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Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2001

DoCoMo relay station raises health fears

Residential location of cell phone antenna angers denizens of Sumida Ward


Staff writer

A powerful base station for mobile phones that is being erected in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, has angered nearby residents who fear their health will be endangered by heavy exposure to high-frequency radio waves.

News photo
An architect's drawing shows the NTT building under construction in Sumida Ward, Tokyo.

They say construction of the station, which will relay mobile phone signals between Tokyo and areas covering Chiba Prefecture, should be stopped because it will create an environment where "electromagnetic radiation showers us 24 hours a day."

But the government effectively supports the cell phone operator's claim that base stations are safe, indicating that an uphill battle is in store for the residents.

The base station -- an 80-meter tower that will stand on a 27-story office building to be occupied by NTT group companies -- is being erected for NTT DoCoMo Inc.

The structure, to be completed by April 2004, will be the first of its kind in a residential area of Tokyo but is only one of 150 being targeted by similar protests across Japan, according to a citizens' group.

Residents of the neighborhood have been protesting the project for the past year and have held several talks with NTT, but to no effect. In March, they submitted a petition with about 9,000 signatures to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Sumida Ward Mayor Noboru Yamazaki explained to the ward assembly in September that it was necessary to change the plan to cope with the rapid growth of telecommunications.

It will be the first of its kind in a residential area of Tokyo but is only one of more than 150 being targeted by similar protests across Japan, according to a citizens' group.

Many scientific studies have indicated that exposure to high-frequency electromagnetic radiation emitted by broadcasting towers and military radar installations could be leading to high rates of cancer, leukemia and other diseases.

But scientists have not yet reached a consensus on the issue, and little research has been done on mobile phone towers.

In 1996, a council consisting of staff from the NTT group, the Sumida Ward Office and other companies explained to Sumida residents that they would construct an office building near the Kokugikan sumo arena in the Ryogoku district as part of an ongoing plan to redevelop the neighborhood north of JR Ryogoku Station.

At that time, no mention was made of a cell phone tower.

The residents were angered when the NTT group suddenly informed the community in August 1999 that the plan would include the tower. That prompted some residents to form a protest group.

The building is scheduled to be completed by April 2004.

Residents in the neighborhood have been protesting the project for the past year and have held several talks with NTT, but to no effect. In March, it submitted a petition signed by about 9,000 people to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Sumida Ward Mayor Noboru Yamazaki explained to the ward assembly in September that it was necessary to change the plan to cope with the rapid growth of telecommunications.

He said he would ask the NTT group to make better efforts to alleviate the concerns of local residents.

Since early October, the group has held two rounds of talks with NTT mediated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. But the metropolitan government said it could not reveal details of the discussions because they were still ongoing.

"I cannot understand why they are constructing the tower in the middle of an area where schools, a kindergarten and hospitals are located," said Seiichi Sato, the leader of the protest group and a surgeon at a local clinic.

Noriko Takeuchi, a member of the group and the mother of a child who attends a high school next to the site, said she has been studying electromagnetic radiation problems by asking university professors and nongovernmental organizations familiar with the issue.

"If the tower is completed, we will be in an environment where electromagnetic radiation rains down on us 24 hours a day," Takeuchi said. She said she understands the need for a cell phone tower but said that DoCoMo should have chosen a more appropriate place to build it.

She also criticized the NTT group for not disclosing important information, such as the expected level of electromagnetic radiation above the neighborhood.

At a meeting in March, residents asked NTT representatives about antennas to be installed on the tower, but the representatives told them only that the antennas would face 52 directions and declined to give them further details, Takeuchi said.

"We can say that the impact on health is zero," said Yoichi Mizushima, an NTT DoCoMo spokesman.

Trying to address the residents' concerns about health risks, Mizushima explained that the tower will transmit and receive radiation only "horizontally" and that there is no danger of it falling on nearby houses.

Mizushima noted that the level of electromagnetic radiation from the tower is far below the limits for electromagnetic radiation exposure set by the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry in 1999.

The benchmark limit for electromagnetic radiation from analog cell phone stations in Japan is about 600 microwatts per square centimeter, according to the ministry.

A ministry official said that Japan's standards are almost the same as those set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, which is cooperating with the World Health Organization on research into the health risks posed by electromagnetic radiation.

An expert panel of the telecommunications ministry endorsed the Japanese standard in a report released in January, saying it found no firm evidence that exposure to electromagnetic radiation under that level has negative effects on health.

But not every expert agrees.

Koya Ogino, a lecturer at Kyoto University who specializes in electromagnetic radiation, said Japan's standards are too lax.

The maximum radiation level permitted under Japanese standards is 60 times larger than Italy's 10 microwatts per square centimeter, Ogino said.

According to Tokyo Citizens for a Safe and Sane Environment, a nongovernmental organization, Switzerland has a stricter standard, and Germany, France and Britain are considering tightening their standards as well.

These European countries have taken precautionary measures to avoid adverse radiation exposure, according to Sadatoshi Okubo, a member of the organization.

Ogino said the radiation that the tower in Sumida Ward will receive will reach not only the antennas but the areas around it as well.

Similar protests are being waged in Toshima Ward and six other places in Tokyo, Okubo said.

He said a 240-meter building DoCoMo completed in Shibuya Ward in October last year was actually the first large-scale cell phone station installed in central Tokyo.

There was virtually no protest because Shibuya is not a heavy residential area, Okubo said.

Across the country, there are 150 to 160 similar protests under way. About 50 projects have been canceled because of opposition from residents cooperating with the NGO, he said, and three or four cases are being disputed in the courts.

In many cases, residents around sites where mobile phone towers were built were not informed of the plans beforehand, he said.



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