NEWS

Questions are raised over effects of Cyprus spy mast on human health

A major wetland on Cyprus and nearby inhabitants face hidden dangers posed by the installation of an Echelon spy mast at a British base on the island. The spy system went into operation in January 2004 after installation works, which began four years ago, were completed near the smaller-range aerials in the wetland of Akrotiri which have been in operation since 1998. Nobody yet knows how the electromagnetic fields will affect the inhabitants of the district. But there is little doubt what will happen to the environment. Ecologist Roxanne Koudounari, coordinator for Akrotiri issues for the Cyprus movement Ecologists-Environmentalists, gave a guided tour of the area where the huge radio mast lies, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the center of Limassol and just 200 meters from the village of Akrotiri (roughly 1,000 inhabitants). Citrus fruit plantations, vineyards and stock-rearing all flourish around the rich wetland of Akrotiri, a peninsula that fulfills all the criteria of a protected area as defined by the Bern and Ramsar conventions on European habitats and wetlands. Deep inside the wetland, there is a forest of aerials. Each provides support for the other before they all lead to the radio mast in question, whose three large columns loom up menacingly. «Danger of radioactivity,» warns the sign hung on the fence. «Reactions began immediately after the installation of the mast, but they were muzzled because many of the inhabitants work on the bases and are compelled to keep quiet,» Koudounari said. «Ecologists-Environmentalists and other organizations can point out the problem but all of Cyprus should be concerned. We say that no government can allow something to be installed based on the thinking that it might not be dangerous. This basically legalizes illegality,» she said. The Akrotiri peninsula is on the list of areas of international importance for birds. Mooted as a national park, it supports over 1 percent of the flamingo population in the eastern Mediterranean, a significant number of endemic species of fauna and flora and is an important stopping point for migratory birds. General secretary and parliamentary deputy of Ecologists-Environmentalists Giorgos Perdikis said the ecosystem was a complex one. «A number of separate habitats have been found, which are based to a large extent on the salt content of water. The crucial point – where the salt and fresh water meet – is precisely where the antennae were built. This has created an underground dam.» To support the aerials, he explained, excavations went down to a depth of 6 to 7 meters. «The huge network that links the aerials, about a kilometer in length, prevents the birds from using the passage to go from the salt marsh to the eucalyptus forest and the sweet-water lakes in the Fasouri district,» he added. «For us, there are three aspects to the question: the environment, inhabitants’ health and, of course, the political aspect,» Perdikis said. Unfortunately, the open expanses of the wetland were well suited to the installation of the radio mast. Diplomatic sources at the Cypriot Foreign Ministry said the Cyprus government reacted when it was told, in 2001, of the plans to install the radio mast. «We told them [the British] there would be reactions. We had to think of the electromagnetic radiation, the destruction of the environment and the bird and animal life of the district.» But about 3 percent of the Cyprus Republic still belongs to Britain by treaty, which allows military use of the Akrotiri area, home to British bases. «As a result, they have the right to defend their interests. Unfortunately, our rights do not extend to forbidding them to install the aerials.» Both sides agreed to have French government experts brought in. Their measurements found emissions to be well below permissible limits set by the EU. «In addition, instead of the unacceptable environmental impact study carried out by the British, we demanded that a new international research team be assembled to conduct a new environmental study so that strict measures can be taken.» These would include transferring flora and fauna, placing small lights on the columns to warn birds and cutting down part of the forest so that birds can pass. But what is completely bizarre about Akrotiri, and Cyprus more generally, is that the bases are regarded as no man’s land. They fall under no convention, neither Ramsar nor Bern. The protected wetland area begins at the fence that surrounds the antennae. British bases spokesman Peter Thacker claims the new system is very safe and that the radio mast emissions were measured to be 76 times lower than EU norms. «We have made it clear that when and if there are cases of the mast causing health problems to the inhabitants, we will halt its operation.» The Cyprus government has now made mandatory an epidemiological survey of the inhabitants, beginning on February 1, 2004. Unfortunately, it is not being conducted as it should be, according to Sophocles Sophocleous, an expert in nuclear and environmental medicine. The doctor pointed out that measurements by the French were carried out on the basis of the old radio mast, which emitted less radiation. The measurements were used as the basis to deduce expected levels. Essentially, no real measurements have been made. Epidemiological survey The epidemiological survey began in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Bristol University. It consists largely of a questionnaire that will be given to the inhabitants of the Akrotiri area and, for the purposes of comparison, to the area of Pano Kyvides as well. Inhabitants will note possible symptoms, diseases and their medical records. Around 1,850 people will be examined and the study is expected to finish within 18-20 months. Sophocleous disagreed with the way the survey was being conducted. «It’s immoral to see if people will fall ill while the radio mast is in operation at the same time. Measuring sickness and mortality rates may be needful and useful, but we cannot prove, even if everyone comes down with leukemia, that it’s the radio mast’s fault. We don’t know how many years have to pass before the effects of radiation become visible in human beings.» The only thing that can be done, he said, was to rely on scientific data on radiation levels and try to keep emissions within safety limits while the mast was in operation.