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"Terrestrial Trunk Radio" and the health issue

Make no mistake, TETRA is fundamentally a good idea: it is a private (encrypted) telecommunication system for the emergency services, so that policemen, ambulance drivers, firemen, and doctors can communicate directly with each other in the interest of efficiency in dealing with public safety. Because ELF (Extremely Low Frequency, generally defined as 30 to 3000 Hz, but often taken to include ULF of 0-30 Hz)) waves can penetrate most materials - even water - easier than high frequencies, it also makes sense to deploy a low frequency component. For example, the US military use an ELF system to communicate with submarines under the ocean surface, and since the wavelength of an ELF wave is several thousand kilometres long, these signals reach throughout the world. (Just think of that: when you switch on your bedside lamp, technically a Chinaman in Beijing could be aware of it with sensitive enough equipment!)

But there may be a problem. Careful studies since the 1970s by scientists at reputable institutions such as those by Ross Adey’s group at Loma Linda University, California, have found that modulated RF (i.e. radio waves carrying an ELF component), can seriously interfere with the way our cells communicate. These studies have been replicated many times at many laboratories, and it seems that the geomagnetic field is also an important component of the effect (the so-called ion cyclotron resonance ("ICR") studies, begun by Abe Liboff, a physics professor at Oakland University, Michigan).

There are variants of Abe’s original 1985 idea proposed in Russia (by Valeri Lednev), by the National Grid (John Male, now supposedly retired but still very active, and John Edmunds from Oxford), and even by the US Environmental Protection Agency (by Carl Blackman and an NGO colleague Janie Blanchard). These all use the general formula 1/2p.q/m times Bgeo to calculate the resonant frequency of common physiological ions like calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and so on (including hydrogen), and these turn out to be around 16 Hertz, depending on the geomagnetic field at the place of interest. When the experiments to test this idea are done they seem to show an effect at that frequency rather than others, so there could be something in this idea. It's amazing that some of the UK epidemiological research into TETRA is nevertheless not taking the earth's magnetic field into account, either through design or ignorance.

To help Paul Elliott and his team out, here is a table showing the ICR values for the common physiological ions:

Ion q/m(x 10-n) Bgeo (in GHz)
15 30 45 50 60
H+ 9.56 -7 0.010 0.020 0.030 * 0.039
Li+ 1.39 -7 0.068 0.136 0.203 * 0.271
Na+ 4.19 -6 0.225 0.450 0.674 * 0.899
Mg2+ 7.93 -6 0.119 0.238 0.356 * 0.475
Cl- 2.72 -6 0.347 0.693 1.040 * 1.387
K+ 2.46 -6 0.382 0.765 1.147 * 1.529
40Ca2+ 4.81 -6 0.196 0.392 0.588 * 0.784
45Ca2+ 4.29 -6 0.220 0.440 0.659 * 0.879


* Please email Paul Elliott at Imperial College London p.elliott@ic.ac.uk and ask him to calculate this by extrapolation from the table! He can find out the actual values at any location of interest with a Mersmann geomagnetometer or similar.

ICR has been well and truly bashed around at scientific meetings and in the literature ever since Abe first put the idea forward (he actually borrowed it from earlier work, but let’s not go into that, because he well deserves the credit for promoting the notion, and taking all the initial flak). The upshot of all the shouting is that experts (even the Stewart Committee) are advising it may not be a good idea to expose us all to that frequency area, in case it disturbs life processes.

Unfortunately well before that advice the TETRA system was already being "rolled out" as they say – meaning installed – in many parts of Europe, another example of failing to test telecoms with the same rigour used in pharmacology. Contracts for TETRA in the UK had been signed well before Willie Stewart had just enough integrity to allow these scientific concerns a still small voice in his report. In fact, the UK is well ahead of the game: of 60 West European TETRA contracts now signed, 29 are in the UK.

Willie’s cautionary remarks, eagerly seized upon by knowledgeable scientists like Gerard Hyland, Alasdair Philips, and yours truly, put the Home Office on the spot. In response they asked the NRPB’s Advisory Group on Non Ionising Radiation ("AGNIR") whose members have changed over the years more rapidly than Bill Wyman’s girlfriends, to produce a report on the possible health effects of TETRA. Accordingly the usual suspects at NRPB - plus new boy on the block Lawrie Challis, a physics professor at Nottingham - , and very old boy Sir Richard Doll, did so in July 2001. You can buy their effort for 15, or download it in Adobe from their site at probably a greater cost in time and nerves (a bit steep, actually, considering the taxpayer pays for much of the NRPB’s work, and for the Home Office entirely).

The NRPB report recommended more research (the inevitable cry of the researcher!), especially in eight areas. So the Home Office dutifully gave out contracts to look at TETRA more closely. There’s a bit of mystery here, because the Home Office say they awarded a major contract for cellular studies to the MoD in May 2001, a few months before the NRPB report appeared (though awarding the contract to the MoD is a bit like asking Lulu’s mum who is the best female pop singer). The name of the MoD outfit is now called Defence Science and Technology Laboratory ("DSTL") though it used to be called DERA and is based at Porton Down, where other virulent evils reside.

