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Cancer fears over mobile phone antennae at university in Hong Kong

Rooftops at HKUST are clogged with ever more mobile phone antennae - so much so that residents fear a link between radiation and cancer cases

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 5:00am
 

It must rank as one of the most spectacular university campuses in the world - a dramatic vista commanding vertigo-inducing views across some of the most unspoilt stretches of coastline in the New Territories.

But compare the outlook from the dizzy heights of the University of Science and Technology in Clear Water Bay to that of a few years ago and you may notice that something new breaks up the horizon of outlying islands and passing yachts: dozens of mobile phone antennae.

In a process that began some six years ago, telecom companies have paid the university to put more and more antennae on teaching blocks and student and staff quarters to improve mobile phone signals in a once notoriously patchy corner of the city for reception.

From just a handful of antennae in 2007, long-term campus residents count 87 rooftop antennae, or base stations, dotted liberally across campus buildings in what may be the highest density of mobile phone antennae per head of population anywhere in Hong Kong.

For the university, with its student body of 12,600 and teaching staff of over 500, it's a win-win arrangement.

Mobile phone companies improve their coverage, including the signal on campus, and provide welcome funds for the university's scholarship programme (although it will not say precisely how much).

But for some academics with young families living on campus - who have seen a new batch of antennae spring up over the Christmas break - the antennae have gradually changed from an architectural oddity into a nagging health concern.

Fuelled by overseas stories of alleged rises in cancer rates in areas close to clusters of mobile phone antennae, they fear their health and that of their children is being put in jeopardy.

They say they have not been informed when additional antennae are put in place and are now preparing an online petition that will demand, among other things, to know why the university has allowed so many antennae and how much money it has been paid.

Concerns over the antennae have escalated to the point where residents are questioning whether there is a link between cancer cases on the campus in recent years involving both teaching staff and students.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, because of the impact she fears it would have on her job, one academic said the erection of new antennae this month meant there were 11 antennae on just two campus apartment blocks housing 22 families - many of them with young children. One block has a kindergarten on the ground floor.

"When the first two mobile phone antennae appeared on staff residential blocks in 2007, some 30 to 40 residents signed a letter expressing concern over it," the woman said. "One lady living directly below the antennae with two young children was quite upset about it.

"We were told that radiation levels were within safe limits and that everything was safe. We let the matter lie until now when more and more antennae have appeared."

She claimed there had been 10 cases of cancer in the past four years among residents of the 19 tower blocks where academic staff and their families live, some of them fatal, and a case of advanced lung cancer in a postgraduate student who was a non-smoker.

Although there was no evidence of any link between the antennae and the cancer cases, suspicions were heightened by what residents see as the apparent secrecy surrounding their installation, she argued.

"They should have the decency to inform us when they put up additional antennae. A lot of my neighbours don't know what is going on.

"I have a neighbour with young children and she had no idea about the antennae until I told her.

"They have added so many new antennae around the campus. It is simply unacceptable.

"We feel the Environment Bureau should step in and investigate," she said.

"We want the university to tell us what the safe limit is for mobile phone antennae, because we seem to have so many here. We want to know why they are putting up so many antennae here and how much money they are getting from it.

"It may be that they rely on this money to survive. But is it worth sacrificing the health of the staff and the students?"

Another member of the teaching staff questioned why mobile phone companies did not place antennae on nearby deserted hillsides rather than on the top of apartment blocks.

"There are so many hills around here, so surely they could build a tower away from residential areas," the member of staff said. "Perhaps they are just taking this option because it is cheaper, but why is the university allowing this?

"If you go around Hong Kong, you can go to posh apartment blocks and there are no mobile phone antennae there because people won't allow it. But if you go to run-of-the-mill apartment blocks you will see a lot of mobile phone antennae."

Similarly, the member of staff said apartment blocks on campus housing senior university employees did not have antennae on top while those housing more junior employees did.

"Our biggest concern is for the health of our children," the employee said. "These are staff quarters and a lot of children live here. Students are here for two or three years but we stay here for years and our children grow up here."

The member of staff added: "Academics come here from around the world with their young families. We call ourselves Asia's 'world city'. How can we subject them and their families to this without even warning them?"

Responding to the concerns, a spokeswoman for the university said: "The university has been closely monitoring all antenna installations to ensure they fulfil conditions stated in the code of practice established by the Office of the Telecommunications Authority, which was merged with the Broadcasting Authority to become the Office of the Communications Authority.

"In addition, the university has been performing regular antennae surveys to monitor for any potential safety and health impact.

"All surveys conducted by the university show exposure to antenna-associated electromagnetic radiation on campus remain well within allowable safety limit[s].

"The electromagnetic [EM] radiation emitted by the telephone base stations … are in a conical-fan shape and essentially directed away from the building, towards the horizon with a slight downward tilt.

"The EM radiation weakens rapidly with distance from the antenna, and the exposure for those at distances exceeding 10 metres from these base stations will be much less than the applicable World Health Organisation exposure guidelines."

Radiation exposure from base stations was, in any case, negligible, the spokeswoman stressed. "Generally it is impossible for people to stand in close proximity, such as within a few metres, directly in front of these antennae," she said.

"Secondly, most of these antennae are located in a controlled area where only authorised personnel such as maintenance staff may have access."

She said there was a strong demand for phone coverage, adding: "The number of mobile phone antenna is dictated by topography of the site and configuration of the buildings."

The spokeswoman declined to say how much was paid by mobile phone companies but said all income generated went to the university's undergraduate scholarship fund.

She added: "The university pays close attention to the well-being of its members and is committed to providing a safe, environmentally friendly and enabling environment for the campus community."

A spokesman for the Office of the Communications Authority said mobile phone operators had to obtain its approval for base stations.

"Approval will be granted only if the radio base station concerned meets, among other things, the radiation safety requirement," the spokesman said.

After consulting the Department of Health, guidelines issued by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) had been adopted in Hong Kong and there was "no evidence" radiation levels below those levels caused adverse health effects.

There was no requirement for residents in blocks where base stations were to be installed to be informed, the spokesman said.

If members of the public were concerned about radiation, the office could arrange site visits, the spokesman added.

"If the measures results suggest that the [radiation] levels have been exceeded or even approach the ICNIRP limits, the MNOs [mobile phone network operators] concerned are required to implement remedial action including placing antennas at a higher location, lowering the transmitting powers and restricting access to high [radiation] areas."

From 2010 to last November, the office conducted 896 on-site measurements and only two base stations required remedial action to lower radiation levels, the spokesman said.

Such assurances are unlikely to bring an end to the concerns of some families living directly below the antennae.

"I've been told that the voltage of the antennae can be turned up or down - so if the telecom companies know an inspection is taking place, they can turn the antennae down before any inspection," the member of the teaching staff said.

"I don't trust the office's measurements. We are trying to get a monitor of our own so that we can take random measurements ourselves and find out the real level of radiation our families are being exposed to."

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