What Price Wireless?

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‪by James Heddle, EON – the Ecological Options Network

A coastal village in California is a microcosm of the telecom industry’s assault on public health and democratic choice going on all across the country.‬

[ Scroll down for a video of the meeting discussed in this article,
or click here to watch it on EON’s YouTube channel. ]

Aerial photo of Mesa Park complex from EBI Report. Numbers indicate estimated RF exposure levels

What’s Wrong With This Picture?
To anyone who has taken the trouble to give even a cursory glance at the evidence, the situation is absurd on its face: a two-tower microwave antenna farm smack dab in the center of a public complex containing a health clinic, fire hall, childrens’ playground, skateboard park, two baseball diamonds and a soccer field. It would be laughable if it weren’t so potentially tragic. Yet that’s the situation in the Northern California coastal village of Bolinas.

An observer might well ask, ‘How could any decision-making body be that irresponsible?’ What about the kids and adults using the park on a regular basis? What about the clients of the clinic? What about the medical staff and first responders, who are there virtually all the time? Of course it wasn’t planned, exactly. It just grew, like Topsy, as uninformed or misinformed decision makers sucumbed to telecom industry offers of money for their cash-strapped volunteer fire department – all with the best interests of the community in mind.

Now AT&T is pressing to upgrade to even more powerful antennas and today’s Fire Board may decide as early as next month whether to honor a prior Board’s agreement with the community to keep radiation exposures at existing levels, or agree to the telecom giant’s request. The decision is a momentous one with profound public health and safety, economic and political implications. It is similar to challenges being faced by decision-making bodies across the country as the industry and the Obama administration push for a whole new build-out of ‘wireless capacity.’

Clear and Present Danger
Peer-reviewed scientific evidence from around the world clearly shows that chronic exposure to even low levels of microwave radiation has the potential to cause serious biological harm to humans and other living things. In one study, for example, people living within .5 miles of cell antennas reported the following disorders: fatigue, sleep disturbances, headaches, feeling of discomfort, difficulty concentrating, depression, memory loss, visual disruptions, irritability, hearing disruptions, skin problems, cardiovascular disorders, nausea and dizziness.

Doubt is Their Product
Of course, as with the case of pesticides, asbestos, cigarettes, bovine growth hormone, genetically modified seeds, and most recently climate change, corporations with vested interests in the offending technologies hasten to pooh-pooh any findings of harmfulness, no matter how impeccable the science. They hire compliant scientists and fund junk science studies to generate conflicting findings and sow apparent uncertainty. They work through captive corporate-friendly bodies like the National Cancer Society, the World Health Organization (WHO), International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), and the he Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or IEEE (read I-Triple-E) to isolate and discredit independent scientists whose work endangers their bottom line.

In fact, as David Michaels’ recent book, Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health documents, a whole new profession has grown up in recent decades called the ‘product defense industry.’ Its sole purpose is to create doubt and confusion by promoting junk science-for-hire and promulgating denialist disinformation about whatever product or technology is in question. That’s the current situation with wireless health impacts. The more evidence of harm emerges, the harder the industry’s denialist spin-doctors work.

Pre-Emptive Zapping of Democratic Choice
The wide range of biological effects of microwave radiation have been known about since at least WWII and the U.S. military is not the only one to develop and deploy microwave weaponry – of both lethal and what are euphemistically termed ‘non-lethal’ varieties. Those in denial about wireless health risks might well ponder ‘If microwaves have no biological effects, how can they be weaponized?’ Until 1996, local jurisdictions were nixing the placement of microwave antennas in populated areas on the basis of potential health risks. That was very inconvenient for a telecom industry salivating at the prospect of huge profits from the planned ‘wireless revolution’ roll-out.

So industry lobbyists and lawyers wrote, the Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Section 704 of the Act made it illegal for local jurisdictions to prevent placement of microwave antennas on the basis of health risks. That’s right, local electeds are prevented by law from protecting the health and safety of their constituents. Just one more example of the creeping corporate capture of the mechanisms of governance. The Act also stipulates that once one telecom company places a microwave antenna in a given spot, other carriers cannot be denied permission to ‘co-locate’ there, too. The co-location clause means that once one telecom outfit gets in, there goes the neighborhood.

Targeting First Responders with Co-Location
One favorite co-location spot in communities across the continent has been fire departments, the argument being: ‘Hey, you’ve already got all those emergency communication antennas on your tower, what’s the problem with adding a few more?’ But when firefighters started complaining en masse of a whole range of ill effects like sleeplessness, anxiety, mental confusion and cancers, a study was done the results of which led the International Association of Firefighters in both the U.S. and Canada to enact a policy opposing further microwave co-locating on their facilities until exposure to such RF radiation is proven ‘safe.’ Nobody’s holding their breath on that one, because accumulating evidence points ‘like a forest in the wind’ in just the opposite direction. No ‘safe’ level of exposure to man-made radio frequency radiation has ever been established, nor is it ever likely to be. Living cells communicate with each other with extremely nano-tiny electro-magnetic signals. As the growing population of electro-hyper sensitive (EHS) people who have become injured through over-exposure attest, we are all electro-magnetic beings. The current level of ambient electro-magnetic radiation from wirelessness is now millions of times the natural level in which living cells evolved.