At DSTI also lurks John Tattersall, who has been studying the effects of EMF on hippocampal slices for some time. This is quite the wrong part of the brain to study, in fact, since the brain’s emissions and regulatory control lie in the thalamus, and the drivers are the pyramidal cells of the cerebrum, which communicate with our cells via the corpus callosum. Even Thomas Willis (in the 1600s) could have told him that. Anyway, it’s a start.

Some idea of the urgency of this mission can be gained from the fact that the DSTL reports were issued quarterly as they were completed, and therefore before they were even peer review published, the normal way of scientific disclosure. A similar sign of panic attended the rushed way Robert Gallo announced the discovery of the HIV virus in 1984 (he accidentally used a picture of the Pasteur’s version of the virus in the Nature article and called it his own, which got him and the National Cancer Institute into hot water, but that’s another story).

You can see these DSTL reports on their website, via PITO (the Police Information Technology Organisation), except for the crucial 2nd quarterly summary which seems to be left out, surprise surprise. In the PITO site there is another dead giveaway. They say:

The research was commissioned to reassure users of systems like Airwave that they do not pose a risk to body cells through calcium exchange.

One might have hoped the research was independent, rather than a self-declared whitewash job! What would they say if the results turned out to be positive, as in fact they appear to be?!

The first DSTL report was merely setting up the equipment. The second showed some results, and immediately one can clearly see around a 50 percent increase in the cellular calcium response when TETRA signals of the kind emitted by handsets are switched on. These have not been analysed statistically in this 2nd report for some reason, so the conclusions are muted and qualified (see their Fig 6, repeated as Fig 7, and inadvertently left in quarterly summary three). More interestingly when the signal is switched off the calcium response remains high. We found the same in our own studies, leading to continued degradation of cell viability after exposure, as measured by trypan blue exclusion.


These are the sham (unexposed) data.


These are the exposed data.
You can clearly see an effect on the calcium resting state when the Tetra signal is switched on and off, not evident in the sham exposed. The SARs step up from 5,10,20 and 50 mW/kg, well below thermal levels.

These nerve-stretching 2nd Summary results gave the investigators a chance to change the goalposts. You can no longer access that second summary study on the Home Office website! Their protocols were modified for Quarterly Summary 3, but even in the new data (shown again only graphically in their Fig 7) there is a clear transient increase in the Calcium nM the moment the TETRA signal is switched on which does not appear in the sham. The investigators claim this is within normal variation, which it obviously isn’t.

In the 4th Summary report the researchers also noted responses of the calcium at higher TETRA signal intensities, but these were put down to effects of the instruments, and Alan Preece’s 2002 presentation of how TETRA signals interfered with VDUs was cited in support. Due to blinding requirements no other results were reported. Funny how when they got some results they suddenly found the measuring instruments were being jammed by the TETRA signals!

One might also raise the point that the contract for SAR calculations and measurement of phantom heads when exposed to TETRA was subcontracted to MCL, which has long maintained connections with the cellphone industry, and also with a past member of the AGNIR. I have no reason to doubt Camelia Gabriel’s integrity, but as a matter of principle it might have been better to use a laboratory not quite so close to the industry. Come to that, how fair was it to delegate these experiments to the MoD anyway, since the MoD has a clear vested interest in not finding positive results. An uncommitted University, if there is such a thing, could have been a more believable choice.

The fifth Quarterly Summary report, published in January 2003, said really little more than the 4th. Since very few folk will have been to the BEMS meeting in Quebec, it is a bit of a cheat to tell readers that is where to find the reported data! Hopefully it will eventually appear in a peer reviewed journal. Another stratagem seems to be to carry out studies at intensities too high to have relevance. There is some literature evidence that these sorts of effect are seen only when the intensities are very low. Nature may have its own version of surge protection!

Finally all these experiments, reported on the Police PITO website, are to do with handsets. Even the studies initiated at Birmingham and Manchester universities are only on handsets, not masts. So where are the studies looking at the effects of masts on people? A few measurements (ten sites in Gloucestershire, big deal) are being taken, and these will be compared with ICNIRP and NRPB guidelines, which is no comfort at all if the guidelines are wrong, as the Russians and the Chinese both believe. In China and Russia the RF/MW exposure limits for the public are as low as 50 microWatts/cm2.

That is more or less where we are with TETRA research at present. Pretty unsatisfactory really: the studies on handsets are being carried out by organisations allied with vested industry or military interest, and there are no biological experiments on possible effects from the masts.

