy from telecommunication infrastructure. Current legislation, however according to the city’s Department of Environmental Affairs, specifies cellular mast erections to only require approvals for plans and buildings, but not Environmental Impact Assessments.

The newly proposed policy specifies the process of erection of cell phone masts or towers in all areas, to follow due course and most importantly, to show ‘good practice and duty of care’. The city’s commitment for greater accountability is expressed in view of perceived fears and ongoing research on the possible effects of electromagnetic radiation. It refers directly to the placement of masts and antennae, in positions where the least health impact and minimal visual impact occurs, and a more cautionary approach emphasising cell phone towers and mast infrastructures to be located away from habitable structures. If located within 50m of such a structure, the company must provide details of the radio frequency and electromagnetic fields. Should concerns exist over radio frequency strengths around the towers, measurements to ensure that acceptable ranges apply are suggested.

The unannounced construction of a cellular mast in the far south suburb of Fish Hoek has erupted in a public row as the result of no public consultation or information, other than the required approvals of building plans by the property owners. The mast accommodation site at the Valyland Centre is located in a residential area surrounded by schools, retirement homes, hospital and medical consulting facilities.

In addition to concerns about the potential health implications concerning children of all ages and the elderly, as well as the aesthetic impact on the surroundings, local councillors are opposed to the lack of consultation in the process. They say that although an EIA was not required, current land use rights as part of zoning controls, do not include free-standing telecommunications masts, but requires special consent as well as public participation.

Although the project is going ahead, the local community is in the process of a petition, and appeal to city Mayor Patricia de Lille, for the consideration of perceived adverse health effects on the local community.

Despite reassurances from telecommunications service providers that international safety exposure standards are followed, anecdotal reports from within the industry reveal powerful radiation levels at the top of masts, where technicians require radiation treatment for work exceeding ten minutes. While scientific research and epidemiology studies on the neuro-physiological effects in populations near base stations continue, conclusive scientific evidence has not yet been published regarding the effects of low level electromagnetic radiation from cellular phone masts.

So far, general perceptions regarding the amount of exposure from living near a cell phone tower are many times lower than the exposure from the use of cellular hand devices, particularly in children.

To this end the precautionary measure from the World Health Organisation, of categorizing cellular phone radiation as a “possible carcinogenic hazard”, the same label the organisation placed on lead, engine exhaust and chloroform.

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