On Christmas Eve of 1996, Larry Stankavich and his wife, Susan, looked out the dining room window of their Duanesburg, New York home. Rising in the southwest, just barely visible above the 50-foot pines that border their property, was a large network of crisscrossing steel beams. The emerging monolith looked dreadfully out of place in the rural hills of Duanesburg. It would take Larry and Susan close to a month to discover that this unexpected gift had come from Cellular One of Albany, New York. Even the town supervisor claimed to know nothing about it. On December 31st, before it was even completed, the tower was fitted with a microwave dish and activated to carry analog cellular phone signals. This enormous steeple of sorts would then rise another 75 feet until it reached its full stature of 250 feet in February of 1997. And it was later that month that the 15 households within 1400 feet of the tower began to suspect that Cellular One had done more than run roughshod over the aesthetics of their bucolic neighborhood.
First Larry noticed pressure in his head. Not prone to headaches, he suddenly began experiencing a regular and intense pain that started at the base of his skull and spread from ear to ear. He noticed a grittiness in his eyes every time he washed his face. At first he didn't suspect that the radiation beaming toward his home might have something to do with his sudden and unusual complaints. When Susan started having the same strange headaches, they didn't know what to think. Then one evening Susan, who was well past menopause, had a hot flash to beat all hot flashes. Her face flushed red, started tingling, and felt like it was on fire. Susan ran to Larry who was in the kitchen. They looked at each other dumbfounded and horrified. Larry's face too was crimson and so hot that it hurt. Something was very wrong.
Initial doctor's visits turned up nothing out of the ordinary. However, Larry began noticing that he felt better whenever he left the house to manage the fencing business that he started in 1972. Susan, however, who did clerical work for the business from home, was experiencing no relief. New complaints began to surface. They both started having trouble sleeping, and Susan's usually normal blood pressure began to soar. At 3 a.m. on February 16, her blood pressure rose to 190/110 and was accompanied by frightening heart palpitations. Larry drove Susan far from the tower until her blood pressure returned to normal around 6 in the morning. Susan and Larry felt awful, and by this time they suspected that the Cellular One installation might be to blame. A meeting with neighbors living within the shadow of the giant tower substantiated their suspicion -- many of them were suffering with the same symptoms.
Twenty-one months later, it's even worse. The Stankaviches and their neighbors complain of hearing high-pitched sounds that are always followed by waves of extreme nausea. Fatigue and dizziness have become a matter of course, and now, hearing loss and joint pain, especially in the knees, are plaguing many residents. The Stankaviches can no longer use the top story of their home where their symptoms become more pronounced. Some neighbors have actually moved into their cellars. Two homes have already been sold at a loss, and one more is on the market. The Stankaviches, however, are determined not to be driven out. Larry built their home 27 years ago and says they can never replace it. They're going to fight. But so far, it looks like a losing battle -- one in which they're losing their health, peace of mind, and their entire savings of $20,000.
While stories like the Stankaviches' seem extreme now, they could become more and more common as the number of towers and antennae increase. And increase they will. The industry estimates that there are 75,000 towers currently in place and by the year 2000, there will need to be 100,000 for a full build-out. That's a conservative estimate, since PCS (personal communication systems) towers need to be placed much closer than the old analog towers. A full build-out of the PCS system, with six carriers each, would put 100,000 new towers in California alone.
This massive buildup may give the population at large the freedom of wireless devices and eye-popping digital TV, but there will be more of us at ground zero who will pay the price of the swift and, some say, careless deployment of towers and antennae. To put the brakes on this rampant proliferation, citizen groups are forming across the country to fight or redirect installations as they affect their neighborhoods. Two of the loudest battles are raging in Golden, Colorado and San Francisco, California where citizens are fighting the addition of digital TV antennae to existing structures.
While health effects drive the discontent of the vast majority of these coalitions, many are mute about health issues when going into public hearings. In Golden, Colorado, unrestricted development of three antenna farms on Lookout Mountain has created what activists call "the most intense and complex electromagnetic environment in a residential area in the nation." The onus was on citizens to have electromagnetic readings taken that would prove there were indeed many hot spots that exceeded the FCC's safety limit. The FCC is now investigating. In San Francisco, activists are calling for not just a static, but a dynamic analysis of Sutro Tower before digital TV tower is added to the structure. The 1,000 foot tower, which sits right in the middle of a residential area, might endanger 270 homes in the event of an earthquake.
The Stankaviches and their neighbors are having their physicians carefully document their myriad medical problems, but their lawsuits, first against the town of Duanesburg, and now against Cellular One have been on zoning violations. Why? Because the tower's emissions were still lower than the FCC's permissible limit and therefore deemed safe.