Let us get a little more into the microphysiology of the matter. Here is a diagram of a typical TETRA mast, from the NRPB’s own report:


You can see it as a stiff stick on which has been attached an antenna designed with a half wave transmitter (35cm at 400MHz). Because of its size the electrical energy fed into the transmitting antenna causes it to radiate at exactly 400MHz. If you alter the length of the loop slightly it would transmit at a different frequency. Since all transmitters are also receivers, the same applies to incoming signals. So the antenna is specifically tuned to receive or transmit TETRA signals

Now look at what we all have on our bodies' cell surfaces:


Diagram courtesy of Alberts, Bray et al., (1994)

These glycoproteins are really stiff little sugar-candy sticks (glyco- comes from glucose, a form of sugar), on which are hung an amazing variety of negatively-charged sialic acid branches or residues. This means they are attractive to positively charged calcium cations (Opposites attract in life. Or at least they used to, before gender bending).

Each one of these cellular "antennae" is capable of receiving a signal different from its neighbour, and with infinite variety. The electrical signals almost certainly originate in the brain, which sends them into the cerebrospinal fluid ("CSF") via the third and lateral ventricles (CSF-filled cavities in the brain centre) by means of a large sheet of nerve fibres collectively called the corpus callosum. The conductivity of CSF, with its physiological saline is prepared by evolution to deliver these electric vibrations much faster than the brain tissues which Camelia Gabriel is estimating.

On her website the conductivity of CSF is given as 2.0S/m whereas the conductivity of the cerebellar cells is only 0.1 S/m, twenty times less conductive, and other intrabrain components are nor far different from that figure. My argument is that only the conductivity of CSF is relevant, since this saline fluid will carry the electrical signal everywhere, even, and some modellers have discovered it impacts all the way to the feet. Electrons look for the easiest pathway, as James Bond demonstrated when he threw a connected electric fire into someone's bath. (Don't try it at home, Camelia!)

More or less every cell in your body is bathed with CSF, so that every cell can thereby receive the brain’s instructions. When you look at the brain's structure it becomes obvious that this structural communications system has been honed by evolution to deliver an immense variety of signals to an immense number of cells through an optimal propagating medium at a speed towards that of light. Nobel Prize, please! The corpus callosum is callous (hard) because each of its fibres are heavily myelinated. They are myelinated because like any transmitter they become hot when energised. They are energised because the pyramidal cells alternate their polarity almost continuously while we are alive sending ions/electrons to and fro, at ULF/ELF frequencies under the individual control of the thalamus and the hypothalamus, which are situated centrally directly underneath the corpus callosum. These thalamic components are in that position to monitor the effects of their control. The word thalamus comes from the Greek for bridal chamber or room, because there seem to be lots of little compartments in the thalamus. When Camelia first started measuring conductivity she used cadavers, and dead tissues, but they don't have that "spark of life", and their conductivity is very different from living tissue..

The immense variety of these nerve fibres crossing between the cerebral hemispheres means in turn these corpus callosum fibres, which are like RF transmitters, are modulated individually by the brain’s pyramidal cells located in the cerebral cortex, and can transmit, - and the sialic acid residues can receive - , an astonishingly different number of signals, depending on what the signal transduction message is, and where inside the cell it is destined to go. It's like having thirty thousand radio transmitters in an organ weighing only say 4 kilos.

This is the system which needs investigation by the Home Office, not stupid hippocampal slices, which have little to do with that mechanism. The speed of transmission is far faster than nervous conduction, and needs to be if the brain's complex regulatory messages are to be delivered to trillions of cells. All the more reason not to disturb it with competing frequencies.

The corpus callosal fibres are the cellular equivalent of the TETRA transceiver. It is then the job of intracellular ionic calcium (written [Ca2+]i ) to take those signals to various parts of the cell interior, including the DNA inside the nucleus.

For that reason, to give the best signal-to-noise ratio free intracellular calcium is kept as low as possible, and "locked up" in stores such as calmodulin. You can perhaps see now why the discovery that RF is causing the calcium to leak out was viewed with some concern: it means the cell may not properly receive its signals. Cells which go out of regulatory growth control become cancer cells.

Why should RF radiation cause intracellular calcium to efflux? The answer is probably to do with the fact that RF electric fields are also charged, but with a negative charge, since electrons are always negatively charged. So their arrival outside the cell will attract any positively charged cations, from inside, if they can somehow get out, and calcium ions are just that, in that they carry a double positive charge. There are also special channels for calcium to get in and out through the cell's membrane.

In other words the RF vibrations will attract and thereby screw up the job the calcium ions were designed to do, not only inside the cell but anywhere else, including nerve synapses. None of the rubbish experiments being presently funded by the Home Office address these issues, sadly. From my viewpoint they are simply being performed, as the Police say, to assuage public concerns.

When are we going to get some rigorous independent research which frontally addresses the TETRA issue? All the public are not stupid all the time, Tony! Every week at least a thousand people will have read this page! Thanks very much for your attention.