The mysterious case of the EMF report

Councillors approved a cell mast on the roof of a block of flats in Plumstead after a City official told them electromagnetic (EMF) radiation levels in the area were safe, but for six months the City has dodged the Bulletin’s repeated requests to see the results of the readings that were taken.

The sub-council based its decision on the assurances of the official who submitted a report, which is attached to the sub-council minutes available online, but the actual readings are not included.

Councillor Liz Brunette, who requested that the readings be taken, confirmed that the annexures attached to the minutes were the only documents that were presented to sub-council.

Sub-council 20 manager Richard White said City official Peter Gossman had reported on the readings taken at Culmhood Gardens flats. The Bulletin emailed Mr Gossman, requesting a copy of the report on Monday December 12. He had still not replied by the time this edition went to print.

This was not the first time the Bulletin had asked to see the readings taken at the flats.

We first asked to see the report on Friday June 17. Prior to that, residents had opposed the approval of the iBurst cellmast because it was 200m from another tower on a neighbouring block (“Residents object to ‘forest’ of cell masts,” Bulletin, June 16 2016.

At the sitting of the Protea sub-council on May 18, Ms Brunette postponed the decision on the mast pending EMF level testing in the area by environmental health officials.

At the following Sub-council 20 sitting in on June 15, the mast was approved.

The then mayoral committee member for health, Siyabulela Mamkeli responded to our first request for the report, saying the tests hadn’t been done by the City but by Telkom and we should ask them for the document.

But wouldn’t Telkom have submitted a copy of the report to the City? We asked that question, but didn’t get a reply.

We called Telkom spokesman Pynee Chetty to track down the report on that end, but he didn’t know anything about it.

On Thursday July 21, we sent a follow-up request to the City: “Telkom says it cannot find any such report. Pynee Chetty has asked if you could please provide the original request and indicate to whom it was sent so that he can look it up.”

On Monday July 25, Mr Mamkeli responded, saying the City’s environmental health department, and not Telkom, had done the study after all. And it had found that the EMF radiation levels were “well below the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) levels”. City Health, he added, “therefore did not deem it necessary to commission an independent report”.

The findings had been communicated to the relevant sub-council, he said.

But we still wanted to see the actual report with the data underpinning those findings. However, when we again repeated our request for a copy, Janine Willemans, from the City’s media office, said: “I am told that because the report was not a public document, you would have to submit a formal request.”

We received that response on Wednesday July 27, six weeks since first requesting a copy of the report, and this was the first time anyone from the City had said anything about it not being a public document.

Why was a report on a public health issue not a public document and why did the City initially say the testing had been done by Telkom? We asked those questions, but the City didn’t answer them. So we asked again, and on August 8, the City’s spokesperson Priya Reddy sent what she said would be a “final” response on the matter.

She said Ms Brunette, had requested the report and it “was made available to them”.

Ms Reddy also said the tests by the City’s environmental health department at Culmhood Gardens had been done to check if EMF radiation levels complied with international safety standards set by the ICNIRP.

It had been a “preliminary test” to determine”whether a full EMF survey would be required of the applicant, being Telkom”.

City environmental health officials had decided that wasn’t necessary because “the results were well below the ICNIRP levels”. “City Health’s findings were communicated to the relevant sub-council,” Ms Reddy added.

But where was the report supporting those findings? It wasn’t attached to Ms Reddy’s email, so we downloaded a form from the “access to info” link on the City of Cape Town’s website and then filed our official request for the docu-
ment at the records department at the Civic Centre.

The website said it could take up to two weeks for the request to be processed, and the City still reserved the right to decline.

We filed the request in August last year. To date, the Bulletin has had no response from the City to the request. The Bulletin tried to visit the link again, several times, after the form was submitted for a contact number to follow up on the request but the link is no longer active.

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