Keeping an eye on the invisible

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has launched an intiative to track electromagnetic radiation.

Jerusalem may be an ancient city, but today it is a modern metropolis - complete with modern metropolis problems. As the world of wireless communication expands, Jerusalemites are being bathed in an ever-increasing cocktail of electromagnetic radiation from a variety of sources. At present, the public has no way of finding out just what they are being exposed to at any given spot in the city. Now the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has begun a project to put radiation on the map. A concerned Jerusalem resident approached the SPNI a year ago with an inquiry as to what the environmental protection group was doing about electromagnetic pollution in the capital. At the time the SPNI had to admit that it didn't have any projects on that particular aspect of the environment. To the society's surprise and delight, the resident, under strict condition of anonymity, offered to provide the initial funding for a project to investigate the sources and exposure levels of electromagnetic radiation in Jerusalem. SPNI environment health project manager Jacqeline Rose explains that there are two types of pollution: visible and invisible. The public is aware of visible pollution - such as pollution from industry and air pollution - because they can sense it. But invisible pollution - such as radiation - remains completely hidden unless exposed by careful scientific measurements. Mobile phone antennas, radio masts, electric cables, transformers and wireless Internet devices all are contributing to the waves of radiation that pass right through us all day, every day. "When you sit in your Jerusalem caf on Emek Refaim, using your laptop and speaking on your mobile phone and drinking your coffee, you don't really realize what you are being bombarded with," Rose says. Jerusalem already has some legendary notorious spots where local residents cower in the glare of perceived radiation. In French Hill, a main line carrying 160 kVolts of electricity has been the subject of many protests and demonstrations because of its proximity to homes in the area. In Armon Hanatziv, residents of Rehov Meir Nakar claim the accumulated effect of a large phone antenna, an electricity switching unit and some now defunct radio masts has caused an unusually high incidence of cancer among residents. Among the various sources of radiation, mobile phone antennas have been the chief bane of public opinion, a status made worse by their rapid spread across Israeli cities. In the past, mobile phone companies could erect antennas almost at will without consulting local residents. Although each antenna required a building permit from the local authority and certification by the Ministry of the Environment there was no requirement to involve the public in the process. But all that changed at the beginning of the year, with the introduction of a new law that requires companies to inform all local residents before they install a new antenna. The new law also empowers residents to protest new antennas and block installation. However, there are already over 400 mobile phone antennas across the capital. In lieu of any conclusive evidence to show that mobile phone antennas are a health hazard, scientific and public debate continues over the possible side-effects of constant exposure to microwave radiation. Yet even if the health effects are a matter of contention, there is another side effect that is immediate and acute: With public hysteria over the antennas running high, the presence of a phone mast has a damaging effect on the property market in the surrounding area. Just how seriously the public takes the threat of radiation is reflected in the effect the antennas have on house sales. Property owners unfortunate enough to have an antenna for a neighbor have a hard time getting rid of their property, according to Alyssa Friedland, a broker and owner of Remax Capital and Remax vision, Jerusalem real estate offices. "They have a tremendous effect, people are very reluctant to buy properties that are a certain distance to mobile phone antennas," she says. "That 'distance' is not scientific. They don't measure. They look out the window and if they can see it they don't want the property." Whereas it is difficult to estimate what impact antennas have on property prices, the difference they make on demand is much clearer. An average Jerusalem property will usually change hands in just three to six months. Buildings in the invisible shadow of a cellular phone mast can take over a year while owners try to petition the mobile phone companies to move and take their wares elsewhere. Often prospective property sellers resort to renting their premises instead, as temporary tenants are less picky about possible long-term health risks. The task of keeping tabs on the radiation levels in Jerusalem falls on the shoulders of Ya'acov Lomberg, the Ministry of the Environment's senior coordinator for radiation safety in Jerusalem. Speaking from his office at the ministry's offices on Keren Hayesod Street, Lomberg says the public is becoming increasingly aware of the mobile phone antennas beaming radiation 24 hours a day and that they may have health implications. In the last year, Lomberg received over 430 requests from members of the public for the ministry to come and check radiation levels from antennas. Lomberg and his team of technicians say they do their best to answer every request and so far say they have not found any danger points. Whereas the Ministry of the Environment defines the maximum radiation level in residential areas as 40 microwatt per square centimeter (mW/cm2), Lomberg says the highest he has recorded was just 4-5 mW/cm2. Lomberg demonstrates how measurements are taken by checking a mobile phone antenna on top of the Histadrut building on Rehov Sokolov. As Lomberg probes the invisible rays with a special detector, a passing local resident speaks out about her fears and doubts over the antenna that overlooks her home. "I am absolutely miserable. It is a shock to the stomach every morning when I see it after opening the blinds," says the woman who rejected Lomberg's assurances that the antenna's output is well within the recommended standards. "In 20 years' time they will say 'we made a mistake,'" continues the woman, who declined to give her name. "They always say you are a safe distance away but they don't really know." It is just that kind of confusion that Rose hopes the new map will help to calm. Every antenna, pylon, relay, transformer and radio mast in the capital will be marked on the map together with its output. "Our first aim is to map the current situation in Jerusalem," she says. "If we want to be intellectually honest then we need to know what is going in the city before we start campaigning about anything." Friedland welcomes the SPNI initiative. "Good for them, I think that is admirable," she