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Mobile Phone Radiation Harms


23 June 2011

A number of lawsuits have been brought in France seeking to block or dismantle mobile phone base stations. Courts have had different reactions to these "not in my backyard" suits.

By Christine Gateau in Paris

On 31 May 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), at a meeting in Lyon, France, for the first time classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possible carcinogenic to humans”. This announcement from a part of the World Health Organisation has attracted a lot of media attention as these radiations are associated with wireless phone use. Whether or not this warning will be confirmed is yet to be determined. The possibility of legal challenges to the placement or use of mobile phone infrastructure is also uncertain, but recent cases in France indicate that courts do not have a consistent approach to other health warnings from mobile phone radiation, and recently have been hesitant to act on preliminary warnings.

A number of lawsuits have been brought in France seeking to block or dismantle mobile phone base stations. Courts have had different reactions to these “not in my backyard” suits.

Some relatively recent decisions from French courts ordered network operators to dismantle base stations on the basis of the so-called “precautionary principle,” i.e., the principle that it is better to act on the risk of a threat, even if not fully proven. Three such cases are the 18 September 2008 decision of the Nanterre Civil Court, later confirmed by a decision of the Versailles Court of Appeal dated 4 February 2009 (PDF 3.1 mb); a 16 February 2009 decision handed down by the Carpentras Civil Court (PDF 2.7 mb); and 5 March 2009 decision by the Angers Civil Court (PDF 1.7 mb).

These decisions from the French courts have not, however, been the final word on this topic. More recent judgments have begun to reject claims to dismantle base stations. Several courts decided that the precautionary principle does not justify dismantling a base station if no serious health risk is yet proven.

An example of this more recent approach is a decision handed down on 15 September 2009 by the Civil Court of Lyon (PDF 1.9 mb). Even more recently, on 22 April 2010, the Civil Court of Nevers took a middle of the road approach in a suit against a network operator initiated by parents of schoolchildren attending a school located less than 50 meters away from a base station. The Court granted six months to the operator (i) to present a complete survey of the site, and (ii) to suggest measures which could be taken to limit emissions towards the school and the neighbourhood that could make the emissions acceptable for the population. The court warned that if the operator did not develop a suitable plan, it may have to dismantle this base station and move it elsewhere. Nevertheless, the Court held that there was no vital emergency to intervene and refused to order the immediate dismantlement, based on its reasoning that the cost of such a decision would be "very high and disproportionate in relation to the low risk, given that any human being is subject to magnetic fields arising from other sources, notably at home".

As scientific research in the field of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are relatively recent, no one can be certain that today’s scientific opinion will remain the same tomorrow. The impact of the recent IARC announcement is yet to be determined. 


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