What are Tetra masts?


   The Tetra mast in Findon had no planning consent

Tetra masts are the latest controversy to dog the mobile phone industry. Operating at 17.6 hertz, Tetra masts are being erected all over Sussex as the emergency services install a new radio system. But, as Chris Baker reports, a fierce debate is raging about their effects on people’s health, in particular concerns about the human nervous system.

The Tetra mast in this picture was put up near Findon cricket ground without planning permission and without local people being consulted.

The ten-metre high tower appeared late last month.

It is just one of 87 needed for Sussex Police’s new £2 million radio system, which relies on mobile phone technology instead of radio frequencies.

But while it promises to be a far more efficient way for police officers to communicate than their current outdated system, the installation of the masts has sparked health scares.

Operating company O2 Airwave says it will not put up any more without planning permission but this could spell difficulties for the completion of the radio system as planners become increasingly wary in the face of public concern.

Arun District Council, responsible for planning at Findon, has stopped granting permission for masts, either for conventional mobile phones or Tetra, while it seeks further information about their possible health impact.

Other Sussex councils are becoming equally bullish, while a dispute remains over whether Airwave can use emergency powers to install the masts.


Nervous system

   Campaigners want the Findon mast removed
The arguments are not dissimilar to those against conventional telephone masts.

Despite assertions that all the equipment operates well within national and European safety guidelines, critics are concerned about the potential health risk and say it could be greater than other technologies.

Campaigner John O’Brien said about eight masts were already in place in Sussex, with at least another 120 planning applications expected.

He said: "It is an untested system which could potentially damage the health of everybody in the country."

Tetra, which is short for Terrestrial Trunked Radio, operates at 17.6 hertz, close to the 16 hertz frequency the human brain uses for its chemical housekeeping.

The Government’s own investigation into mobile phone safety cautioned against using systems that operated close to 16 hertz, amid fears the nervous system could be damaged.

Dr Gerard Hyland, of the International Institute of Biophysics, said the body was "exquisitely sensitive" to low frequency microwave radiation of the type used by Tetra.
Delicate balance
He said the difference between Tetra and standard mobile phones was this low frequency, the regular pulsing of the signal and the fact base stations did not turn on and off.

These were characteristics which could lead to migraine, hallucinations, disorientation, sleeplessness, itchy skin and body warming.

Children are apparently the group most at risk because they are smaller and their bodies are more susceptible to this kind of electrical interference.

Dr Hyland said safety guidelines only stopped people becoming overheated but there was nothing to guard against signals interfering with the delicately balanced chemistry of the brain.

He said: "These things are a potential threat to the health of some people and you cannot say who is vulnerable until it is too late."

Tax burden

   The Tetra phones are due to replace the old style police radio
O2 Airwave and the Government are desperate to get the Tetra system working throughout the UK.

Other countries are interested in buying Tetra if it works here and O2 Airwave faces stiff penalties if the network fails to operate on time.

The company said it would not put up any more masts in Sussex without first getting planning permission.

But communications manager Susan Moore said the network had to be in place soon so it could be tested.

She said the company could use emergency powers to erect masts, a point disputed by campaigners.

Sussex Police, about half-way down the list of forces to get Tetra, will rent the mast network once it is complete and pay for the privilege.

After the first year, council tax payers will need to find between £1 million and £2 million a year to pay for the system for the next 15 years.

Mixed messages
Superintendent Ross Hollister, Sussex Police’s project manager, said new radios were urgently needed if emergency services were to have a modern communications system.

He said: "The information I have indicates both sets of equipment, the handsets and the masts, operate at levels well within national and European safety standards and they conform by a very reasonable margin.

"The masts are hundreds of times within the safety limits.”

Similar reassurances did not stop Lancashire Police Federation sending questionnaires to 3,500 officers because of reports of headaches, nausea and poor sleep patterns.

Chairman Steve Edwards said 177 officers said they had suffered some form of adverse effect but none could be sure it was because of Tetra.

Dr James Walsh, a former GP and a senior member of Sussex Police Authority, said he had concerns for the safety of people living near masts and for officers using the system.

He said: "We should take reasonable precautions to protect people until such time as the evidence becomes more fully understood.

"The worry is the radiation effect is cumulative.

"Whatever effects there might be will not be evident for many years. That is the problem."