From Green Bay to Waiheke, from Birkenhead to Pakuranga, everyday Aucklanders are revolting. They talk about health risks. They talk about invasions of their human rights. And they talk about their property values. The councils say: Don't blame us. Blame Wellington. The Government and big business pooh-pooh the protest. They may be making a big mistake. John Landrigan has been to the front line.
They've put the microwave on top of the pole, shouts Nigel Edwards in the background.
"They've done it without our knowing.''
Karen Pilbrow is talking on the phone to me about cellphone antennae sprouting around Auckland when her neighbour yells out the news. Mrs Pilbrow's voice wavers. She is angry and incredulous.
"We had a group together who were going to stop them. We've stopped them so far ... health risks aside, this is a human rights invasion,'' she cries.
Literally: she weeps.
An invasion, health risks, human rights tampered with, suburban mums and dads blocking telecommunications workers. What's going on?
AUCKLAND COUNCILS are under siege from irate ratepayers, but the councils say it's the Government who gave telecommunication companies unbridled access to paths and berms outside homes and schools.
Apparently, we're all to blame. We demanded cheaper phone calls, we pleaded for faster internet access and for competition in the phone industry.
Why do we need more masts? There are now three mobile phone networks because the previous Government opened the industry to newcomers in the 2001 Telecommunications Act. Competition has driven demand; all three claim they need more base stations and modern phones need more signal-strength for features such as internet access.
Where possible, telcos are required to share sites but they say this is not always possible.
The bosses at Telecom, Vodafone and new provider 2degrees, plus a select group of scientists, regard the highly vocal neighbourhood groups as alarmist and ill-informed.
The antennae sites, say the telcos, operate to the National Environmental Standard, written in part by the Ministry of Health's National Radiation Laboratory in 2008. But if you search Google with any of the following words - cell towers, electromagnetic sensitivity, electromagnetic fields - or read opposing scientific reports, you see why people like Karen Pilbrow fret.
Every day, more Aucklanders are banding together, swapping research data and squaring up against the Government, local councils and the second largest global industry behind oil - telecommunications.
BUSINESS, COUNCIL and Government experts underestimate them at their peril: some of these mums and dads are not only irate, they're highly qualified.
Waiheke Island doctor Stuart Reuben is a retired cardiologist. When councillors say there's no scientific, peer-reviewed material backing residents' fears, Dr Reuben supplies some. There's also a physics professor, an information technologist, electrical engineers, successful businesspeople and, in Nelson, a specialist in environmental law.
"Environmental law,'' Sue Grey tells the Government, "requires a precautionary approach.''
Most of the people The Aucklander spoke to say that caution has been abandoned and they are incensed by proliferation of the towers, not notified under consent procedures.
It seems not only hypocritical - given homeowners must still apply for permission to spruce up sundecks - but exceedingly rude.
"The residents have resorted to a form of civil disobedience in protest at this social experiment,'' says Mrs Pilbrow. Her sentiment is echoed in Green Bay, Waiheke Island,
Onehunga, Pt Chevalier, Howick, Pakuranga and Birkenhead.
This is not the first time concerns have been raised about telecommunications sites. In the 1990s, the argument kept councils and the Environment Court busy.
In the mid-90s, Green Bay Primary staff, students and parents spent two years fighting installation of a 15m-tall Telecom cellphone transmitter. The school board, led by then-principal Kerry Taylor (now Mitchell), threatened to close the school in protest.
Eventually, she says, Telecom partly backed down by reducing the strength of the electromagnetic output to a "much lower and more acceptable level".
"We never said the tower was definitely a danger to health,'' says Mrs Mitchell, "but while there were doubts, we did not want it near young children.''
So the Government must have known there'd be an outcry if more antennae were built. But rather than ensure residents' concerns were alleviated through consent processes, it made it easier for telcos to set up shop.
Less than four years after the Green Bay stand-off, the 2001 Act allowed telcos to make submissions to councils for designated land in their district plans. The 2008 standard let telcos install antennae on any existing power pole or streetlight without consultation.
GREEN MP Sue Kedgley, who receives new complaints about sites every week, says the telco industry drew up the standard and the Labour Government rubber-stamped it.
The Aucklander checked: Vodafone says yes, Telecom admits there was an industry-led approach, 2degrees says it alone was invited to make submissions.
Because of the new standard, says Ms Kedgley, there have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of new masts and microwave micro-cellular transmitters all over New Zealand, and more powerful transmitters have been added to 2600 existing sites.
So far, 2degrees has only just begun to install antennae in Manukau and central Auckland. Still to come is the Government's installation of fibre optic cables for its massive, multi-billion dollar broadband expansion.
Ms Kedgley says New Zealand should emulate the precautionary stance of European countries such as Sweden - "Not the seemingly 'we'll wait and see' approach currently adopted.''
IN COCKLE BAY, people are already seeing this approach. Mirroring Green Bay's fight, the primary school launched a petition preventing a 2degrees mast from going up metres from classrooms. That mast was first destined for the Lastel Pl-Sandspit Rd corner, until a family challenged its placement near their children's bedroom.
