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Cell-Phone Towers and Communities: The Struggle for Local Control
by B. Blake Levitt

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the size of the Manhattan phone directory. At the time it was being debated, most people, including many legislators voting on it, thought it was only about complex deregulation schemes. But deep within its pages, in Section 704, lay a stealth clause about the siting of cell-phone towers that is creating a planning and zoning nightmare--and perhaps a public health problem, according to some scientists, journalists, and activists.

Inserted at the behest of the telecommunications conglomerates, whose representatives helped write the legislation, Section 704 states that although communities reserve their rights over the general placement, construction, and modification of towers, they cannot ban them outright. Nor can they unreasonably discriminate among providers, or set zoning regulations based on "the environmental effects of radio-frequency emissions, to the extent that such facilities comply with the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] regulations concerning such emissions." As for health effects on humans, the intent was to include them in the catch-all category "environmental effects," although no other industry, including the U.S. military, interprets the term in that way. Section 704 further states that all refusals must be "reasonable" and in writing.

Zoning officials today are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to siting cellular-phone towers or other antenna installations mounted on, or in, pre-existing buildings. Legally, they can't refuse them or, supposedly, design zoning regulations based on health effects, no matter how convincing the scientific evidence or how militant community members become. Any community that tries to challenge the safety of cellular towers based on the "environmental" effects of radio-frequency (RF) emissions stands to end up in federal court. Several communities already have.

The situation is dividing communities around the country, often pitting neighbor against neighbor when one is tempted by the licensing revenues of siting such a facility on their property, while adjacent landowners raise concerns about property devaluation and health endangerment. Communities used to be able to turn down such towers, but now this is no longer so.

Critics say it is the biggest land-grab in one industry's favor at the federal level since the buildout of the railroads at the turn of the last century. Others say it is a flagrant challenge to the Fifth and Tenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. And now those who are silenced at public hearings from speaking out about health effects point to First Amendment violations too. Legal challenges are currently making their way through the courts, the most promising of which was filed in federal court by a group of concerned citizens in conjunction with the Communications Workers of America and a group of "electrically sensitive" people, who have allergic-like reactions to electromagnetic fields. The suit charges, among other things, that federal health and safety agencies should be held accountable for their failure to protect the public, and accuses the FCC of ignoring important studies on RF-radiation hazards, as well as overstepping its statutory authority in banning RF regulation at the local level.

But the issue may not be settled any time soon, despite a likely court ruling in the fall of 1998, widespread dissatisfaction at the local level, and increasing pressure on elected officials. The telecommunications industry, having poured millions of dollars into campaign contributions to both parties, has enormous influence. The scientific community is divided regarding safety, and the science itself--bioelectromagnetics--is arcane and complex.

What is it about cellular towers that makes people react so negatively? Is it just their intergalactic look? Or are the health concerns real? And why did the telecommunications industry fight so hard behind the scenes to disempower planning and zoning commissions? The answers go back decades, to the very heart of twentieth-century technology.

Simply put, many people love wireless convenience. There are an estimated 57 million cell-phone users in America alone. But no one loves the towers or antenna arrays that accompany the technology. The industry response to this dichotomy has been to create "stealth designs" for some installations, making them look like surrealistic pine trees, hiding antennas in church steeples, on barn silos and water towers, or designing large panels that attach to the exteriors of buildings.

But critics say aesthetics are a smoke screen obscuring the heart of the issue, which is medical. Concern about the safety of this part of the electromagnetic spectrum spans decades, fueling both government and industry research, although nowhere near enough, or of an appropriate kind. Nevertheless, that research has turned up disturbing results, and an abundance of controversy.

Radiation is a natural part of the universe. The electromagnetic spectrum is divided into ionizing and nonionizing radiation, with the former consisting of very short wavelengths, like X-rays and ultraviolet light, which have enough power to knock electrons off their orbits. These bands have the ability to do permanent damage at the cellular level, causing cancers and genetic mutations. Nonionizing radiation--emitted by powerlines, radios, TVs, cellular phones, microwave ovens, and many other sources--consists of longer wavelengths that can have less power, and has mistakenly been assumed to be harmless, apart from its ability to heat tissue. We have encircled the earth and infused the atmosphere with these nonionizing bands in ways that don't exist in nature--using abnormal exposure strengths and unusual characteristics such as alternating current, digital signaling, modulation, and odd wave forms--all without understanding the full bioeffects.

It has been known for decades that the human anatomy is resonant with--or acts as a perfect antenna for--FM radio frequencies, and that our bodies reach peak absorption in the ultra-high frequency (UHF) ranges, right where television and cellular-phone transmissions occur. The FCC standards for radio-frequency emissions are based on thermal effects, or the RFs' ability to heat tissue, in the same way a microwave oven cooks food. But the case for nonthermal hazards from RFs is substantial. Decades of research have found alarming effects: numerous cancers, immune system suppression, and birth defects, among others. Some research has found detrimental effects based on frequency alone, not on power density. And bioelectromagnetics researchers often note puzzling "nonlinear effects," which indicate that the most profound bioreactions occur at the lowest exposures. This body of research argues for fewer towers.

In 1992, Cletus Kanavy, chief of the Biological Effects Laboratory at the Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico, published a paper on RFs, stating that the information on nonthermal effects produced at levels below today's standards should not be ignored. Kanavy noted, "The principal...biological effects of greatest concern are behavioral aberrations, neural network perturbations, fetal tissue damage (inducing birth defects), cataractogenesis, altered blood chemistry, metabolic changes and suppression of the endocrine and immune systems..." Kirkland set an exposure standard 100 times more stringent than what the FCC uses for civilian exposures. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory did the same for its lab researchers.

