Wireless carriers are installing millions of them across the country to enable the new, faster 5G cellphone technology. While many are looking forward to faster cell service, many are also asking: Are there legitimate health concerns?
That question is keeping John Hiestand up at night. Outside his bedroom window he can see a new pole where Verizon will soon install a next-generation cell tower.
“This would be a big tower generating lots of RF outside of our bedroom window 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for many years,” he said.
It’s called a “small cell” or “distributed antenna system.” The industry says they’re safe. Many in Piedmont aren’t convinced – including the Hiestands.
“Our daughter is a cancer survivor,” John Hiestand explained.
Thirteen-year-old Sophia Hiestand has been one of many petitioning the city council to deny this cell tower.
“I mostly talked about my cancer and how it affected me, even though you’re not supposed to talk about health issues, I still did,” Hiestand said.
However, according to federal law the city simply can’t consider health concerns. It’s outlined in a small section of the Telecommunications Act, based on science from 1996, back when we were still talking on cellphones that looked like bricks.
“I find it really unfair,” said Hiestand.
If cities do consider health, cell companies can sue them.
So, with few legal arguments to deny a tower, they’re popping up outside bedroom windows and school campuses, despite objections from across the country.
“5G can be a tremendous boom to California but only if it can be put up quickly and easily,” said Hayward Assembly member Bill Quirk. Quirk co-authored legislation that would make it even harder for cities like Piedmont to object to a tower.
“You wouldn’t have to go through the planning commission, through the city council,” Quirk explained.
Quirk, a former NASA scientist, says he may resurrect the bill that was recently vetoed by governor Brown.
“I know scientifically that putting up these cell phone towers is safe,” he said.
But the International Association of Frefighters disagrees. It began opposing cell towers on fire stations, after firefighters complained of health problems.
“These firefighters developed symptoms,” says Dr. Gunnar Heuser who conducted a pilot study on firefighters at a station with cell towers.
“The symptoms included problems with memory, problems with intermittent confusion, problems with weakness,” Heuser said.
Heuser says their brain scans suggest even low-level RF can cause cell damage and he worries about more vulnerable groups like kids.
“We found abnormal brain function in all of the firefighters we examined,” Heuser said.
So, following lobbying by firefighters, assemblyman Quirk and his co-author exempted fire stations from their bill, making them one place cell companies couldn’t put a tower.
“This is the first piece of legislation that anyone is aware of where somebody got an exemption because they were concerned about health. Did they tell you at all about the study?” we asked the assemblyman.
Quirk’s response: “All I know is that when the firefighters ask, I do what they ask me to do.”
“Because they are strong lobbyists?” we asked him. His response: “Yes.”
“So if school teachers and parents had a strong lobby and they ask you to pass something that would prevent these from going up near schools, would you do that?” we asked Quirk.
His response: “If I couldn’t get the votes any other way!”
We next spoke to Tony Stefani, founder of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation.
“It’s not only the firefighters, it’s the people that live within the vicinity of these towers,” Stefani said.
Anthony Stefani started with the San Francisco Fire Department in 1974. The 28-year veteran retired as the captain of Rescue 1 in 2003.
Stefani notes that current regulations don’t take into account continuous low-level exposure from these small cells 24-hours a day. He also says some fellow firefighters reported that their symptoms disappeared when they move to a station without a tower.
“More of these studies have to be done,” he says.
Many international scientists agree. More than 230 scientists from 41 nations — who have published over 2,000 peer-reviewed papers on electromagnetic fields and biology and health — have signed the International EMF Scientist Appeal.
They cite “serious concerns” about “increasing exposure to EMF” based on “numerous recent scientific publications” linking low levels of wireless radiation to health effects.
They’re calling for stronger regulations, disclosure about wireless industry ties to regulatory agencies, and they want publicly funded studies on the health effects of EMF emitting devices/base stations (i.e. cell towers).
“I do not believe that there is any health impact on firefighters or anyone else, from cells, period!” Assemblyman Quirk asserted. However he added, “I think doing more studies is always a good thing.”
Considering the the circumstances, we asked Quirk: “Do you think that maybe you should consider putting a pause on legislation that speeds up these towers until there is definitive evidence that there is no harm?”
His’s response: “We can do a lot of studies and there are people right now believe it or not who are sure the world is flat.”
In a statement the CTIA says it defers to the experts when it comes to the safety of cellular telephones and antennas:
“According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society and numerous other international and U.S. organizations and health experts, the scientific evidence shows no known health risk due to the RF energy emitted by cellphones.
Likewise, the FCC monitors scientific research on a regular basis and its standards for RF exposure are based on recommended guidelines adopted by U.S. and international standard-setting bodies. That’s why the FCC has determined that all wireless phones legally sold in the United States are “safe.” This scientific consensus has stayed the same even after the NTP’s release in 2016 of its partial findings in a study involving cellphones and lab animals.
The FCC also sets exposure limits for cell site antennas that transmit signals to phones. Those limits, like the limits for cell phones, are even more conservative than standards adopted by leading international standards bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).
The FCC states that typical ground exposures to base station antennas are “hundreds to thousands of times less than the FCC’s limits for safe exposure” and “there is no reason to believe that such [antennas] could constitute a potential health hazard” to nearby residents.”
The World Heath Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified RF radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Though the cell phone industry stresses there are “no known health risks.”
What about the unknown? Well, back in Piedmont the Hiestands don’t want to wait around to find out.
“We are going to get some meters. We’re going to measure the micro-radiation today and then when the cell towers go up, we can measure it and see how dangerous it really is,” said John Hiestand. He says if he has to they’ll move.
“For my daughter’s health, definitely,” he said.
Piedmont was able to temporarily block permits for some small cell towers but now the company installing them for Verizon, Crown Castle, is suing the city.
Meanwhile new research set to be published next month could radically alter the debate. For the first time it establishes a scientific link between RF radiation and cancer in lab rats:
In response, the Chief Medical Director of the American Cancer Society said this first-of-its-kind government study “marks a paradigm shift in our understanding of radiation and cancer risk.”