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Electromagnetic Radiation - Report On Ouruhia Health Concerns
Jacqueline Steincamp - 8/1/99

If you haven't already, you may like to read the first article in this series.

Jacqueline Steincamp
That apparently safe levels of electromagnetic radiation should have negative health effects has enormous implications. They are implications that modern industrialised society does not wish to contemplate in any shape or form.

Are the unseen forces of EMR the real cause of a near-epidemic of ill health at Ouruhia? Or is it something else again? Such as the stress of worrying about normal disease and degenerative processes? And the difficulties of removing the suspected cause?

This semi-rural area on the north-east outskirts of Christchurch has nothing to put it on the map - except perhaps its radio transmission tower. The countryside is green and flat ... mixed farming, horticulture, residential. A horsey area, with parents, children, horses and ponies often in glorious interaction .. some around that slender radio tower tucked unobtrusively in the middle of a paddock.

Radio transmission tower and health worries
The 420-ft tower was put up in 1980 for AM transmissions. It was only in the nineties that health worries began to surface. There were worries about the health of adults, children - even some of the animals - especially horses. As residents got together and shared their experiences, concern began to grow that their sickness was emanating from the tower.

At that stage no-one knew that unauthorised FM transmissions had been added in 1990.

One young woman said: "What upsets me is to think we used to sit in the sun up against that fence around the mast base, and that is where we used to feed the horses. I loved that place. I thought it was so peaceful. I had no idea it was the thing causing me to become ill. It makes me sick to think of it."

But not all were close to the tower - or even lived there. One man who came to work in the area in 1995 began to develop symptoms in mid-1996. "I just don't have the energy I used to have since coming to work out here. Before coming here, I was used to working 60 hours a week with no ill effects. I play a lot of sport - indoor cricket and rugby. But since coming here, my sports performance has dropped right off. My muscles and bones ache, and I can't put the same effort in."

Could it be the tower?
Residents initially sought an opinion from Dr Neil Cherry, a respected researcher into electromagnetic influences on health and the environment. He was in no doubt their concerns were well founded. Nevertheless, officialdom did not want to know. The Ministry of Health showed massive disinterest. Likewise, the Christchurch Clinical School of Medicine. There was just no money for any type of survey based on such conjecture. The residents swung into action, galvanised by the lobbying efforts of well known racehorse trainer, Penny Hargreaves.

Residents' survey stimulant to wider concern
Since no-one one would carry out a survey, the residents carried out one of their own. It found alarming levels of chronic ill health (reported earlier in NZine).

This was used as a basis for submissions to the Ministry of Health, the Canterbury Regional Council, the Environment Court and the Christchurch City Council (among others). The latter was seen as a key player, having issued the original permit to Radio Network for AM transmission in 1980, and having closed its eyes to the additional unauthorised FM transmissions added in mid 1990. It appears now that the Council may have been unaware of these transmissions.

Finally, along with the residents' well-orchestrated public meetings and a 60 Minutes TV programme, the City Council put its toe into the water. It asked Radio Network to apply for the two unauthorised transmissions. As no councillors were willing to chair the hearing, an independent commissioner, surveyor Kim McCracken, was appointed. The FM transmissions continued throughout the hearing.

One step forward, two steps back for the residents. In spite of McCracken recognising in his report that strong and unusual ill-health effects were present, he recommended a further two FM transmissions and one AM transmission be approved.

Bob Rogers, a retired school inspector who chairs the residents' meetings, says he was not surprised. "It was predictable that the commissioner would recommend that consent be granted, as the Council itself appeared to favour the FM transmissions by not insisting they cease until the decision was made."

Rogers, an affable fellow, says it makes him fume to think that had he, or any of the residents put up so much as a shed on their properties without consent, it would have been demolished pending consent.

Studies from all over
The Ouruhia residents have appealed the results of the hearing. They feel they have the majority of the elected Councillors on their side, and indeed the Council has taken the matter seriously. It arranged for further studies on the matter by commissioning:
Context Scientific Services of Christchurch to collect and collate the concerns of the residents
the Auckland firm of Keam Holden Associates, consulting engineers specialising in radio frequencies and microwave measurements, for independent EMR checks
Michael Bates, PhD, principal epidemiologist with the ESR Kenepuru Science Centre, and one of the authors of the 1996 Woodward Review on the Health Effects of Radio Frequency Radiation to comment on the Context survey findings.

The Context Survey
The study was inexpensive - $6,000 to record the residents' reports of ill health and to record common symptoms. And right from the outset, there was a grievous flaw. Council funding was not available for a control study or other refinements.

Context was able to go a long way through the good will and free advice from a number of specialists in various fields. It brought an advisory team together -- a medical doctor, a veterinarian, a specialist in statistical analysis and survey methodology, two experienced scientific researchers (one to advise in the field of electro-magnetic radiation, the other in scientific research).

The methodology consisted of a standardised questionnaire and follow-up interviews. A comparison was made between these findings and the data reported in a study in 1995 undertaken in Schwarzenburg, Switzerland. This is considered a landmark study both for methodology and findings. As at Ouruhia, the Swiss transmitter was found to be operating within the national standard.