says. "I think the awareness is important in the community and the more information people have, the better." Friedland also says she is not concerned that too much information may create even more panic and alarm. "I think it will only be to the advantage of the consumer and the public to have this information at hand," she adds. "The public who live around those areas will only make even more of a stink, so it is a benefit to our society and to every homeowner to petition to have them removed." Lomberg agrees that the SPNI map may help to alleviate fears because at present, the public relies only on what they can see. "Sometimes people think that if there is an antenna in the area then that is already bad, but the map will clarify things," he says. Even so, Lomberg explains that as threatening as the phone masts may look, their levels of radiation are quite low, lower even than what the phones themselves put out during a phone call. "What you get from the phones is 100 times what you get from the antennas," he says. To begin with, the project will focus on just three areas; downtown, Armon Hanatziv and Katamon. The downtown area is of concern because in addition to the mobile phone radiation, there is now also an increase in wireless Internet usage, another source of radiation. Armon Hanatziv and Katamon are two areas with which SPNI already has a working relationship. The former, due to problems of radon gas and the latter because of asbestos concerns in old buildings. So far the SPNI has completed maps for the target areas based on registered information from official municipal sources. Now Rose will begin the second phase of the work by verifying the facts on the ground. The aim is to identify "hotspots" of accumulated radiation from different sources. Yet for all the derision directed at the phone antennas, there is another form of radiation that Rose says is a more pressing concern. Modern society with all its amenities requires electric power - and lots of it. Every day some 360 megawatts of electricity flow across Jerusalem, and as the current surges across the capital it emits circular waves of magnetic radiation - measured in Gausses - along the length of the cables and wires. "The whole issue of phone antennas is quite blown out of proportion in Israel," Rose says. "People don't realize that electromagnetic radiation is also from other sources such as cables, transformer boxes and high voltage power lines." The Forum for Mobile Phone Companies, a joint media organization that operates on behalf of all of the country's mobile phone companies, was cautious in its response to the map. In a statement issued to In Jerusalem the forum said that decisions regarding mobile phones are driven by considerations that are popular rather than professional. "We hope that the SPNI does not intend to take part in the popularity game that is being played at the expense of the public, but rather intends to produce a real tool that is professional and accurate for the benefit of the public." The forum added that it hoped the map would show that all of the mobile phone antennas are in accordance with the law, have the requisite permits and are part of the national infrastructure. Electricity's reputation was tarnished when a 2004 report by the Childhood Cancer Research Group at Oxford University claimed a link between high-tension power cables and leukemia in children in Britain. "We know that radiation does have detrimental health effects, the question is how much and what is the threshold," Rose says. In Israel, the Ministry of the Environment gathered together a forum of scientists to investigate and define what the country's policy will be on electromagnetic radiation from the electric infrastructure. The committee's findings, published in March 2005, recommend maintaining the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) that call for a 20-meter safety "corridor" on either side of high voltage lines. Israel has adopted that standard as well as a rating that the population should not be exposed to a total intensity above 1,000 miligauss. By comparison, an average electric shaver can generate up to 60,000 miligauss a few centimeters from the device. In Jerusalem, the Israel Electric Company has already replaced many of the aging pylons that held a lattice of cables above streets and has installed a subterranean network instead. Today, the downtown area is supplied by cables hidden one meter beneath the ground. But aside from the aesthetic value, burying cables is also considered safer. The ground itself acts an insulator and the cables themselves are further insulated to prevent radiation. Although the cables lie below roads they do not pass underneath any buildings. Israel Electric Company (IEC) Environment Unit Coordinator Ben-Sion Cohen insists that the IEC adheres to WHO recommendations and the ministry forum. At the same time, the IEC is taking further measures to try and reduce the radiation exposure as much as possible by keeping electric infrastructure as far as possible from residential building. High voltage cables usually dive underground on the outskirts of cities and then resurface at distribution points or switching stations where the current is continued on to homes. "These days they can't run a cable like that through an inner city because there is no space for the 20-meter corridor," Cohen explains. Distribution lines that carry a lower voltage of 22 kilovolts are required to have a three-meter safety zone on either side of them. These are the lines often found along the length of roads. Although the center of town is now pylon-free, there is no overall project to replace the entire electric infrastructure in the capital. Rather, the cables will be replaced when local demand exceeds their capabilities and then modern methods will be employed. But aside from the cables, another significant source of radiation are the transformer boxes that convert the higher voltages into the 220 volts in homes. In order to make the transfer as efficient as possible, the transformers need to be as close as possible to buildings so that energy is not wasted as the lower voltages move along the cables. "The media has caused a panic that is out of all proportion," Cohen says. "There are many people whose fears are unfounded because they don't have the right information." Although, in theory it is possible to reduce the level of emissions to almost zero, Cohen claims the cost of installing such an infrastructure would outweigh the justification of acting on the hunch that the radiation is carcinogenic. "People would have to pay much more for their electricity to cover the cost," he says. Rose, however, hopes the map will be the first step toward pushing safety standards to beyond any doubts. "Our question is not if there is a health risk, our question is how much of a health risk," Rose says. "We want to try and set the standards as high as possible to minimize the health risks. We want to take a precautionary approach."