Share this story
For three years Nasrin Nemetzade has battled an invisible enemy.
“Some people think I’m crazy,” the West Vancouver woman says, her voice catching. “That I’m somehow making all this up.”
But others think she may be a modern day canary in the coal mine, her sensitivity to possible atmospheric toxins a warning to the rest of us who don’t feel the danger yet.
According to research from Trent University toxicologist Magda Havas, Nemetzade is among the estimated three per cent of Canadians who appear to suffer from acute electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS, a crippling condition characterized by the onset of painful and debilitating symptoms in the presence or perceived presence of cellular, Wi-Fi and radio frequency radiation.
Health Canada doesn’t recognize EHS as a disease — rather as some 21st century bogeyman — and many doctors and experts deny its medical merit. Though few, it seems, vehemently.
In a June 7 letter to The Outlook, Leigh Hunt Palmer, a 77-year-old professor emeritus in Simon Fraser University’s physics department wrote:
“I am scarcely professionally qualified to comment on health aspects in radio frequency radiation (RF) fields. What I do know keeps me from putting my head into a microwave oven with the door closed; same goes for drying kittens. Beyond that I will confess to feeling secure with less intense exposure.”
A colleague of Palmer’s in the department, David Broun, also wrote to The Outlook, saying:
“It’s my understanding that these are still open research questions, but that no statistically significant indications of harm have emerged from large, long-term studies.”
Still, fears of the near ubiquity of RF radiation in homes, schools and offices has raised alarm even for those who aren’t at all sensitive to its effects.
Earlier this year, residents of West Van’s Sandy Cove neighbourhood organized to shut down a proposal from Cascadia Tower to build a giant stealth Monofir in their community, a 37-metre cell tower disguised as an improbably large fir tree.
Partly in response to that community pushback, West Van council last week ordered staff to revisit the district’s policies on cell towers, written as they were in the 1990s, and pay special attention to concerns about the placement of towers and antennae in residential neighbourhoods and atop urban highrises.
While Industry Canada ultimately has veto power over municipalities once a tower site is sold or leased to a cellular provider, for those concerned about RF fields West Van’s approach could be a step in the right direction as dozens of new tower development applications are already on the desks of municipal staff across the North Shore.
Farren Lander makes a living diagnosing the sources of electrical and radio-frequency sensitivities in peoples’ homes and workplaces. In some instances he encounters real physical dangers like faulty wiring and overloaded circuits, while in others it’s the kind of problems that only the hypersensitive seem to notice.
Standing just outside the doors of West Vancouver district hall, Lander says his RF meter is pegged.
“It’s the maximum my meter will take which is 2,000 microwatts,” he says, noting that the sound coming through his headphones has the unmistakable pitch and tone of a cellular tower and seems to come from the direction of Marine Drive and 17th Street where last year several cellular repeaters were added to a bank of existing antennae on a residential highrise.
“A reading that high is unusual, especially from this distance. But in all fairness, some could be coming too from all the cellphones in the building.”
That’s where staff and council were at that moment discussing modernizing the district’s cellular strategy.
“If I was on the top-floor penthouse, I’d be a little nervous as to the intensity,” West Van councillor Bill Soprovich told council, referring to the Marine Drive and 17th Street highrise. And others on council agreed, with Coun. Nora Gambioli taking the hardest line by proposing West Van explore becoming something of a detox destination for those trying to escape the radio frequency addiction of urban living.
“I would support a new tourism policy entitled ‘Come for a Rest from Wi-Fi to West Vancouver,’” she told council. “My dream would be just to have much less of this than we think we need because I can certainly still survive and be an active citizen without my cellphone.”
But that’s certainly not the tack that at least one contributor to the council meeting would like to see West Van take moving forward.
In a letter to council dated June 1, cellular and Wi-Fi service provider Telus made a list of suggestions for revising the district’s cellular policy including handing over the authority to approve new cell towers — especially rooftop installations — to district staff rather than bringing the matter before the public in a council vote.
Such public “consultation exemptions,” as Telus director of B.C. local government relations Maureen Kirkbride wrote, are in line with the dictates of Industry Canada and, according to Telus spokesperson Shawn Hall, are seen as the best way to expedite the growth of Telus’s low-profile antennae sites across the North Shore.
“By putting in these sites, we’re able to provide that targeted coverage to just that small area where demand is high,” Hall told The Outlook in a phone interview Tuesday. “We get dozens of calls from people on the North Shore every year asking for better wireless service or enhanced wireless service in an area and we’re working to meet that demand.”
Kirkbride also recommended that West Van recognize that “stealth single-carrier installations, such as those contained on wood utility poles, light standards or slim monopoles may be the best option in residential zones.” To that end, she suggested West Van work with building developers and the manufacturers of infrastructure like traffic lights and lamp posts to ensure West Van’s rooftops and streets can “accommodate communications equipment.”
Telus has earmarked $9.2 million for upgrades and expansions to its North Shore network in 2012, Hall said, admitting that while the telecom provider does get complaints “once in a while” from North Shore residents concerned about RF radiation, he’s usually able to put peoples’ minds at ease by citing Canada’s regulatory standards.
Still, that kind of mass dispersal of cellular and Wi-Fi antennae across West Van is a frightening given the district’s relative unpreparedness, said councillors Nora Gambioli and Michael Lewis. But that’s the direction the industry is moving in with or without municipal support, they agreed.
“I think the definition of a rooftop is going to evolve very quickly and we need to be ahead of the wave on this,” Lewis said. “I think we’re way behind and that sort of scares me because you can see the deployment. If you look around the community, you don’t have to go more than a block or two to see those nice green Telus boxes on the side of the road and potentially every one of those could become a cellular repeater station.”
On May 26, the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils voted overwhelmingly in favour of two resolutions limiting Wi-Fi in schools due to perceived safety concerns. While the decisions are non-binding, West Vancouver parents David Grierson and Cathy Matthews, would like to see them applied to the West Vancouver School District.
Combined, the two resolutions seek to allow for at least one Wi-Fi-free and cellphone-free school at every level — elementary, middle and secondary — per school district, and to restrict the installation of new wireless technology in all other schools where hardwired networking technology is feasible instead.
Grierson and Matthews circled a petition at a June 11 meeting of Wi-Fi weary West Van parents and educators in an effort to make West Bay School a wireless-free zone in their district.
“My daughter always started getting a headache whenever a program was being downloaded in the classroom,” Matthews said, adding that she herself has suffered similar pain while at West Bay School. “The headache is very, very distinct.” Her daughter has since been granted permission to leave the classroom whenever wireless downloading is taking place, something one speaker at the meeting hoped more students would take advantage of.
“Parents have to fight for their kids,” Una St. Clair told the group gathered in the West Van library. “This is not about ‘no technology,’ this is about making technology safe.”