If Tower Arrives, Washington Could Be Part of a Key Study
By: Rebecca Ransom
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WASHINGTON-The town may soon become one of the first communities in America to take part in a groundbreaking epidemiology study researching the effect of cell towers on human health.
The study is being coordinated by the EMR Policy Institute, a national nonprofit environmental advocacy group, and Dr. Chris Busby, director of the United Kingdom-based independent scientific research group Green Audit, and a fellow of the University of Liverpool in the Faculty of Medicine, Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Biology.
The study hinges on a controversial proposal to build a freestanding cell tower in town being approved. Washington currently does not have a freestanding cell tower within its borders.
Verizon Wireless proposed erecting a tower this spring on one of two possible sites in the Marbledale section of town. Both of the sites are privately owned.
According to Verizon, the cell tower would bring Verizon Wireless service to the heavily-traveled Route 202 corridor and cover an area of approximately one-and-a-half miles.
Verizon’s proposal is scheduled to go before the Connecticut Siting Council, the entity that has sole authority over cell tower placement, on June 21 at Washington’s Bryan Memorial Town Hall. A test balloon to simulate the visual impact the proposed 157-foot-tall tower, will also take place June 21.
Although the state Siting Council has ultimate authority over cell tower placement, which is not subject to local land-use regulations, the town has filed as an intervenor in the case. The town has hired attorney Stephen Smart to represent it at the Siting Council’s hearings, and has commissioned radio frequency engineer Walter Cooper.
The town’s Conservation Commission and its Cell Tower Committee have also enlisted noted radio frequency radiation (RF) consultant and former New York Times medical and science journalist, B. Blake Levitt, who is also a Warren resident. In addition, the town recently conducted a town-wide survey, asking residents their thoughts on the cell tower issue.
After the Siting Council’s hearing, it may take several months before a final decision is reached by the authority.
If the tower is approved, the study will commence, surveying residents who live both near the tower and those who live within lateral exposure of the tower, meaning at the same elevation as the cellular transmitters.
These residents will be asked to voluntarily participate in the confidential study. Participants will be surveyed both before the tower is built and after the tower is in operation. They will be asked questions like, “In the last few weeks have you suffered from any of the following: headache, memory changes, depression, blurred vision, sleep disturbance … ” etc.
It is the first study of its kind in the United States and researchers say the data collected will be invaluable to the overall research on cell towers and human health. They hope to conduct similar surveys in other communities. In fact, running concurrently to the planned Washington study, communities in Pennsylvania and New York are also partaking in the study.
Cell towers and other wireless transmitters emit certain amounts of radiation. Because radiation is hazardous to living organisms, based on frequency, intensity and other factors, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sets limits on how much radiation can be emitted from cell towers. The FCC’s standards are based on the thermal effects of radiation, or, in basic terms, how much radiation the human body can sustain before it begins to “cook.”
But some scientists and opponents of the guidelines argue that the FCC’s standards are incomplete, obsolete and may potentially be endangering public health. They contend radiation’s non-thermal effects also need to be considered. Some claim the constant, low level, non-thermal radiation emitted by transmitters like cell towers, causes a variety of health issues-everything from sleep disorders, depression and memory loss to more serious disorders like autism, cancers, stunted brain development in children, infertility problems, Alzheimer’s disease and DNA breakdown.
In addition to the human health effects, some scientists also note that this radiation is having a deeply disturbing effect on wildlife. Some scientists have blamed non-thermal radiation and the proliferation of cellular transmitters over the last decade for the decline in certain species of birds and frogs, for example.
Critics of the FCC’s policy say the agency’s oversight is riddled with holes. First of all, the FCC is not a human health or environmental agency, and therefore, some argue, the FCC cannot, and should not, solely oversee radiation issues. They also claim the FCC’s guidelines are based on outdated research and do not take into account any health impact studies conducted past the mid-1980s. Nor has there been any federal funding for non-thermal radiation studies for years.
Once a transmitter is in place, there is “essentially no oversight” to ensure wireless companies are complying with the federal guidelines, said Ms. Levitt. “It’s an honor system,” she said. “Broadcast companies are constantly found out of compliance and are fined. Basically, it’s one big free-for-all.”
Further complicating the issue is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which prohibits state and local governments from denying a cell tower application based on health concerns. “There is a regulatory void,” said Janet Newton, president of the Vermont-based EMR Policy Institute. “The federal government took away state and local rights to consider the health effects … and yet they’re not doing it themselves … you can’t find what you’re not looking for.”
“[Wireless companies] will say cell towers and cell phones have not been proven unsafe, but they haven’t been proven safe either,” said Debra Avery, a Washington resident and secretary/treasurer of the EMR Policy Institute. She noted that even big insurance companies, notably Lloyds of London, have refused to insure cell companies, presumably because the health effects are yet unknown.
Ms. Avery joined the cell tower debate several years ago, after a telecommunication company proposed placing equipment within the steeple of a church near her home in New Preston. The proposal prompted her to research the possible effects wireless communication equipment might have on her family, specifically her children. What she discovered astounded her, and led her to become a public health and policy advocate. The cell tower at the church was later defeated on a technicality.
“Scientists all over the world are coming to the same conclusion,” she said in reference to the Benevento Resolution, created when a number of the world’s leading scientists met in Benevento, Italy, in 2006 to sign a resolution calling for a slowdown of the wireless build-out until the health effects of wireless radiation can be fully researched.
According to experts in the field, Europe is far ahead of America in wireless research and policy, and many European nations have much stricter guidelines for radiation emissions. However, a number of school systems and universities across the nation have put a moratorium on erecting cell towers on school property.
In addition, The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), the largest professional first-responder organization in the U.S. and Canada, called for a moratorium on cell towers in firehouses. In a press release issued by the IAFF, Lieut. Ron Cronin of the Brookline, Mass., Fire Department stated, “Some firefighters with cell towers currently located on their stations are experiencing symptoms that put our first responders at risk. It is important to be sure we understand what effects these towers may have on the firefighters living in these stations … .”
Part of the EMR Policy Institute’s mission is to foster research on the effects of wireless transmitters on human and environmental health, as well as advocate for responsible governmental policy. The organization has brought two cases the U.S. Supreme Court and last month held a congressional staff briefing in Washington D.C.
People all over the country contact the EMR Policy Institute for information and support in fighting cell tower applications in their neighborhoods. “The problem is,” said Ms. Avery, “people living near these towers are being exposed to this without their consent. It’s like second-hand smoke-you can’t control where it’s going. We are essentially sacrificing a portion of the world’s population for convenience, so people can have their cell service.”
Exposure without consent is one of the biggest issues in this debate. According to Ms. Levitt, a few cases have been brought before the U.S. courts over “electronic trespassing.”
On Verizon Wireless’ Web site regarding RF radiation, the company states, “Scientific research on the subject of wireless phones and radio frequency (“RF”) energy has been conducted worldwide for many years, and continues. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) set policies and procedures for wireless phones. The FDA and the FCC have created a joint Web site, “Cell Phone Facts-Consumer Information on Wireless Phones,” which states that “[t]he available scientific evidence does not show that any health problems are associated with using wireless phones,” while noting that “[t]here is no proof, however, that wireless phones are absolutely safe.”