The wireless revolution

People across the country are battling to keep cell towers out of their neighborhoods

by Grace Hood

If you walk about 700 yards from Wendy Little's neighborhood at 9th and Baker Streets in Longmont, you come across what appears to be a light pole surrounded by a high fence. The pole sits behind a commercial building, invisible to street traffic. While it seems harmless to most, Wendy Little knows that there's more than meets the eye. Inside this "light pole" is a cell phone antenna. Last summer Little and others fought to keep this antenna from entering their neighborhood—and lost.

"The first question I had was how does this affect my child?" says Little. "They have thinner skulls. It can effect their brain because their brain is developing. It can cause slow motor skills, affect REM sleep. You start hearing things like that, and I just can't believe this is something that would be around people."

Little joined her neighbor Ann Maziar in an effort to raise local awareness about the tower before it was built. The two went door to door with a petition. They organized a demonstration in front of the proposed site. They even continued going to city council meetings after the appeal to talk about their concerns, some of which pertained to health. None of it worked.

"When I go to city council and they tell me that health isn't really a big concern, being a mother, I'm appalled by this," Little says. 'I can't believe that they're not talking about health."

In fact, city officials were just doing their job. According to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which established tower building regulations for the cell phone industry, local governments are prohibited from denying building permits based on health concerns.

"There was a lot of concern with respect to health risks that cell phone towers are perceived to create," says Troy Bliss, a Longmont city planner involved with the tower permit approval. "Unfortunately that's not something we have in our regulation to review or comment on."

While Little lost her struggle to keep cell towers out of her community, her concerns are more common than you might think. Eldorado Springs and residents near Lookout Mountain have recently fought to keep antennas out of their communities. In addition to smaller towns, anti-cell phone activists in cities like San Francisco have organized to curb the efforts of the cell phone industry to erect towers. All of these people say the recent national glut of cell phone tower construction has left public health concerns in the dust, and that it's time for communities to protect themselves from what seems to be a growing nexus of potential hazards.

The wireless build-out

In the United States, an estimated 171 million people use cell phones, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), an association that represents wireless carriers.

In order to keep up with growing demand, the cell phone industry has drastically enhanced its infrastructure since the 1996 FCC Act, and that means more cell towers. Today it is estimated that there are roughly 174,000 cell towers, up from around 25,000 in 1996.

"It's a very widespread problem," says Doug Loranger, co-founder of San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna Free Union (SNAFU). "We've gotten contacted from different people around the county."

Loranger has been actively fighting against cell towers in San Francisco since 2000. He originally founded SNAFU in 2000 when a cell phone company wanted to install antennas in a church steeple across from his apartment.

When Loranger found out about the antennas, he immediately started researching how the antenna would impact his community. An engineer by trade, Loranger found an article in the Institute for Electronic Engineers that summarized the research to date on microwave radiation.

"The opening paragraph said conclusively that this stuff has biological effects. So that was all I needed to know. If this stuff can alter your biology, then it can't be good," he says.

Because it is against the law to refuse an antenna permit based solely on health concerns, SNAFU structures its arguments around issues like decreased property values, aesthetic concerns involving the antennas and overall necessity for new antennas.

"If a company can't demonstrate that it has a significant gap in service, the local government has the authority to say no to that antenna," says Loranger.

In several cases San Francisco officials have agreed with Loranger that alleged "service gaps" didn't warrant proposed local cell towers. But if there weren't real problems with cell phone service, Loranger wonders what other motives could be behind all the construction.

"The more of things you put up, the higher price you can charge someone when they want to buy you out in the future," he says. "You're just doing this to hedge your bets, when in fact you're providing perfectly good service to customers."

Those in the cell phone industry feel differently. According to Dave Mellin, regional communications director for Sprint, cell towers are time consuming and expensive to build, often costing upward of $100,000.

"Any time that we construct a tower, it is done because it is necessary," he says. "There's an awful amount of thought and planning that goes into it before any action is taken."

Regardless of why all these cell towers are appearing, many communities find that keeping towers out of their neighborhood involves a whole lot more than just showing up at a city council meeting. Because of SNAFU's familiarity with fighting these types of battles, Loranger says that many California communities like San El Selmo and Santa Cruz have approached him looking for guidance.

"Once these companies realize that people are trying to put in stringent deadlines, they'll descend like hawks and try to prevent that from happening," he says. "I'm still waiting for the right community where the elected people stand up and do the right thing as far as the public is concerned."

A mixed medical bag

It's invisible. You can't see it, and you can't smell it. Radio Frequency (RF) emissions come from many different sources, like FM radios and televisions. They also come from cell phone towers and cell phones at a much higher rate than other antennas. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established guidelines for these emissions in the mid-'90s, it based the rules on thermal effects. Any RF emissions that fall within the thermal range have the ability to heat human flesh and are therefore hazardous. Those that fall within the nonthermal range were deemed to be safe.

But several laboratory studies within the scientific community have found cell and DNA damage caused by emissions in the nonthermal range. When there is damage on this basic level, the body will attempt to repair itself. If it cannot signal certain cells to die, then the cell will be replicated—along with its defects. This is what leads to runaway cell growth like cancer.

The truth of the matter is that no one knows for sure what the effects are from human exposure to RF radiation. It is known that using a cell phone exposes humans to a significant amount more radiation than what is emitted by a cell tower. But studies haven't concluded that brief, more intense exposure from cell phone use is more hazardous than the low, continuous exposure that comes from cell towers.

People like Doug Loranger and Wendy Little believe that both periodic and excessive exposure to cellular technology can cause health effects, even though there are no epidemiology studies to prove it.

The missing proof is an epidemiological study that connects the laboratory effects of RF radiation directly to actual human health effects. All previous studies have fallen short of this conclusion.

The lack of evidence leads many cell-industry advocates to back the current technology and radiation emissions guidelines. They also assert that most cell towers emit radiation that is thousands of times less than the limits set by the FCC.

Until an epidemiological study emerges that connects radiation exposure directly to human health effects, many speculate that FCC radiation standards will remain the same.

But the prospect of living with the current levels of radiation concern technology experts like Libby Kelly, director of the Council for Wireless Impacts.

"From the volume of calls that I've gotten over the years, there is a growing understanding that we're placing our health at risk," says Kelly. "The outcome is that we may find out we made an enormous mistake."

Safer technology

When Wendy Little and Ann Mazair weren't organizing demonstrations or talking to their community members in Longmont, they were busy looking into their last resort, which was legal action. With the legal costs ranging from $10,000 to $15,000, they realized they had run out of options.

The fact of the matter was the two were not just facing the cell phone companies—they were facing a society that has embraced cell phone use wholeheartedly.

A major sticking point in debate over cell phone towers is that cell phones are viewed by many as a public good, making our lives more convenient. The events of 9/11 further affirmed for many the value of cell phones for maintaining contact with the outside world under any circumstance.

But while many enjoy cell phones for their convenience, the notion of involuntary exposure to radiation is a growing concern. So while many people support the industry, they don't want to live next to the towers upon which the industry relies.

It's a challenging paradox Little is willing to face. In addition trying to find a way to monitor the level of radiation that is now in her neighborhood, she looks toward the future.

"We're going to have to change how we use technology," says Little. "One of our neighbors didn't want to get involved because he said he didn't want to stop progress. What I'm proposing—and I think a lot of people in the nation can be working on this—is that there has to be safer technology."

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com


Informant: Teresa Binstock


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Dezember 2004

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