Then it was to be installed across the road at the entrance to Paparoa Park, within 35m of Fiona Jeffcoat-Yu's home. Now, she says, 2degrees and Manukau City Council are seeking a fourth site.
"It's a case of 'he who shouts loudest wins' or 'place of least resistance'. To achieve compliance, councils have to look at all solutions. I don't think they're doing that.''
Waitakere, North Shore, Auckland, Manukau, Rodney, Franklin and Papakura councils say there's no need to notify residents as long as the sites comply with national standards. But the councils say they try to fit within the environment.
Mrs Jeffcoat-Yu is a founding member of the National Environmental Society, which is fighting all proposed cell towers outside homes, schools and kindergartens.
The group has joined others in Auckland and further afield, such as Nelson, Wellington and Australia. They lobby MPs and councils, conduct public meetings, liaise with telecommunications companies and decision-makers ... and put up protest signs.
Last week, Manukau City Council backtracked on fining Mrs Jeffcoat-Yu for hanging protest signs on her fence. The same threat hung over Bucklands Beach resident Tina Hegley.
The council refuses to identify who complained about the protest signs. Mrs Hegley also parked a large truck and people-mover on a roadside berm designated for a 20m-high tower and 3.6m cabinet. It is 18m from her children's bedrooms.
"We've only stalled the process. I don't want to put the health of my children at risk.''
Real estate agents, she says, told her the tower would devalue the family's property by 10-15 per cent. Planned extensions, which would move bedrooms closer to the site, are on hold.
BOTH SIDES of this intense debate can call on scientific support. Switzerland and Italy set electromagnetic field limits at around 1 per cent of those in New Zealand, as a "precautionary'' step in "sensitive areas''.
Victoria University restricts placement of antennae on its grounds because of "health hazards identified from the effects of radio frequency radiation.''
The summary findings of a decade-long World Health Organisation study on cellphone use and brain cancers is still debated vehemently.
Sweden compensates 3 per cent of its population who claim headaches, fatigue, dizziness and memory problems because of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
Toa Greening was diagnosed with tinnitus last month. He says the buzzing in his head started just weeks after a cellphone tower was installed near his house. He did some research and the buzzing has a name: the microwave auditory effect.
Mr Greening, who has an engineering degree and is well-known as a Pakuranga Community Board member and Neighbourhood Watch leader, moved his furniture further from the tower because of a rule at university "to keep away from transmission frequencies''.
He imported an Electro Smog Meter to measure electromagnetic radiation. New Zealand's radiation limits don't even appear on its scale, he says.
"Measurements here are the same as if you were standing a couple of metres from a microwave oven on full power. It's not recommended by microwave manufacturers to stand that close.''
The dial topped Russian and Swedish standards. He says, surprisingly, the radiation tumbled from the towers like water from a showerhead. This means houses directly underneath were not as adversely affected as a house, like his, 40m from a tower.
In public meetings, a senior lecturer at Auckland Medical School, David Black, has remonstrated with residents over their "groundless concerns''.
"Exposure would be minuscule,'' he tells The Aucklander, "a lot less than cordless phones''.
Dr Black says being employed by the telecommunications industry does not alter his views.
BACK IN Pakuranga, Mrs Pilbrow looks up at the new cellular tower outside her home. "We live in a lovely street and now we're living under a microwave. It's sad. We will battle on.''
Views from all sides of the cellphone towers debate:
Vodafone head of corporate responsibility, Tom Newitt: "There is no evidence of any health effects from the radio waves emitted by cellphone sites at levels below the New Zealand standard.''
Businessman Peter Corban: "There are a significant amount of people in Pt Chev who are concerned about telcos placing cellphone towers in residential areas until the long-run health effects are known.''
Martin Gledhill, senior science advisor, Ministry of Health's National Radiation Laboratory: "People can and do find results which they use to support an alternative point of view. However, it is only by looking at all the studies, and assessing them for
their strengths and weaknesses, that a true picture can emerge. A sheet of corrugated iron between you and a transmitter reduces exposures considerably because of the good electrical conductivity of metal ... other options (eg, a layer of metal foil or possibly fine chicken wire) would do a similar job.''
North Shore resident Elizabeth Jefferies: "I'm wanting to buy a new home but have no idea where these sites will be located.''
Telecom spokesman Ian Bonnar: "New Zealand's standards set a limit that is 5000 per cent below any exposure levels shown to have physiological effects.''
Former pharmaceutical consultant and Waiheke resident Andrew Crawford: "If you have not been informed or consulted it pisses people off. Because, after that, there is no trust at all.''
Onehunga resident and founder of Residents Against Cellphone Towers, Mike Silich: "We require central and local government to err on the side of caution and protect us for the future.''
New South Wales Education Department: "The department has a preference for a distance of at least 500m from the boundary of the [school] property.''
International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection Guidelines: "Induction of cancer from long-term EMF exposure was not considered to be established and so these guidelines are based on short-term, immediate health effects.'' (These guidelines were incorporated into the New Zealand Standard 1999 and still form the basis of the National Emission Standard October 2008.)
2degrees spokeswoman Bryony Hilless: "Our sites have been built in such a manner that they are capable of co-location. If, in the future, another carrier enters the market,
they will be able to co-locate with us.''