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Cellular Towers - A Medical Issue

by B Blake Levitt

The following presentation was delivered by award winning author B Blake Levitt at the Unplugged Conference held at Killington Ski Resort, Killington, Vermont held on November 15-16, 1996

As a journalist who has written a consumer-oriented book on the complicated subject of electromagnetic fields, with an inclusive concentration in radio frequencies, I'm one of the first to get calls fiom worried homeowners and parents when a radio or cellular phone tower is proposed or is erected in a residential neighborhood. Or when a pre-existing tower is expanded with additional transmitters. Seems that journalists are somewhat like lawyers - we get bashed until people need us...

Although the popular press takes a noble stab at this issue over local tower siting battles, the mainstream scientific press is by-and large asleep at the switch. I believe this is because the subject is too daunting to write about in the standard 1000-word format of most newspapers and magazines. In my career as a journalist, I only wrote about it in that format one time and I found the space limitations impossible to do a thorough job. I ended up researching the subject for 16 years and then writing a book - which is the only format that can contain the many complex medical, scientific and public policy areas which converge over this.

The majority of calls I receive are from extremely distraught people who have suddenly found out that a cellular tower is going up near their homes or on their children's school property. Their driving concern is always the medical issues, with aesthetic concerns and property devaluation following closely behind as part of the entire package. They are typically appalled to find out that their local governing bodies and boards of health are uneducated, often apathetic and powerless on the issue. And they are enraged that the telecommunications industries claim to have the ability to place towers in communities that don't want them. Most people at the local level know nothing about the preemption moves of the telecommunications industries at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the last three years. But when consumers find out, they are even angrier.

Legislation moved so fast through the last Congress that most of the legislators in Washington, who were voting on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, didn't even know what the implications of those preemption clauses were to their constituents back home. Now everyone is finding out, and judging from the calls I get, no one is happy about it. It is just a question of time before this is challenged at the federal level. There are siting-decision issues, standards-setting prerogatives, and free-speech issues concerning environmental effects of the radio frequencies all on the legal table. It's a classic battle of states vs. federal rights. The Republicans are, oxymoronically, favoring more federal government this time, perhaps because so much money is flowing into political pockets from the telecommunications giants.

But make no mistakes about this. At its core, this is a medical issue. It has been known for years that the human anatomy is actually resonant - in the strict physics sense of the term - with the FM-frequency bands and that we reach peak absorption in the UHF bands, right where cellular telecommunications operate. Some researchers think that a worse frequency could not have been chosen for this emerging technology regarding the human anatomy. Moreover, research exists to indicate that there are some frequencies which may be unsafe at any intensity, no matter how low the power is turned down. The window-effect work of William Ross Adey and Carl Blackman can be interpreted this way, as well as the work of researchers like Stanislaw Szmigielski, Abraham Liboff, Stephen Cleary, Jose Delgado, and Allen Frey, among many others. So can the work of William Bise who found severe alterations in human electroencephalograms at radio frequency power levels that are now common in many urban areas.

There is an amazing paradox that has popped up in this research over the decades - in many laboratories, in many countries, and in studies of both the radio frequencies and the ELF bands common to power lines... It's something that is usually ignored, probably because we just don't know what to do with it. But we continue to ignore it at our peril now. The paradox is this: It is often observed that the most profound bioeffects occur at the lowest exposures... Some speculate that this nonlinear effect is due to the fact that we are biologically attuned to the weaker strengths of the non-ionizing bands that occur naturally. Dr. Robert Becker calls it "breathing with the earth." Others call it entrainment phenomenon. But it is certainly not a thermal reaction.

Entrainment phenomenon is basically what happens when a mother and child sleep together and their heart rhythms and breathing rates synchronize. If we are in fact "entrained" with the natural background radiation of the earth, then what are we biologically doing to ourselves in creating a blanket of artificial static beyond which the human anatomy perhaps cannot perceive its normal signals? What biological parameters are we tripping? Not just in us, but in other species too?

In the past, when an environmental "pollutant" has been identified, we've surmised a theoretical safe level and tried to regulate it there -with varying degrees of success, of course. But if the energy modalities turn out to be more bio-reactive at the lowest levels, what does this do to our common regulatory wisdom? It turns it completely upside down. It means our entire regulatory approach is inappropriate.

As a medical and science journalist, I suspect we are dealing with an entirely new scientific model with these energy modalities than the one we are used to. The cutting edge of most medical research is quietly undergoing a paradigm shift that's so subtle, most researchers and clinicians are unaware of it, even as they incorporate it into their own practices. We are shifting our understanding of from the familiar chemical-mechanistic model - in which all things are measurable and understandable, if we can just uncover the specific engineering details of the body, - to a much more refined, interesting, and complex emphasis on the human anatomy as a coherent electrical system.

We truly are "electrical" beings. The heartbeat is electrical. Brain waves are electrical. Some crucial aspects of cell division itself are too. One could argue that not much happens in the human anatomy that isn't electromagnetic. The cutting edge of orthopedics, cardiology, oncology, neurology, sports medicine, - management, anesthesia, cellular biology, and bioelectromagnetics, to name but a few, are all now functioning within this new model without declaring it as such. Mainstream western medical practitioners offer acupuncture today without describing that therapy as an energy modality, but it is. Nor do most practitioners using acupuncture speculate on what the underlying anatomical mechanisms might be - they just use it because it works. Meanwhile, in eastern medicine, the human anatomy has never been considered anything but a coherent electrical system in fine balance with the energy of the universe. We are seeking the convergence of ancient and modern medicine with this subject, on top of everything else.

