Cell phones started simply as mobile telephones, an advance from the pocket pager allowing people to receive calls without the inconvenience of land lines. The first cell phone was created in 1978, weighed about two pounds, and would just about fit in a shoe box. Today, the phones weigh a fraction of the original – the iPhone 4 tips the scale at less than five ounces – and are no bigger than a deck of cards. Together with social networking and Internet capabilities, the pocket-size communication devices have woven their way into the fabric of society.
“Cell phones are a part of our culture now,” said Joshua McMurray, an Oakley senior planner who handles building permits for cell towers within the city. “It seems like everyone has a cell phone. Some of them even have two or more phones. Someone who doesn’t own a cell phone these days is a real rarity. It’s part of your routine. Heading out? Grab your keys, your wallet and your cell phone.”
But while most people are delighted by the ability to stay in touch with ease, they’re less enthused about other aspects of the technology. The complex network of antennas, strategically placed atop towers and on buildings around the world, has led to increasing concerns over potential health risks associated with the signals they send and receive, as well as the visual intrusion caused by thousands of cell sites popping into view.
Feds call the shots
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees the rules and regulations of cell phone use in the United States, began looking into mobile phone safety in 1993. More time is needed to determine potential long-term effects, but the commission currently takes the position that, if cell phone use or the proximity to cell towers does pose a risk to humans, that risk is “probably small.”
“Radio frequency emissions from antennas used for cellular and personal communication service transmissions result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits,” the FCC reported in 2010. “These safety limits are adopted by the FCC based on the recommendations of expert organizations and endorsed by agencies of the federal government responsible for health and safety. Therefore there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents.”
Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based in France, published the results of a multi-year study that investigated whether cell phone use increases the risk of cancer and, more specifically, whether the radio waves emitted by cell phones are carcinogenic. The study, known as INTERPHONE, is the largest case-control study to date that has investigated risks related to cell phone use. The study was conducted in 13 countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Each country’s study followed the same protocol, and more than 12,000 participants were included in the final results.
According to the United States National Cancer Institute, which did not participate in the study, “INTERPHONE researchers reported that, overall, cell phone users have no increased risk for two of the most common types of brain tumor – glioma and meningioma. In addition, they found no evidence of increasing risk with progressively increasing number of calls, longer call time, or years since beginning cell phone use. For the small proportion of study participants who reported spending the most total time on cell phone calls, there was some increased risk of glioma, but the researchers considered this finding inconclusive.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the safety of radiation-emitting devices such as cell phones, has been keeping tabs on health hazards research over the past decade and asserts that there is no proof that cell phones pose a danger to health. The organization continues to examine research, but according to the FDA website, “under the law, FDA does not review the safety of radiation-emitting consumer products such as cell phones and similar wireless devices before they can be sold, as it does with new drugs or medical devices. However, FDA does have the authority to take action if cell phones are shown to emit radiofrequency energy at a level that is hazardous to the user. In such a case, FDA could require cell phone manufacturers to notify users of the health hazard and to repair, replace or recall the phones so that the hazard no longer exists.” However, since no medical evidence has suggested otherwise, the FDA reaffirmed its stance on cell phone-related health concerns last year.
Likewise, an American Cancer Society (ACS) review seemed to indicate there’s nothing to worry about.
“Some people have expressed concern that living, working or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems,” the ACS reported in a Learn About Cancer web feature last June. “At this time, there is very little evidence to support this idea.
“In theory, there are some important points that would argue against cellular phone towers being able to cause cancer. The energy level of radiofrequency (RF) waves is relatively low, especially when compared with the types of radiation that are known to increase cancer risk, such as gamma rays, x-rays and ultraviolet light. The energy of RF waves given off by cell phone towers is not enough to break chemical bonds in DNA molecules, which is how these stronger forms of radiation may lead to cancer.”
Opposition in the neighborhoods
In a scene repeated in municipalities everywhere, the Brentwood City Council in January saw residents rally against a cell site that had been approved by the city’s planning commission. In this case, a wireless telecommunication site consisting of up to six antennae panels was proposed to be mounted on an existing PG&E tower south of Spyglass Drive and east of Cinnabar Hills Court. Residents, voicing concerns about visual blight, declining property values and potential health risks, appealed the approval decision to the council.
When it came to the health concerns, however, there was little the council could do. According to Brentwood Assistant Planner Tim Nielsen, the FCC’s authority supercedes local government. Cities are barred from taking health concerns into consideration when deciding on a proposed tower location.
“The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits state and local governments from prohibiting projects based on potential health risks in relation to radiofrequency admissions,” said Nielsen. “The FCC establishes guidelines about what is safe, so local jurisdictions are not allowed to consider health risks when approving a cell site. It’s a concern that is always brought up by neighbors, but local government cannot deny a site based on health concerns.”
Several residents from the Cinnabar Hills neighborhood addressed the council to get their concerns on record. Although the neighbors were informed of the FCC regulations, some residents continued to oppose the cell site. Resident Mel Clarke, much like the other speakers, expressed concern about what the children who play in the area might be exposed to.
The council overturned the commission’s ruling, primarily on the basis of aesthetics and property values. The city has no telecommunications ordinance in place, but Nielsen said the city will need one in the future.
Brentwood currently has 24 sets of antennas (sets typically consist of three antennas) utilized by five companies at 11 locations, many of which serve multiple carriers. Sites can be found atop the city water tower, a PG&E tower at the corner of Sand Creek Road and the Highway 4 Bypass, and in the form of a monopole structure disguised as a pine tree next to Acorn Storage on Lone Tree Way.
