Marino Polvani meets me outside Via Carlo Alberto 53 with a briefcase in hand. Its a Friday night and he has just got back from work but he wants me to see the outside of the building where one night almost two years ago 14 July 2004 to be exact workers came to install a mobile phone mast on the roof. Or rather, to erect a mast they had already laid out on the terrace with the help of an enormous crane.
That night Polvani was woken at around 01.00 by a woman living in Via Carlo Alberto. She had come home to find the crane blocking the road and was immediately suspicious.
An Esquilino committee against the illegal and mass proliferation of mobile phone masts had been created a couple of months earlier after a huge white hut containing the masts engine and metal clasps had been fixed to the roof of number 53. We were rather nave. We didnt think things could happen so quickly, says Polvani.
On the night of 14 July, the committee members were the ones who moved quickly. Within minutes they had called the police and rounded up at least 50 local residents, who came out on to the street. The workmen, contracted by mobile phone operator TIM, claimed they had come to repair a mast, but Polvani and company knew very well that the mast in question had not yet been installed. After much wrangling they got the crane and workmen to go home, but not, ironically, because they were putting up a mobile phone mast without the consent of everyone in the building, and certainly not because those living closest to it were worried about the long-term health implications. We got them to leave because they didnt have all the right permits, among which was the right to park their crane on public property, Polvani says.
That same night the committee members and other people living close to Via Carlo Alberto 53 (but no-one actually resident in the building itself) made a life-changing decision. They agreed that they would take turns to stay up all night, every night, in all weather, to make sure the mast was never installed. And they would use the entrance of no 63 just a few doors down (its terrace is attached to that of no 53) as their campaign base, sitting inside in bad weather, or outside when it was warmer.
Since that day Polvani and seven or so other zealous residents have done the majority of the shifts (And let me tell you, being here at 04.00 in winter is no laughing matter, he says), but at least another 20 people have occasionally helped out and done a shift or two. Some nights, inhabitants with windows looking out on to Via Carlo Alberto do their shift from home. Are you sure they stay up all night? I ask. Oh yes, says Polvani.
A few months ago, one young man who had done the lions share of the shifts along with Polvani suffered a potentially very serious epileptic seizure his first. Doctors put it down to stress since otherwise he was in good shape. He has two young children, one of whom is just a few months old, and if the mast goes up the distance between it and his childrens bedroom will be just five metres. He is the first one who will get fried, Polvani exclaims, half-jokingly and within earshot of his campaigning and thankfully fully-recovered friend. Then, more quietly: There is a proven link between electromagnetic radiation and infantile leukaemia.
Polvani and the other 30 or so committee members now form just one of many citizens groups in Rome that belong to the No Elettrosmogroma campaign (see website below). The Esquilino group is the most visible merely because, as Polvani admits, we are the only people crazy enough to do a nightly watch.
There is a lot of work to be done in the daytime too. The group has hired a lawyer to help write reports, file complaints, and prepare so-called self-protection or autotutela procedures. It has also organised countless petitions and even outdoor lessons on electromagnetic radiation. And though so far it has managed to block the installation of the mast thanks in great part to the help of a green party member of parliament, Paolo Cento, a green city councillor, Giuseppe Teodoro, and the ministry for fine arts and cultural heritage the struggle is long and uphill.
There are plans to install a second mast, a Vodafone one this time, on the same building in Via Carlo Alberto, and yet another one in Via Principe Amedeo 148, also in the Esquilino. There are already several existing masts in the area, including one on Via Filiberto just metres from a primary school. In Rome the installation of at least another 4,000 masts is planned, says Polvani with a pained expression. It will be like living in a microwave oven.
But doesnt everyone in a building have to agree for a mast to go up on its roof? In theory yes, says Polvani, but building administrators approve their installation without the consent of every home-owner. Why? Because they and many apartment-owners who may not even live in the building are lured by annual rental fees paid by the mobile phone companies of anything between 20,000-40,000. So the few owners who dont agree with the installation tend to be silenced or threatened, explains Polvani. This mast we are talking about here [at Via Carlo Alberto 53] was approved with just over half of the proprietors consent for example.
The main problem, according to Polvani, is twofold: the infamous Gasparri law, which makes the bureaucratic procedure for putting up a mast much simpler than before and allows it to bypass the approval of the local health unit or ASL; and the advent of the third generation of mobile phones, the so-called UMTS phones, which can send images and data and be used to connect to internet. With the text and voice-only mobiles, masts could be several hundred metres away from one another, says Polvani; for the latest 3-G technology they need to be between 100 and 150 m apart. We will need a mast on every street corner, he adds.
Polvani ends on a wistful note: What I have learnt is that citizens count for nothing. We are good for paying taxes and are useful on election days, but that is all. He smiles as he says this but it is in fact a truly devastating indictment.
For more information on the Rome anti-mast proliferation campaigning groups see www.noelettrosmogroma.org.
For more information on the Esquilino group Esquilino Senza Elettrosmog email: firstname.lastname@example.org.