Libby Kelley, a former analyst with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington D.C., now executive director of the Ad Hoc Association of Parties Concerned about the Federal Communications Commission's Radio Frequency Health and Safety Rules (AHA), says that the agency's radio frequency rules stipulate that objections to placement of telecommunication facilities can be based only on certain planning and zoning rules, including aesthetics. What they don't permit is opposition based on health and safety concerns. "The provision in the rules stating that wireless facilities are 'deemed individually and cumulatively to have no significant impact on the quality of the human environment,' is just not based on fact," says Kelley. "How could the FCC know this; they never conducted an environmental assesment in accordance with the Environmental Policy Act." While acting as an information clearinghouse for groups fighting local battles, the AHA is involved in an even bigger battle of their own. They're going head-to-head with the FCC itself.
The AHA joined with the Communication Workers of America and the Cellular Phone Task force, a group representing electro-sensitive persons, in filing an appeal this year. They charge that the FCC has failed to adequately protect public health and the safety of citizens. The appeals were consolidated in the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals and oral arguments will be heard in New York City on the week of January 4, 1999, subject to the court's discretion.
Kelley says that their court case is unique in that they are challenging the FCC rules in federal court. Therefore, the court decision may affect national policy and, by implication, international policy. "Other cases being pursued in civil court, district federal court and supreme court are local battles which have been appealed in higher court levels," says Kelley. "Our appeal directly challenges them (the federal regulations)."
A win for the AHA could bring a repeal or remand of the radio frequency standard. And what this would mean to the industry depends on who you ask. Joel Marcus, an attorney in the FCC's Office of General Counsel, says, "if there were a remand because the FCC had not considered some minor piece of data, the agency would be required to go back and consider that data, after which it may come to the same conclusion as before and the practical impact on industry would be very little." Others, such as the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), ATT Wireless and the National Association of Broadcasters believe it could seriously stymie the wireless telecom industry's deployment of mobile phones, paging and wireless local loops. However, Tim Ayers, CTIA's VP of Communications, is confident that the AHA challenge will fail. "The bulk of scientific thinking on standards says they are safe, stringent and fully protective of population," says Ayers. "We assume the courts will rely on the best science, and science is the best thing going for the industry."
Dr. John Goldsmith, a noted epidemiologist and former director of air-quality research for the State of California Health Department is one of many scientists who disagree that FCC standards are safe and based on the best science. Goldsmith, who is evaluating the potential health effects of radio frequency radiation from cell phones, cell-phone towers and television transmitting towers, has been collaborating with the AHA to raise public awareness about the potential dangers of these sources of radio-frequency radiation.
In the 1950s, Goldsmith claims, the U.S. government decided that it was safe to chronically or repeatedly expose humans to radiation that didn't generate heat -- such as low-level microwaves and radio waves and extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation from powerlines. Goldsmith contends that most of the conclusions about the safety of radiation were reached right after WWII, when winning wars, not determining the safety of new technology designed to help win those wars, was the priority. As a result, similar technology has moved into the mainstream before the effects of use have been thoroughly studied. The AHA, Goldsmith and others are convinced that the FCC is operating on this outdated information and cavalierly perpetuating that information to a gullible public.
The FCC's Marcus contends that the radio-frequency (RF) regulations are based on a large body of scientific literature and that "the RF limit imposed by the Commission for general population exposure is 50 times lower than the level at which studies indicated that RF energy has potentially harmful effects."
According to Kelley, the FCC based its guidelines on conclusions drawn by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the National Commission on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP). What the FCC, which doesn't claim expertise in health matters, didn't take into account was the advice of health agencies. For example, they adopted an exposure threshold for workers that is five times higher than the exposure threshold for the general public -- in spite of concerns expressed by OSHA , the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) and the FDA. They also failed to take the advice of NIOSH and the EPA to exert greater caution around modulated RF signals.
A Cellular One spokesperson, commenting on the Duanesburg case, says the industry needs "proof positive" research that there are health effects associated with RF radiation. She says that Cellular One is "a responsible corporate partner with the community," and would make changes if it was deemed necessary. Susan Clarke, director of the Environmental Health Advocacy League, feels that this attitude puts the burden of proof on innocent communites to prove harm. "It should be the industry's responsibility to prove safety in advance of deployment of this technology," she says. And while the Cellular One spokesperson says, "ours is an evolving technology, always responding to the needs of consumers," many, including the AHA, don't feel they have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the evolution.
To help shift the power back into the hands of the people, the AHA fought hard alongside the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities to defeat HR 3488, The Wireless Communication and Public Safety Act of 1998. The bill would have mandated the rapid deployment of cell phone towers and antennas on federal property on demand. And for participating states to receive certain grant funds deployment would be mandated on state and municipal property as well. Although the bill looked certain to be rushed through Congress -- ostensibly for public-safety reasons, as it would have facilitated wireless 911 -- it was soundly defeated along with S2519, a companion bill in the senate. This was an important, but temporary, victory for the AHA. The bill will reemerge next year possibly under an even less sympathetic Congress.
