Russel Norman

Cellphone towers, health and democracy

by Russel Norman


I went to a hastily organised public meeting up the hill from my house last night about a proposed cellphone tower in Hataitai, Wellington. Vodafone want to put a cellphone tower on top of a street light pole among a bunch of houses near the school.

Vodafone only notified two local residents, and they in turn notified some of the local community – one of those notified was Fiona Kidman and she ended up in the DomPost yesterday about it. 

The meeting at the school, organised at short notice, had 30 or so people at it. They resolved to ask Vodafone to talk to the community about the tower before they built it. We were fortunate to have someone come along from the fight over towers in Titahi Bay to give us some support and advice.

Health and precaution

The issue of concern is the potential health risk associated with chronic exposure to non-ionising radiation, or radio frequency radiation, being emitted by these towers, or base stations. A French Court, for example, forced a telecommunications company to take down a cellphone tower in 2009 on the grounds that 

While the scientific discussion remains inconclusive, the company Bouygues Telecom has not demonstrated in the present case either the absence of risk nor the respect of any principle of precaution…..Considering that, while the reality of the risk remains hypothetical, it becomes clear from reading the contributions and scientific publications produced in debate and the divergent legislative positions taken in various countries, that uncertainty over the harmlessness of exposure to the waves emitted by relay antennas persists and can be considered serious and reasonable


There is a lot of evidence out there that casts some uncertainty over the safety of these masts and enough uncertainty to suggest a precautionary approach to the issue.

And yet, as I will demonstrate, NZ’s approach has been the exact opposite of the precautionary principle. How cellphone towers are put up in our neighbourhoods is a case study in how corporations exercise power and how the Labour Party is complicit in this.

Your rights and Labour’s NES

The extraordinary fact is that you have no legal right to have any say over the placement of cellphone towers on street poles on the road reserve. You have no legal right to stop them putting a cellphone mast one metre outside your kids’ bedroom if that’s where the street pole is. Period.

Your legal rights were all removed by the Labour Govt by regulation on Sept 8, 2008.

Labour removed all of your legal rights while calling it something rather positive sounding – they did it by enacting a National Environmental Standard. Sounds good doesn’t it; say it aloud and you’ll feel positive about our government: National Environmental Standard.

Trevor Mallard was the so-called Minister for the Environment who pushed through this so-called National Environmental Standard (NES) for Telecommunications Facilities.

The NES says that, so long as the telcos meet certain rules around the size of the cellphone towers and boxes, and meet a NZ Standard (NZS 2772) on the radiation coming out of the equipment, the telcos don’t have to get any permission from the local council or the residents to put up as many cellphone towers as they like on street poles on the road reserve. You can read the cabinet papers here.

Normally you think of an environmental standard as a minimum standard of environmental protection. Instead this standard is a maximum standard – councils are not allowed, for example, to say that they want to have a more precautionary approach to radiation in their district and require the towers emit less radiation than they are allowed to under this NES.

I think it’s wrong to impose a maximum standard of protection. If a local community, as represented by their elected council, wants to reduce the radiation coming out of cellphone base stations in their area then they should be allowed to.

Telcos and the NES

Now, Labour’s NES is pretty draconian, forcing people to accept devices around their homes and schools that continuously emit radiation, so if you were going to impose such a draconian set of rules on people, you’d want to be pretty confident that independent people with a strong health focus wrote the rules wouldn’t you?

Think again. According to the Parliamentary Library, Labour got the following people together to form the  Telecommunications Industry Reference Group which wrote the report which formed the basis of the NES:

  • Alistair Dixon, TelstraClear Limited
  • Chris Horne, Incite (Auckland) Limited, Resource Management Consultant for Telecom
  • Christine Turner, formerly Telecom New Zealand Limited
  • David Willetts, Enfocus Planning Limited – Ministry for the Environment Consultant
  • Harry Hopkinson, Telecom New Zealand Limited
  • Ian Hutchings, Ministry of Economic Development
  • Irene Clarke, Local Government New Zealand
  • Karl Mischewski, Vodafone New Zealand Limited
  • Pat Holm, Local Government Advisory Group
  • Poul Israelson, Harrison Grierson, Resource Management Consultant for Vodafone and TelstraClear
  • Richard Hawke, Ministry of Economic Development
  • Sally Gilbert, Ministry of Health.