A Contract WITH the Community, or a Contract ON the Community?
In 2005, informed citizens and a responsive Fire Board made an agreement to cap the radiation power of the antennas already contracted for at their existing levels. But now, AT&T, acting through its sub-contractor Lyle Corporation, is pushing to upgrade its antennas to accommodate the new G3 and G4 cell phone technologies, making the duplicitous claim that this will not increase the existing exposure levels. Arthur Firstenburg, Westinghouse Scholar and founder of Cellular Phone Task Force – himself an EHS sufferer – reports that exposure levels are 100s of times higher for 3G and 4G bandwidth frequencies and power densities than those used before.

At last Monday’s Fire Board meeting an unidentified young Lyle representative handed out a ‘compliance report’ conducted by another sub-contractor called EBI Consulting, which purported to show no increase in radiation from the proposed upgrade. However the ‘report’ failed to include numbers that allow comparison with existing levels, and it was clear that, under questioning, the young man didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. The Board sent him back to his masters with the request to come up with sets of comparative numbers on which they might base a decision. Trouble is, asking AT&T or its hirelings to give you accurate numbers is like asking BP to tell you how much oil it spilled in the Gulf. [ Article continues below. ]

Who’s Liable to be Liable?
Another issue for would-be denialists to ponder is: What if long-term exposure does turn out to be – as the evidence strongly suggests – a big public health problem. Who’s accountable when the class action law suits start coming in? Who gets sued? Who pays? In a study commissioned by concerned Bolinas citizens in the last round on this issue with the previous Fire Board, consultant Blake Levitt, advised as follows:

“Liability has increasingly been passed down to the municipalities, often without their knowledge. In 1999, Congress passed the E911 Act making 911 the national emergency response number for both wired and wireless phone systems. 

“But hidden in that bill was an exemption that the wireless industry fought for behind closed doors, granting them all liability protection for the “operation” of their systems, which includes adverse effects from RF and various other failures/hazards. 

“In addition, many insurance companies now refuse to indemnify telecom providers for RF because it is a known environmental pollutant. Lloyds of London no longer underwrites industries for RF. 

“Independent tower companies, such as Crown Castle and American Tower Company, which are entities separate from the service providers, typically are set up as Limited Liability Corporations (LLC’s). Such business structures place most of their assets out of reach. 

“This means that anyone seeking redress for damages of any kind will only have the municipality to approach  the last body to which the Telecom Act gave final authority over all siting decisions. 

“It therefore makes sense for a municipality to create the best possible protections for itself and its citizens with strong zoning regulations, and to site RF installations as far away from the population as possible. In the eventuality of a lawsuit, that is the best thing a town could exhibit as good-faith evidence.”

Another Cause for Pause
It also became apparent in Monday’s meeting that the Board lacks some clarity about the permitting process it is involved in with the County Planning Division and the California Coastal Commission. At issue is the implication of the Board’s signing of an application to the Planning Division that would, in effect, make the Board a co-applicant with Lyle for the upgrade. The Lyle rep claimed that the signing was what AT&T liked so that there was a ‘partnership’ with the lessor, but, he said, it was only a pro forma step in a long process and would not foreclose future choice.

However, the county Planning Division’s person in charge of this application, Lorene Jackson, stated in a phone call that the Board isn’t forced to sign the application, but if it does, it is officially requesting the permit in partnership with AT&T. The original 1997 Fire District contract, later bought by AT&T, stipulates (Section Two C) that “consent shall not be withheld unreasonably for any material modification or changes to said plans.” ‘Unreasonable’ by whose metrics?

And if AT&T is permitted more antennas, other carriers will also demand their 4G antennas be co-located on Bolinas’ towers. Already T-Mobile has put in such a request. There would be no way to stop many more highly irradiating antennas if AT&T’s antennas are OK’d.

Drinking the Denialist Cool Aid

Despite a temporary postponement of its deliberations, the Board could still drink the denialist cool aid and give its permission for the requested upgrade. Why? They would not receive any more money for the additional antennas. Would the telecom giants sue tiny Bolinas? Or take their antenna’s and their lease payments elsewhere? The income from the antenna lease is estimated to account for 20% of its yearly budget. The hard-working members of the Board have so far been open to hearing citizen concerns, but it is as yet unclear whether they will come down on the side of the precautionary principle or of dollar-driven denial.

For more information:
Disconnect by Devra Davis
Zapped by Louise Gettleman
Doubt Is Their Product by David Michaels
Dirty Electricity by Sam Milham

James Heddle is a multi-media advocacy journalist and blogger. He co-directs EON, the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan, who contributed to this report. They have been reporting, educating and organizing on this issue for over a decade. They are, respectively, the director and co-producer with Libby Kelly of the award-winning documentary PUBLIC EXPOSURE: DNA, Democracy and the ‘Wireless Revolution,’ broadcast repeatedly on LinkTV and used by community organizers around the world.

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