Digital emergency radio network raises health fears

Scientists fear a new radio network for emergency services, now being tested, will transmit at a frequency that could harm brain tissue

Government officials are reported to be concerned that a new radio network for Britain's emergency services could have damaging health effects.

The"Airwave" system -- which will be rolled out by BT -- is due to go live in 2005 and is already being tested by the Lancashire Police Constabulary. The digital mobile radio network will be faster and more secure than today's system, and will allow each user to access up to four channels at once. However, scientists are concerned that it could transmit at a frequency that could harm brain tissue.

According to Friday's Daily Telegraph, there have been a number of meetings held within government as the police are concerned that the new system has not been adequately tested.

Airwave uses Tetra (terrestrial trunk radio system), a European standard that transmits at similar frequencies to mobile phones, but is switched on and off around 17 times per second. The Telegraph reports that the government has been warned by Sir William Stewart -- who chaired a government inquiry into possible health dangers of mobile phones -- that devices transmitting close to 16Hz could be dangerous. The Stewart Report said that exposure to such frequencies could cause the release of calcium from brain cells.

Calcium has an important biochemical role. Cells release calcium ions through gateways in the cell membrane as a signalling mechanism. While the Stewart Report did not find any conclusive evidence that exposure to frequencies around 16Hz was damaging, it recommended that use of this frequency should be avoided.

The Home Office has now said that additional research is being carried out into Airwave, but a BT spokesman has accused Stewart of "going overboard".

Airwave will initially provide always-on links at 7.2kbit/s. It will probably be upgraded to support speeds approaching 200kbit/s by 2008. The system could also be used for commercial purposes once the infrastructure is in place.

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