In accordance with the FCC, neither the planning commission nor the council take health risks into consideration in their decisions about tower locations – a conundrum for Nielsen as well as the public he serves.
“It’s frustrating that there is little information about health risks. Until there is substantial information, the FCC won’t offer stricter regulations, so we have to work within the existing guidelines,” Nielsen said. “It’s not fun telling a family who is concerned about the potential risks that we aren’t allowed to take that into consideration. These are valid concerns, but there is nothing we can do.”
Oakley Senior Planner Joshua McMurray shares Nielsen’s frustrations.
“I understand their (the public’s) concerns,” McMurray said. “I read the studies as they come out, but the results are always inconclusive since the technology is so new. I’m left with just as many questions, so I see where the public is coming from. I have kids. I have concerns of my own, but the FCC doesn’t allow us to take these concerns into consideration when approving a new site.”
East County’s lone ordinance
Oakley, unlike the other cities in East County, has a telecommunications ordinance in place governing new cell sites. The City Council reviews applications for the design of public art facilities such as a cell station disguised as a tree or monument, or building mounted, in which case a set of antennas is placed atop a building. Stealth facilities that blend into existing structures may be approved by the community development director.
The ordinance, updated in 2009, dictates that structures are not to be located in areas zoned for residential use. If a structure is built adjacent to a residential area, the structure must be a minimum distance away from houses. If a monopole tower is approved at 80 feet in height, for example, the structure must be at least 80 feet from the nearest houses.
McMurray said Oakley has seven cell sites within the city limits, including an antenna atop a lighting structure at the Freedom High School football field, which the school district approved (as it operates under its own policies and procedures). While there is a set of building-mounted antennas on the ECC Bank on Main Street, the most common telecommunications site in Oakley takes the form of a fake pine tree. According to McMurray, since there are few tall buildings in town and the land is relatively flat, Oakley is at a disadvantage. Monopoles are therefore the best way to get the antennas up high enough to provide maximum coverage. And since monopoles are cheaper than other designs, companies tend to favor the faux trees.
However, following the faulty construction of two monopole pine towers, the Oakley City Council became wary of welcoming another tree into the city. Last month the council refused an application for a monopole behind Black Bear Diner. The council directed the telecommunications representative to return with a monument design such as a clock tower.
“What’s the fascination with these faux trees?” asked Oakley Vice Mayor Kevin Romick at a January council meeting. “They’re ugly. I have one I can see out my back window, and there’s nothing at all attractive about them. It’s an eyesore. You drive anywhere through town and they stand out like fake trees. Amongst the skyline, no matter where they are, they stand out. There has to be a better way to disguise them.
“Personally I would like to see (these structures) blend into the area around them. A faux tree right behind Black Bear would be … ugly. Bottom line, it’s just ugly.”
Other members of the council agreed with Romick that the faux pine was not a desirable option, and continued the public hearing to February to allow the applicant to devise a new structure. At this week’s council meeting, a telecommunications representative returned with two monument designs: a bell tower and an Oakley entryway sign. (For more on that story, click here).
Out of sight, out of mind
Antioch Community Development Director Tina Wehrmeister said aesthetics are the main concern of the Antioch city staff and the public. In her 10 years working for the city, she has received no complaints from the public regarding health dangers, but the community wants to keep these sites out of sight and out of mind. When approving new sites, Wehrmeister always works with applicants to find an existing building or tower on which to attach antennas.
“We look favorably on co-location on existing PG&E towers,” Wehrmeister said. “The city doesn’t have a telecommunications ordinance at the moment, but when applicants pull building permits, we always prefer that they go with a stealth option or a monopole design that blends with the desired location. We have about 30 locations throughout the city, which hold 46 antenna structures. We have one on a water tower and another is located in a church steeple. We try to hide them as best we can.”
Wehrmeister said the city will eventually need a telecommunications ordinance, but due to budget cuts, her department has been reduced to herself and a city planner, so their time must be spent on more pressing projects.
Since telecommunication technology is becoming more prevalent in our society, more and more cities are seeing the need for a local ordinance to help regulate the structures needed to facilitate wireless communication. As the technology is new and conclusive evidence is lacking, health questions pinball from person to person much like signals between cell towers. While East County cities seem to have a firm grasp – if not an appreciation for – existing rules, some Bay Area cities are moving ahead with rules of their own.
Last year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a landmark ordinance that would require cell phone retailers to post the specific absorption rate of its products. Much like the way fast-food restaurants display calories per item on their menus boards, San Francisco officials wanted their residents to know what they were getting into before buying. A month after the ordinance was passed last June, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association sued the city, stating that the ordinance is unnecessary as the FCC regulates cell phone safety and no phone sold in the United States may give off more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. The case will go before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California later this year.
In Oregon, the state government is considering approving a law that would require warning labels on the packaging of cell phones sold in the state. Sen. Chip Shields sponsored the bill as a way to combat potential health risks now rather than wait 20 years down the line for studies to show that there are indeed health risks. Cigarettes, asbestos and lead paint were originally believed to be safe, he notes, but researchers and the public now know better. If passed, the law will also require retailers to place a sticker on the back of each device as further warning to consumers.
So the debate rages on. Nielsen suggests that concerned residents write to their congressional representatives and ask them to push for more definitive studies. Until the federal government can provide more answers, residents and local government agencies will continue asking questions, including the proverbial “Can you hear me now?”