Before liberalisation, there were 202 towers operated by TSTT.
With the entry of new players into the local telecom market, close to 400 new towers have been built and more are likely to be erected over the next several months.
This has sparked protests in several communities, including Valsayn, La Florissante and Arouca where residents have mounted placard protests around the structures and have joined forces to demand the removal of towers. They are concerned that the towers pose a threat to their health.
In this regard, TT is not unique. Around the world there have been protests over cell towers, some of them violent, with protestors pulling down tower masts and physically attacking installation crews.
At the core of these protests are fears that the towers are a danger to human health and that the radiation produced by the structures can cause cancer, impair the body’s immune system and affect the nervous system, causing a range of behavioural, cognitive, neurochemical and neurological problems.
However, to date there is no conclusive scientific or medical evidence to support claims that cell towers are harmful to health
Among those weighing in on this contentious issue is the world’s leading expert on cell phone radiation, Dr Henry Lai, a research professor based at the University of Washington’s Bioengineering Department. For more than two decades and with very little fanfare, Dr Lai has been spearheading efforts to understand the health effects of cell phones and tower radiation.
But for all his years of research, Dr Lai can’t offer a definitive answer on whether cell towers pose a risk to human health: “There’s no solid answer but there’s cause for concern.”
Dr Lai has published a number of studies indicating that radiation emitted by cell phones may pose a health hazard.
He found a loss of short-term and long-term memory among rats exposed to radiation similar to what a person experiences in talking on a cell phone for an hour.
His research also showed that brain cells suffer genetic damage from the same kind of radiation emitted by cell phones. Such DNA damage is a precursor to cancer.
However, according to Dr Lai, no one has studied the long-term effects of living near cell towers.
He says he will not live next to one himself and worries about exposing young children, whose “cells are still dividing”.
In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dr Lai said he advises people to use cell phones if they need to and concedes that a link to cancer has not been proven.
“It’s difficult. It’s like the beginning of the tobacco lawsuits. It took a long time to establish a cause-and-effect relationship,” he said.
“Research is a slow process. Scientists are always conservative, too. Nobody will say, ‘That’s a fact.’”
On the other hand, the American Cancer Society insists that “several theoretical considerations suggest” cell phone towers are “unlikely to cause cancer.”
According to the group, the energy of the radio waves from cell towers is not enough to alter molecules in the body. In addition, public exposure near cell phone towers is “not significantly different than background levels of radio frequency (RF) radiation in urban areas from other sources, such as radio and television broadcast stations.”
Measurements and experiments conducted around the world have shown that the transmitter power levels from cell phone towers are relatively low. In addition, experts say it is a misconception that propagation of more towers increases the risk of radiation exposure. In fact, this can result in lower radiated power since the distance between the transmitter and receiver is lower.
To protect people living near cell towers and users of cell phones, governments and regulatory bodies around the world have adopted safety standards which translate to limits on exposure levels above a certain value. The most widely used of these standards are the ones set by the International Committee for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) which have been adopted by more than 80 countries. The ICNIRP recommends two safety levels - one for occupational exposure, another for the general population.
In this country, the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT) is responsible for licensing all radio-transmitting equipment. The body has adopted the standards on safe RF emission levels established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States. TATT has mandated that all radio-transmitting equipment, including those controlled by the mobile telephone companies operating in this country, be operated within the limits imposed by these FCC standards.
According to the TATT, the maximum permissible exposure (MPE) limits to which people in this country are exposed are “well below levels generally accepted as having the potential to cause adverse health effects” and “provide a substantial margin of safety”.
A recent TATT advisory on the issue states: “TATT has included these limits in the concessions and/or licences that authorise companies to operate in Trinidad and Tobago and will monitor RF levels on an ongoing basis.
“The erection of towers constitutes development under the Town and Country Planning Act (Chapter 35:01) and therefore requires the prior permission of the Minister responsible for town and country planning.
“The Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD) has formulated a policy which includes site development standards and location criteria for the erection of towers. These standards regulate among other things, tower location, height and distance from buildings and residences and take into consideration the visual impact of these structures and their potential effect on residential amenity values.
“The policy also addresses the issue of towers constructed over the last two or three years without the necessary approvals.”
Before they can erect new tower facilities, mobile telephone companies operating in TT require permission from several agencies — TATT, TCPD and the relevant municipal corporation or local government authority.
The companies are also required to invite objections from the public on towers to be constructed. These objections must be forwarded to TATT.
On receipt of an objection, the TATT will address matters related to RF emissions and the objection will be forwarded to the TCPD. At present there are 38 such objections before the TATT.
At the international level, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended a precautionary principle to be applied becaused of the “high degree of scientific uncertainty” about possible health risks from cell phone towers. The principle recommends taking “action for a potentially serious risk without awaiting the results of scientific research”.
Recommendations include minimisation of cell phone usage, limiting use by at-risk population, such as children, wider use of hands-off and earphone technologies such as Bluetooth headsets and adoption of maximum standards of exposure, RF field intensity and distance of cell phone tower antennas from homes.