Despite these findings, few appropriate RF studies, simulating long-term, low-level exposures, exist. Extrapolations from other scientific disciplines, as well as occupational and epidemiology reports, are therefore all we have to help us understand the consequences of this technology. Consumers point out that those who use the cell-phone handsets are engaging in voluntary exposures, even though handset safety also remains unresolved, according to the FDA and many industry insiders. But those who live near the towers are being forced into involuntary exposures, often after incurring great legal expenses in trying to stop the installations.

Municipal Agents often feel their hands are tied, but this may change as communities decide to draw the line. Some communities are talking about outright civil disobedience: "What are they going to do, send out the national guard and make us site towers?" said Richard Chevalier of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, a small New England town on Cape Cod where a church wants to site several antennas in its steeple, right in the heart of the compact historic district where centuries-old houses stand within a few feet of each other.

Other activists, such as Kati Winchell of Lincoln, Massachusetts, and Virginia Hines of nearby Concord, in conjunction with the Lincoln-based Alliance for Democracy and the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, are forming a national coalition to challenge Section 704 and put this technology on hold until it is proven safe.

Dale and Janet Newton of Marshfield, Vermont, found out that a neighbor intended to lease land to a telecommunications company for a tower that would abut their maple sugar farm. They would be living and working near it 24 hours a day. The Newtons have since founded the Thistle Hill Alliance and taken out full-page ads in newspapers, prompting their legislators to restore the local rights taken away by Section 704. They have also set up a comprehensive website for RF issues.

The Newtons are among others paying serious attention in Vermont. In fact, Vermont seems poised for a rebellion that could have reverberations on the national level. That is what prompted the new chairman of the FCC, William Kennard, former chief counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters, to travel to Vermont for a mini-summit this year. (During that visit, Kennard said the FCC is "not in the zoning business," but he continued to reserve the right to pre-empt local laws nevertheless.) It was also U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D., VT) who wrote Senate Bill 1350 to reverse Section 704. The bill has temporarily been withdrawn, partly to protect it from being buried in the business-friendly Senate Commerce Committee. There is also a companion bill, H.R.3016, introduced by Bernard Sanders (I., VT), that is presently stuck in the Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives and may not see the light of day without significant voter pressure.

Last year, over 50 scientists and public-health officials in the Boston area, at the prompting of activist Susan Clark of Concord, signed a petition that was sent to the EPA, calling for a halt of the personal communications system (PCS) buildout in that city until further research is done. (The petition has gone unanswered.) Scientists and public-health officials in other areas are also calling for new research and caution before this wireless network expands. Even the industry researchers for the Wireless Technology Research group, the scientific arm of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, went on strike for a year demanding that the industry indemnify them for the results of their research. Fifteen years earlier, the scientists on the committee responsible for writing the safety standards in effect today did the same.

Meanwhile, citizens report that the most vexing experience at the local level has been the silencing of their health concerns. Many municipal agents incorrectly interpret Section 704, assuming that since they cannot factor health into their final decisions, they therefore cannot broach the subject at all. Michael Petersen, of Lopez Island, one of the scenic San Juan Islands dotting the coast of Seattle, Washington, was ruled out of order on numerous occasions when he tried to introduce such information at public hearings over the sitingof a multi-island tower grid. So afraid of lawsuits were San Juan Island municipal agents that they wouldn't address the subject with him on the phone.

Sometimes, zoning regulations sidestep the issue by specifying that they are not taking health into consideration--an odd twist of logic since the purpose of zoning regulations in most state statutes is to protect the health, safety, well-being, and property values of a community.

When industry engineers show up to present applications for installations, they liken their technology to remote-control devices, such as garage-door openers or TV remote controls. They say that the power density 100 feet from antennas is equivalent to that of these familiar devices, pointing out that power density decreases rapidly with distance from an antenna. But density is only one factor of radio-wave propagation among several variables that determine safety.

Industry representatives also point out that the RF emissions of cellular towers are far below the federal standards, which they often are. They liken the power output of the technology to 100- and even 25-watt light bulbs, hoping to assuage people's fears with familiar comparisons. What they leave out is that 100 watts is the power output per channel, and one antenna may host dozens of channels. As user demand increases, channels can be split. Plus, unlike 60-hertz light bulbs, these installations function in the microwave, UHF bands, where questions about safety go back to the 1940s and remain unanswered today.

Clearly, the situation is not as simple as the telecommunications industry would have us believe. Yet they continue to push at the federal level for pre-emption of local rights. Their more recent requests to the FCC include: declaring even temporary moratoriums illegal; disallowing communities from making companies prove they are in compliance with FCC regulations; and forbidding discussion of the health effects at local zoning hearings. They have also petitioned the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, headed by Senator John McCain (R., AZ), to grant their services interstate commerce status--another way of overriding local control.

This industry sees a victory at the federal level as a victory in all 50 states. The last thing they want is to meet Everytown U.S.A., where the hard questions are being asked by those assuming the risks. Efforts should be made to rein in this industry until appropriate federal research is done--studies of long-term, low-level, nonthermal exposures like those encountered by people who live near such installations. Legislation that returns control to municipalities needs support. Zoning officials must be encouraged to keep installations away from people. This is not, and never was, just about the ugliness of towers.

B. Blake Levitt is a medical and science journalist, a former New York Times writer, and author of Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer's Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves (Harcourt Brace, 1995), for which she won an award from the American Medical Writers Association.

This essay was originally published in the Autumn 1998 issue of Orion Afield. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at

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