Tory tycoon in phone mast protest

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ARCHIE NORMAN, Tory MP and founder of the Asda supermarket chain, is the latest recruit to the anti-mobile phone mast campaign, joining 200 action groups in raising concern over the safety of the structures' radiation emissions and over their presence - often labelled a blight - in the countryside.

Campaigners recently successfully stopped an attempt by Orange to install three masts in Bidborough and Southborough near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Mr Norman's constituency. Residents feared radiation would be emitted just a few feet from the nearest home. After supporting the Bidborough residents, Mr Norman said he would raise the issue in the Commons. "It is clear that the Government must give a stronger lead in answering people's legitimate health concerns about mobile phone masts and in forcing the companies to act responsibly as they expand their networks," he said.

The campaigners are mobilising for action but know it will be a rearguard effort; 19.6 million people already rely on mobile phones and, as the market continues to expand, many more masts will be installed on suitably positioned buildings.

The mobile phone companies deny any link between the masts and damage to public health. "There is no conclusive evidence that makes a link between exposure to transmitter masts and long-term public health risks," said a spokesman for the mobile phone firm, Orange.

But there is growing concern among scientists about the health risk. Studies in the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden and Canada, suggest that masts emit pulsed radiation, which has been shown to cause memory loss, damage to the eye and immune system, and cell damage of a type linked to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Anya Wood, who led the Bidborough and Southborough campaign, said she had been seriously concerned for her two young children. "The mast antenna would have been just a few feet from their bedroom window. Children are most at risk from these masts and it is appalling that these companies should try to erect them near homes and schools."

More than 500 schools in Britain have been paid up to pounds 10,000 each to let mobile phone companies set up masts on their property.

Gerard Hyland, a physicist at Warwick University said the potential for damage to health was real. "Human beings are vulnerable to being interfered with by external electrical fields. Microwave pulses of the kind used in masts are recognised by a part of the brain which is not stable in children until they reach the age of 12. That puts them more at risk than adults."

Similar concerns last week prompted parents in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, to withdraw 100 children, 11 permanently, from a school in protest at a mast. In Torbay, Devon, campaigners are protesting against a mast on the roof of a maternity unit, citing research in France which found that mobile phone radiation increases the mortality rate of chick embryos.

Clive Hickling, a campaigner in touch with action groups around the country, says he has details of 124 "legitimate" cases where people have genuine reason to be concerned. "Where it is practical masts should be at least 500 metres from schools, hospitals, old people's homes and dwellings," he said.

Helene Irvine, a consultant in environmental health with Great Glasgow Health Board, last week advised the Scottish Parliament to ban any further masts in schools and residential areas until more was known about the long-term health risk. Drawing parallels with the assumptions that tobacco and asbestos were once thought safe, she said: "The technology has been released for use by the general population without the kind of experiments that would enable scientists to confirm that it is entirely safe."

Local councils, which can refuse planning permission for masts on grounds of potential public health risk, are beginning to listen. Wyre Borough in Lancashire was the first local authority to refuse permission on such grounds.

However, councils can only oppose masts smaller than 15 metres on grounds of siting and appearance, and the companies are pushing ahead to provide a network. "To enable Orange to provide the best coverage we have to erect a network of telecommunications transmitters across the country," said the Orange spokesman.

Other protest groups are fighting on aesthetics grounds. The National Trust voted to oppose masts causing a blight on the countryside, and in Guildford, Surrey, and in Maidstone, Kent, residents have been fighting to stop the erection of masts, which they fear will affect the tone of their neighbourhoods.

Companies say they have addressed the aesthetic concerns - by designing masts that resemble trees and which blend with church steeples and windmills.