Schools in certain areas of the province have agreed to allow telecommunications firms like Orange to erect masts on their roofs in return for annual payments of about Pounds 2,000. But parents, teachers and local councillors are protesting that the masts could expose pupils to dangerous radiation, citing scientific evidence that children are particularly vulnerable to such emissions.
Two schools affected are in Enniskillen: Portora Royal School, a voluntary grammar, and Enniskillen High. Negotiations are taking place about putting a mast on the Fermanagh further education college, which has asked for Pounds 5,000 plus fixed annual payments.
Until last week, firms did not need planning permission to erect masts up to 15m tall: they simply had to notify the planning authority before putting them up. Now, however, Northern Ireland minister Lord Dubs has closed that loophole, giving local residents and councillors 28 days in which to object.
Kate Stinson, a parent and teacher whose son attends one of the schools involved, said she could see the attraction for schools of Pounds 200 income a month for the next 10 years but, until the health risks were known, children should not be used as guinea pigs.
"We don't want a repeat of the asbestos foul-up," she said. "Our big worry is that in 10 years' time children will begin to show symptoms from tiny daily intakes (of radiation). It has been said that their stage of bone formation leaves children more vulnerable."
A Fermanagh councillor and teacher, Tommy Gallagher, has written to the Northern Ireland education minister Tony Worthington to demand assurances that the masts are safe and has also raised concerns about health implications with the Western Education and Library board. A reply has been promised in January.
This action follows an address by scientist John Royds, a specialist in low frequency radiation (such as the microwaves emitted by mobile phone transmitters) who warned that, since children absorbed far more microwaves that adults, it was "absolutely essential" that masts were not placed near schools. "Five hundred metres may not be enough for a short power mast," he said.
The phone company, Orange, however, insists that scientific evidence stretching back 70 years shows telecommunications masts to be safe since they use the same radio spectrum as other media, such as radio and TV.
Noel Pratten, Orange health and safety manager, said a transmitter was no more powerful than a light bulb. "These are very low-powered, just 20 watts maximum," he said. "The levels people are exposed to are far lower than what has been set down under safety guidelines."