The AHA doesn't expect government and industry to err on the side of caution. As they gear up to battle next year's version of HR 3488 and take on the Telecommunications Act itself, it doesn't hurt that the most recent research seems to be falling on their side. A 1998 Italian study, reported at the Tenth International Conference of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, demonstrated a link between RF emissions from a digital transmission facility and the onset of adult male leukemia for those residing up to 5 km, about 2 1/2 miles, from the tower. And in Schartzenburg, Switzerland, home to a shortwave transmitter tower, the Swiss government conducted a controlled experiment (Altpeter, 1995) to assess widespread complaints about sleep disorders. The study found statistically significant insomnia and, in school children, a slow school promotion rate. In addition, a radar station in Latvia (Kolodynski, 1996) was found to be associated with attention and memory problems in school children. In both the Swiss and Latvian cases, the transmitters were shut down this year.
A 1994 study by Drs. Henry Lai and N.P. Singh of the University of Washington showed learning disruption in rats exposed to pulsed microwaves. Further studies (1995, 1996, 1997) revealed both single- and double-strand DNA breaks in the brains of animals exposed to microwave radiation. In 1997, a study (Repacholi) funded by Australian telecom giant Telstra demonstrated a significant increase in B-cell lymphomas in mice exposed to "far field" pulsating radiation like that of digital cell phones. The 100 exposed transgenic mice developed tumors at twice the rate of 100 unexposed transgenic mice. The results were played down by the industry, and some believe that damage control was in full force before the study was finally published in Radiation Research.
Research promised by the industry itself, research that could be used to assuage an anxious public, has not been forthcoming. The scientists of Wireless Technology Research (WTR), which is administering a $25 million research program underwritten by cellular carriers, went on strike in 1997 until the scientists' research was indemnified. Levitt notes that even the scientists who wrote FCC safety standards 15 years ago also insisted on indemnification. She sees striking parallels between tobacco scientists of 30 years ago and today's radiation research scientists. Levitt and others suspect that many of the bio-electrics researchers "know what they're dealing with." After five years, the WTR has not produced any biological test results. The opponents of RF radiation and the mainstream press are both asking why.
The Duanesburg drama is, fortunately, still the exception -- a tower in your backyard today doesn't necessarily mean health problems tomorrow. Blake Levitt, an award-winning medical and science journalist formerly with The New York Times, and author of "Electromagnetic Fields, A Consumer's Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves" (1995 Harcourt Brace), explains why biological response to a tower's radiation is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. "Transmitters don't always do what the engineers intended." "And, " she says, "people in Duanesburg might be experiencing cross exposure from airport towers. They may have large metal objects like water towers in the area... in the presence of metal you get hot spots." She says that even an unusual plumbing grid, significant concentrations of iron in the soil, or a high water table can augment radiation's effect.
While the research that will bring all parties into agreement may be long in coming, and U.S. policy may always be industry-driven, the AHA thinks there is plenty that industry and government could be doing now to protect consumers from the possible ill-effects of radiation. Goldsmith says that all cell phones should be provided with a radiation shield, lower-powered devices should be manufactured, and limited use encouraged. Towers should be kept at a safe range, and dead zones established. And the FCC, which has been charged with protecting the public interest, could implement a policy that has been promulgated by a group of Swedish environmental agencies -- "prudent avoidance."
Does this mean we all need to become luddites to prudently avoid radiation exposure? Both Goldsmith and Kelley say no. "It's inevitable that we all adapt to new technologies," says Kelley, "but the epidemiological and clinical studies indicate that there are risks that need to be evaluated before people accommodate these technologies in everyday life, or we could face a health crisis and major societal catastrophe." Kelley fears that the research is coming after the fact.
For people like the Stankaviches, and their Duanesburg neighbors, who feel like they're already part of the after-the-fact research, Kelley says an AHA victory will benefit them, though not right away. That "victory" could come in any number of forms, from a possible return of policy decision-making to local government, to new radio frequency guidelines. Perhaps most important is that it will set off a series of actions to remedy the problem.
In the meantime, Kelley recommends that they avoid as many sources of electromagnetic radiation as possible, stay involved, organize, write letters to politicians, vote and try not to let this overwhelm them. She adds that it's important to remain calm and not operate from fear.
At last report, the Stankaviches were considering a temporary move to an apartment in Duanesburg -- as far from the tower as possible. They're finding it's hard to remain calm and wage a strategic battle when they're in the middle of a hot flash.