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People who don't want to live
next door to an antenna
story and photo by Eric Jackson
It's not a matter of Panamanians who are bigoted against space aliens.
The complaint is about cell phone towers and their regulation, and it involves people's well and not so well founded concerns about health effects and real estate values.
The effects of electromagnetic fields on human health add up to one of the modern world's great opportunities for scientific corruption, because there's so much money riding on the question.
Do you think that experts never get bribed to slant their opinions in favor of those who are paying them? Then you know very little about things like litigation in the US courts, or the history of the tobacco industry's worldwide lobbying efforts over most of the 20th century.
If you can get brain cancer from talking on cell phones, or some other disease from the radiation exposure you might get by living next door to a cell phone tower, surely there will be some corporate shill with a doctorate who denies that possibility. And if such harmful effects are shown to be scientifically impossible, that still wouldn't stop some fanatic or mercenary with a degree from arguing to the contrary.
Opinion is divided on the cell phone question. Mostly it's believed that use of a cell phone isn't dangerous, while on the other hand it's believed that people living under power lines or very close to broadcasting towers do run health risks.
The World Health Organization sums up the controversy as follows:
It is not disputed that electromagnetic fields above certain levels can trigger biological effects. Experiments with healthy volunteers indicate that short-term exposure at the levels present in the environment or in the home do not cause any apparent detrimental effects. Exposures to higher levels that might be harmful are restricted by national and international guidelines. The current debate is centered on whether long-term low level exposure can evoke biological responses and influence people's well being.
* * *
Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.
In keeping with such advice, the Panamanian government passed a law in 2006 and issued regulations in 2007 that banned cell phone towers within six meters of any residence or within 50 meters of any school, hospital or nursing home, and required those who put up such towers to advise every neighbor within 100 meters about possible effects (not only to health, but to things like radio and TV reception as well) and advise them of measures that could be taken to avoid these effects. The Ministry of Health was given responsibility for licensing cell phone towers.But now there are two more cell phone companies entering the Panamanian market, the Irish-based Digicell and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim's Claro.
So, does that mean as many arguments about cell phone towers as we had when Cable & Wireless and Bell South pioneered cellular telephony in Panama, such a plethora of complaints that eventually the government moved in with a law and regulations? It was beginning to look that way, especially when companies began to put up towers without telling any of the neighbors as the regulations required.
The Torrijos administration has moved against both the cell phone companies and the neighbors, and not everyone is happy. The president repealed the earlier regulations that had been decreed; and shifted responsibility for regulating cell phone towers from the Ministry of Health to the Public Services Authority (ASEP). People who are worried about health hazards don't like that, because ASEP's reputation is one of being very permissive to whatever the utility companies it regulates want. Within a few days of getting the power to regulate cell phone towers, ASEP decreed that the existing cell phone companies must allow the new companies to put up their equipment on existing towers. This doesn't necessarily make Cable & Wireless or Telefonica / Movistar very happy, but it ought to diminish the numbers of citizen complaints that the authority receives.
And thus we see the above photograph of a few people who don't want cell phone towers near them protesting in front of ASEP on November 6. Added to their basic complaint about potential health effects were allegations that cell phone towers in low-density residential neighborhoods violate land use laws and detract from property values. The protesters expressed their annoyance with both President Torrijos and Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro.
It's hard to say how this issue will turn out politically. The shifting of authority will raise suspicions among some sectors of the population. However, the number of complaints will surely be reduced by the tower sharing order. Plus the addition of two new competitors to the cell phone market might or might not give Panamanian consumers lower prices or better service. So far none of the presidential or mayoral candidates have made a campaign issue of cell phone towers.
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2008 by Eric Jackson
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