Earth Matters: Wireless antennas and the rights of citizens

Earth Matters: Wireless antennas and the rights of citizens
Patti Wood

By Patti Wood

There has been a growing concern over the past few years in communities across Long Island regarding the deployment of new “small cell” wireless antennas designed to meet the expansion plans of the nation’s telecoms. The use of 5G technology requires close proximity to the user, and as a result some people are coming home from work to find an antenna sitting atop a telephone pole just outside their home.

Our phones can now do lots of amazing things, and people want to be fully connected at all times, in all places, but that kind of wireless connectivity doesn’t come without a significant risk. Residents, aware of media reports of wireless radiation harm, are showing up at town hall meetings in places like Flower Hill, Manorhaven, Upper Brookville and Lake Success demanding to be heard.

Ever since Samuel Morse figured out how to transmit patterns of electrical signals over a wire back in the 1830s, the quest for ever-faster and more flexible means of communications has driven amazing technological progress. Marconi invented the radio, Bell invented the telephone, his corporate progeny developed television, Steve Jobs gave us the personal computer, and in 1973, the Motorola company developed the DynaTAC 8000X, a wireless hand-held telephone that could operate anywhere—if there was an antenna nearby.

Fast forward to today, and wireless technology can be used to stream movies while we walk the dog, wear a virtual reality headset out in the backyard, and allow giant 18-wheel trucks to barrel along an interstate at 70 miles an hour without a driver. Talk about progress!

But as I mentioned, there’s a risk to all this wireless technology, and local citizens are right to be concerned. It’s something the military has known since the very early days of radar: exposure to the radiofrequency (RF) radiation that is emitted from all wireless devices is not harmless. In fact, thousands of published, peer-reviewed studies have identified mechanisms by which exposure to RF radiation can cause biological harm, resulting in cancer, DNA and heart damage, as well as acute symptoms including headaches, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, memory loss and difficulty concentrating.

The massive deployment of new “small cell” wireless antennas in communities across Long Island transforms the issue of exposure from a personal choice (for instance, deciding to hold your cell phone against your ear for hours each day) to an involuntary one. When an antenna is placed just outside your home, you have no control over the radiation exposure which you and your family will receive 24/7/365, whether you use the service or not.

Studies show that children are much more vulnerable than adults to almost all kinds of environmental exposures, and RF radiation is certainly no exception. Their smaller bodies, thinner skulls, higher water content and rapidly developing physiology put them at much higher risk than adults. If your child’s bedroom happens to be near one of these new antennas, he or she will be exposed to the radiation all night while they sleep.

Well, you might say, certainly our federal agencies would not allow something potentially dangerous like that on the market without pre-market testing and strict regulations. I’m sorry to say, you’d be wrong.

The human RF radiation exposure limits currently promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission were developed back in the 1980s, based on limited studies of rats and monkeys. At that time, the only concern was heat: how much RF radiation would it take to raise the body temperature of the animals? Believe it or not, that is still the standard we are living with today. It’s the standard for every phone, every antenna, every router and every VR headset. A thermal-only standard based on science from the 1980s.

There is no pre-market testing of phones or antennas. No government agency is monitoring the power output of the hundreds of thousands of antennas that have been deployed over the past few years in neighborhoods across the country. No government agency is testing the cumulative RF radiation levels in our school classrooms, where our children spend a large part of their waking hours. The Food and Drug Administration, which has the legal responsibility to set science-based standards for human exposure to RF radiation has actually never done so.

So, what can communities on Long Island and elsewhere do? There are three very important things every community can do: Adopt a protective code, adopt a protective code, and adopt a protective code.

In the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which governs the deployment of all wireless technology in this country, Congress reserved for local communities the right to control how that deployment is managed. But communities don’t get those rights automatically. They get them through the adoption of a protective local zoning code.

The telecoms are fond of telling local politicians that their hands are tied, and that there is nothing they can do to stop a telecom from putting up its antennas wherever it wants. This is not true. The non-profit group Americans for Responsible Technology has a checklist of things every community could and should do to take advantage of the powers given to it by Congress.

While a good code can’t totally prevent the deployment of wireless antennas in every community, it can certainly give local officials the power to prevent the most egregious and hazardous placement of antennas, and force telecoms to prove that the locations they have chosen are the best and least obtrusive ones available.

Nobody is advocating going back in time, but there are safer and better ways to get connected than putting an antenna right outside someone’s home or apartment. You can bet that none of the telecom execs have antennas on their property!

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  1. Likewise, no PSEGLI or LIPA exec has aerial wiring plant outside their homes. It’s underground, as the entire plant should be, to minimize wind damage and total lifetime cost.


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