The actual survey was carried out by Margaret Sweet, M.A. Mrs Sweet is an experienced researcher. Statistical analysis was carried out by ex-professor Geoffrey Sweet, D.Sc. Context also worked with Vassil Kerdemelidis, Ph.D., former senior lecturer in electrical engineering at the University of Canterbury, engaged by the residents to check EMR levels on properties where individuals reported ill health.

The 46pp document, issued in early November 1998, reported on the health concerns of 80% (156 people) of those living within 2 kms of the tower. It reported a high level of symptoms typical of effects of exposure to electromagnetic radiation in both humans and animals. The emphasis was on immediate symptoms, rather than disease states such as heart disease and cancer which may take years to develop.

Context found a high level of nine symptoms which have been reported in the literature as effects of exposure to EMR (electromagnetic radiation). Overall:

37% suffered from chronic fatigue;
35% had sleep problems;
30% experienced bone and muscle pain;
21% had frequent headaches;
19% had a burning sensation in the eyes
9% felt as though their skin was on fire;
19% reported extreme irritability;
19% had difficulty concentrating.
Surprisingly, anxiety and depression affected only 17%.

Sickness was not randomly dispersed. In the sickest cluster, a massive 61% reported chronic fatigue, 50% experienced bone pain, 39% had difficulties concentrating. About 30% reported the other symptoms listed above. But why clusters were formed was not clear. They could be analysed both by direction from the tower and without reference to the tower.

Comparable incidences with Schwarzenburg were found for sleep problems, but there were much higher incidences for fatigue, joint pain, headaches and concentration difficulties.

Many of those interviewed told of health improvements when they left the area, and of symptoms returning when they came back. One family of four became ill when living in the area. They sold their house, moved away, and their symptoms gradually subsided. The people who now live in that house have developed symptoms.

Residents' response
Residents were delighted to have their concerns confirmed and brought together in one document. They consider their situation very different from those who protest cell phone towers, in that this is concerned with current ill health, not the potential for future ill health. They are adamant that even if no correlation was found with field strength readings, the findings must indicate something very wrong. They argue that whether the cause is EMR or something else altogether, the level of sickness is untenable. They think it is up to agencies to find out the cause.

What evidence is there that EMR is to blame?
The Context researchers do not claim to have demonstrated a causative link between the ill health of the Ouruhia residents and EMR. When they reported to the residents, they addressed the question, "Is the transmitter causing ill health in the district?"

They reported that they had found:
no evidence of a correlation between AM and FM field strength
no evidence of a link between symptoms and distance from the tower.

On the other hand, they reported what they called indicative evidence of a possible EMR effect:
the high incidence of known EMR symptoms
some evidence of a link between the dates of new transmissions and onset of new symptoms
evidence that sick people got better when they left the area
incidences of symptoms higher than those found in the Schwarzenburg study in Switzerland.

Though Michael Bates disagrees, the Context researchers consider that the clustered, non-random nature of the ill health in the region suggests an external cause. This may or may not indicate an EMR effect, though in this brief enquiry, no evidence was found of exposure to chemical spray drift or other obvious sources of toxicity. The report notes some evidence of a relationship between the years when additional FM transmissions were added to the tower, and the onset of ill health.

The residents believe that there have been various changes made to transmissions over time. Among other things, they believe that the beam has been raised, and that power levels have been varied.

"This information is not publicly available," Margaret Sweet says, "but if an in-depth inquiry were to be undertaken, more detailed consideration should be given to changes to transmissions and reported changes in the pattern of symptoms."

All in all, the Context report makes a strong case for closing down the FM transmissions. But the opposition forces were on the warpath even before it was issued.

Rapid rebuttals
Research processes and requirements do not sit happily into the adversarial system. First to take up the cudgels were Radio Network's lawyers. They are ensuring that the principal players in the residents' camp are aware that they are on dangerous ground.

Then came Dr Bates' scathing rebuttal of the survey. An epidemiologist, he accused the researchers of bias, and found their methodology inadequate. Nevertheless, in spite of all his criticisms, he did not comment on the principal finding - that high levels of symptoms known to be linked with EMR are reported in the Ouruhia district.

Dr Bates' report has engendered a great deal of sympathy for the Context team. They are philosophic, saying only that the Establishment's protection of its position was predictable. "Dr Bates evaluated the report as an epidemiological study and found it wanting. You can't compare oranges with apples. One doesn't need a doctorate to realise that the City Council did not commission epidemiological research," Margaret Sweet commented.

Nevertheless, Radio Network has agreed to put a small amount towards a more detailed epidemiological study - provided that the residents can meet their amount. It is understood that one or two key figures in EMR research have indicated interest.

All reports go before the council's environmental committee in February 1999. Councillors are not to be envied in their deliberations. Meanwhile, the residents continue with protracted and complex negotiations with all parties. They are in no position to fight expensive legal battles, and feel that the Resource Management Act is inimical to the interests of everyone except Big Business.

Enough to give anyone a headache.

You may wish to read Part 4 in this series.

The report, "Concerns of the Residents of Ouruhia regarding the radio tower at 123 Lower Styx Road, Christchurch, New Zealand" was compiled by Margaret Sweet, M.A., of Context (NZ) Scientific Services. It is available for NZ$12 from Context at 29b Hamilton Ave., Christchurch 8005, New Zealand.

The report is also available on Ouruhia's new Website.

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