Mobile mast protester who will not be silenced

Friday, November 03, 2006

RIGHT now there are over 50million mobile phones in use in this country — that’s coming close to one per head in our 59million population. Over the years our love affair with this new technology has ensured that the mobile phone manufacturers release ever more sophisticated models every couple of months.

At first there was the brick phone with a non-colour screen which literally weighed the same as a house brick.

Nowadays they come with vivid screens, cameras, music players and radios.

They’re a way of life. But then again so was smoking not so long ago. And like cigarettes there’s an increasing number of people who are pin-pointing mobile phones as a health hazard. It’s not just the phone itself — but the masts that are needed to carry the signals.

Mobile phones at present have short transmission ranges — so in order to ensure a signal, masts have to be erected at fairly frequent locations. Today there are 35,000 of these masts across Britain and the number is growing.

But increasing numbers of individuals and groups are doing battle with both the government and mobile phone operators over the siting of new masts and the possible radiation damage being emitted from them.

The quiet community of Wishaw in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands just near the Warwickshire border may at first seem an unlikely setting for what was a long-term battle with one mobile phone giant — but it was here that one woman’s campaign against the industry was won with the help of some Irish courage.

It is not just in this country or Ireland that the name of Eileen O’Connor is now well-known in the campaign. Her ongoing objections to the siting of these masts have encouraged other protests across the globe.

The story starts at Eileen’s home in Wishaw when a 74-foot high TMobile mast was erected 12 years ago on a patch of land some 300 yards at the rear of the house she shares with husband Paul and their teenage children George and Grace.

That mast is no more — but it took one of the most vigorous campaigns in this country before it came down one November night.

At first the presence of a mobile phone mast at the rear of their new home did not seem too important — Paul and Eileen were too busy renovating their home and bringing up their two children to take much notice of the multi-finned 22-metre high structure.

But a few years later Eileen began to feel unwell with constant headaches, loss of sleep and unexplained rashes all over her body. Also of concern to her was the fact that George began to have unexplained nose bleeds and Grace suffered nightmares.

Friends and neighbours in and around Wishaw also began to notice health problems.

The house too seemed full of electrostatic which could be felt in the bedroom when touching the metal bed frames.

In 2001 Eileen discovered a lump in one of her breasts. A visit to her GP resulted in an assurance that the lump was only a small cyst.

But a few weeks later the lump had doubled in size and was soon diagnosed as cancer. There followed six months of both chemo and radiotherapy before a major operation.

Today Eileen is still receiving treatment although the prognosis is that for the moment the cancer is in remission.

But Eileen is convinced the cause of her illness as well as the unexplained medical conditions suffered by her family and neighbours related to the siting of the mobile phone mast.

She began to research all the known facts relating to mobile phone mast radiation transmissions — and despite all the assurances issued by the mobile phone operators and government Eileen was still convinced the mast was to blame.

With the help and support of her friend and neighbour Lynn Insley Eileen began to document the various illnesses in and around Wishaw.

Among those living in 18 houses within a 500 yard radius of the mast there were 20 cases of serious illness including cancers of the breast, prostrate, bladder and lung.

One man had Motor Neurone disease and many of the people affected were only in their 30s and 40s.

With so many of her neighbours attending hospital for treatment at the same time as she was Eileen decided to set up SCRAM — Sutton Coldfield Residents Against Masts.

Calls to T-Mobile resulted in Eileen being told emissions from the mast were well below government guidelines.

But their answer failed to convince the campaigners — who enlisted national media and lobbied MPs Mike O’Brien, Patricia Hewitt, David Davies and John Ryan to take up their case.

The move worked. In November 2003 something or somebody pulled the mast from its base and left it lying on its side.

Eileen said: “When I went to see what had happened I cried with delight.

“Even to this day nobody in Wishaw seems to know how the mast came down.”

Naturally the phone company wanted their broken mast back — but they hadn’t bargained with the Siege of Wishaw.

Residents surrounded the downed mast with a posse of volunteers and camped on the site 24 hours a day determined there would be no mast replacement.

The stand-off lasted for almost 18 months until finally the mast owners admitted defeat.

But with victory secured Eileen and her friends refused to let the matter rest.

Today Eileen’s time is spent dealing with similar worldwide protests.

Her most recent involvement was when she was invited to speak at the Health Protection Agency in London where she presented her case for the health issues surrounding mobile phone masts.

Most pressing to her is trying to stop the siting of the masts near schools.

She said: “We will not stop the huge increase in mobile phone use but what we are all about is where these masts are sited. They should not be near schools.

“Wales has taken the lead with a recent vote at the National Assembly to the principle of full planning consent for mobile masts.

“This leaves England very much isolated as the only part of Britain where full planning consent for phone masts is not required.” Eileen is also turning her attention to Ireland — one of the heaviest users of mobile phones.

There Dubliner Con Colbert is waging his own battle over mobile phone masts — claiming he is suffering ill-health from transmissions from a transmitter on top of a garda station.

Mr Colbert also claims other people are suffering from a wide range of symptoms including burning of the skin and sleep disorders. He is just one of an increasing number of people now lobbying the Dáil for more data on mobile phone mast emissions.

In Ballygawley in Co. Tyrone villagers still talk about the 150-foot high phone mast which was cut down some years back. It was thought that the death of a local man in his early 50s from cancer precipitated the revolt against the mast.

At the time local SDLP councillor Anthony McGonnell was quoted as saying: “There have been a number of other people in that area who have cancer and obviously local people are very concerned that this epidemic is being caused by the presence of the mast.”

For Eileen this is an international issue — and she points to research in Germany and Russia which has backed her case. But she believes the amount of money the British Government receives from the mobile industry in taxes and levies means there is a reluctance to tackle the issue.

She said: “Right now the British Government receives some £10billion a year in revenue from the mobile phone industry.

“Emergency government funds should be released — starting with at least £50million in order to deal with translation of German and Russian research, an education programme, media campaign and funding to independent scientists to carry out further research.”

Despite all the statistics on safety handed out by the government and mobile phone operators Eileen still remains convinced long term exposure to phone mast emissions can cause serious health issues — and so the campaign will go on.

Eileen said: “There’s an election coming up and if politicians do not take note then the campaign we have had here in Wishaw will be a drop in the ocean compared with what we will plan.”

And does Eileen really know who pulled the mast down in Wishaw? “Do you believe in Leprachauns?” she smiles.

© Irish Post, 2006.


How one Irish woman took on the mobile phone giants


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