With the wireless juggernaut now sweeping the country, however, an immense problem arises. Our standard regulatory models are all based on toxic exposures, such as chemical pollutants. But if we are dealing with a new model in which the most profound effects occur at the lower exposures, that toxic model is not only ineffective but may actually be detrimental. We simply don't know - because the appropriate government research to provide those answers has never been funded, despite calls for it that go back to the 1950's. In the meanwhile, an emerging technology is creating a veritable shield of new energy sources in these non-ionizing bands, in extremely close proximity to the population for the first time in our revolutionary history, often with characteristics such as digital signaling and unusual wave forms, not found in nature. We are irrevocably altering the electromagnetic signature of the world. And we are doing this with no clear understanding of the implications. Just because we can technologically accomplish something, doesn't mean we automatically should. Edward Teller, one of the physicists who invented nuclear bombs and more recently thought up the military's Star Wars project, in the 1950's offered to use nuclear explosions as architectural tools. He offered to level the tops of mountains in order to build airports; and to reconfigure harbors to create major new sea ports. I think everyone would agree that it's a good thing we didn't take him up on it. It could have rendered the country uninhabitable.

What we have today with wireless technologies is a global business consortium that has now "bought" their piece of the spectrum, and by God, they're going to use it. Consumers are being asked to trust that the products are safe. Citizens are being asked to assume that risks from ground-based transmitters - all in the name of industry profit. Industry presumes they have a government mandate, and a consumer request, to build this technology. But I suspect that if more consumers understood the legitimate medical issues which underlie this, namely that it may not be a good idea to have a transmitter of any kind against one's head, that fewer people would be rushing to buy cordless and cellular phones. If consumers understood that when they use wireless products, they are not just irradiating themselves but everyone else around them too - not unlike secondary smoke - they might re-think their use of such devices.

One of the better kept secrets of the telecommunications industry is that there is tremendous consumer resistance to these new products already, resistance that goes beyond simple cost factors. Perhaps consumers have more sense than industry does at the moment. There is already a fiber-optic cable system in place which poses no risk whatsoever and that accomplishes most of the communications work which wireless technology proposes to fill. Where is the real demonstrated need for this buildout? Rather than address these issues head on, unfortunately, many government and industry officials alike hide behind contradictions in the science, using it as a way to avoid intelligent action. Consumers using cellular phones, in the meantime, presume safety that may not be actual. Communities that don't want towers are told "it's just too bad." Activists are dismissed as NIMBY obstructionists.

For anyone who has been following the "Microwave debate" over the decade, charges of government denial and foot-dragging seem obvious. But lest this devolve into a cliché of the "poor citizens" against the insensitive government, it's important to note that not everyone in government acts irresponsibly. The FCC is to be commended for adopting the NCRP standard for civilian exposures over those of the industry-preferred ANSI standard. And the EPA is to be commended for standing its ground on this recommendation, despite tremendous pressure. Unfortunately, both of these standards still presume thermal-effects-only, which is ludicrous in the face of current scientific knowledge. And it is also unfortunate that the same cast of characters -with long-standing scientific biases and industry research grant dollars to protect - are still controlling the direction of much of the research.

Some segments of industry are also acting responsibly. Motorola, for instance, not only has a good research lab but also has a satellite-based system in prototype which could eliminate the need for many ground-based transmitters. And I understand that Motorola is also investigating protective clothing for their tower-workers. But most of the other companies, including the National Association of Broadcasters and related businesses, are light years behind what the 60-hertz power line consortiums have done regarding similar problems. The RF industries are hunkered down in denial and obstinacy toward consumers, unlike the power line companies which seem to have a genuine curiosity about EMF bioeffects, as well as a public relations approach that includes, rather than hides, information which may be detrimental to their position. I believe this antagonistic RF-Industry mindset is a by-product of a long-standing history with the military -- a mindset which ripened in the secretive cold war era of the 50's and is still evident today. The power line companies, on the other hand had little involvement from the military, and always saw themselves as public servants.

What would be helpful right now?

  1. Tower sharing regulations -- make every tower or new transmitter justify its placement. If pre-existing towers are present, make newcomers lease space there rather than establish new sites.
  2. Establish regional transmitters, and group as many RF users together as possible. Create large setbacks near such facilities, and regularly monitor them. Keep them out of neighborhoods and off school property.
  3. Restore and protect state and community rights in tower siting. Local communities know their [typography - sic] much better than a distant engineer’s computer model or the FCC.
  4. Establish regular monitoring for all transmitters. Require pre and post testing -- before a transmitter goes on line, and after it goes on line. That is the only way to accurately assess what we are changing in the environment, and when. It is the best way to provide medical researchers with a baseline for future epidemiological studies.
  5. Encourage satellite-based systems for those who want wireless technologies, but inform users of the associated risks with the higher-powered handsets that would have to accompany such a distant system. At least these exposures would then be voluntary and based on informed consent.
  6. Decide whether wireless technologies are public utilities or not. I, and many others, do not think they can be considered that. They are private, for-profit businesses, and their use is discretionary.
  7. Keep the courts accessible to those who seek damages. It is the only recourse of fairness for consumers. Restore the ability of attorneys who are federally funded in community law offices to file class action suits to protect consumers.
  8. And last but most importantly, we need a comprehensive government research program for the radio frequencies like the EMF RAPID program. It should include -- but not be dependent upon --matching funds from industry. And it should not be housed in the Department of Defense.
Congress called for such research over 20 years ago but it never came to pass. It is suddenly imperative that we have the answers to medical issues in the face of a wireless America. This buildout should not continue without that information. It is asking too much of consumers. The risks are too high, not just for us, but for other species as well. Only when the medical issues are better understood, will the side-issues that we love to focus on -- siting, aesthetics, economics, property devaluation and all of the accompanying legalities --fall into line.

But until we have the medical answers, those side-issues will only serve as the smoke screens they are. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted again from the crucial work at hand. We need to know.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 1996 edition of Network News.