As you can see there was just a single person who was there to represent a health perspective, the rest were either the telcos, or govt agencies supporting the telcos,. or local govt. The telcos had an interest in lowering the cost of putting up towers, the government departments were there to help lower costs, and Local Govt NZ was not there as a health expert. It was a jack up.

Labour then used the report of these people as the basis of the National Environmental Standard. Feeling safe and secure?

The NZ Standard

But I hear you say, what about the New Zealand Standard 2772 that underpins the NES. That’s gotta be legitimate right? I mean a New Zealand Standard just sounds solid and proper doesn’t it? We’re the most uncorrupt country on the planet, surely a New Zealand Standard, is the gold standard of health protection?

OK here is the group that decided on the New Zealand Standard, NZS 2772: Part1: 1999, Radiofrequency Fields, Part 1, Maximum Exposure Levels, 3kHz to 300 GHz (according to the list at the front of the standard):

  • Adopt Radiation Control
  • Broadcast Communications NZ
  • Local Govt NZ
  • Ministry of Commerce
  • National Radiation Lab
  • NZ Assoc of Radio Transmitters
  • NZ Inst of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
  • Telecom NZ

Again, another committee dominated by industry and government departments with one health professional. A group dominated by those trying to reduce costs for telcos.

The telcos, and government departments supporting the telcos, wrote the New Zealand Standard that underpins the NES, and ‘guarantees’ its safety. Or does it guarantee its safety? It has this rather disturbing little disclaimer at the start:

There is scientific research, including epidemiology, which has suggested associations between some adverse health effects and exposure to RF [radio frequency] fields at levels lower than the basic restrictions specified in this Standard, however causation has not been shown.

So they haven’t guaranteed that it’s safe. You may remember this language – it is the same language that the tobacco industry used about smoking . They were forced to agree that there was a correlation between smoking and disease but quite correctly said you can’t prove “causation”. Of course eventually causation was established but the tobacco industry used exactly this argument for years to fight off attempts to regulate tobacco.

The NZS 2772 Committee said that, while there was uncertainty as to the safety of radiation from these cellphone towers, they would “continue to monitor the results of this research and, where necessary, issue amendments to this document.”

That was in 1999. There has been only one minor amendment in November 1999, which looks like a correction but has no explanation. So much for amending and updating the Standard. It hasn’t changed.

Now the paper on which this NZS 2772 relies is by the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNRP) from 1998.  Yet, there has been lots of research questioning the level of radiation allowed by the ICNRP in the more than a decade since it was written but the ICNRP standard has remained unchanged. A number of countries have abandoned the ICNRP standard and have required lower radiation levels from the towers. But not NZ.


So, in 1999, a committee dominated by the telcos and the Ministry of Commerce wrote the NZ Standard 2772 that set the levels of radiation allowed from cellphone towers. Then a committee dominated by the telcos and MED used this NZ Standard as the basis for the National Environment Standard that the Labour Government adopted in 2008. This NES forces us all to have cellphone towers on any street pole in the country without any legal right to object regardless of how close it is to people’s houses or schools.

I would wager that 99% of New Zealanders know almost nothing about this story and if they did they would be furious. But they will only find out when the tower goes up, and that happens pole by pole. The Government should have protected us from the telcos and operated a precautionary approach, instead they did their dirty work and willfully tied the hands of citizens and councils. The corporations have taken hold of our government, and Labour happily aquiesced.

If the Nats really wanted to show that they weren’t in the pockets of the telcos like Labour, they could publicly review the NES and the NZ Standard, but I don’t like the chances.

Published in Environment & Resource Management | Featured by Russel Norman on Tue, December 14th, 2010   

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