Public Comment

Commentary: Elektro-Smog and the Politics of Class Injustice

By Laurie Baumgarten
Friday November 02, 2007

Welcome to South Berkeley. With its 14 cell phone antenna locations and an unknown number of actual radiation emitters at each location, South Berkeley has become Berkeley’s elektro-smog ghetto. Any Berkeley resident who lives in a neighborhood without antennas is probably using ours! As far back as1996, the Communications Workers of America stated in their pamphlet called Your Community Guide to Cellular Phone Towers, “ In some cases, companies have chosen poorer sections of a town to build towers. Is this part of town being asked to house the eyesore and health hazard so the other side of town can use the phone?” 

Elekro-smog is the term German citizens have given to ambient RF radiation coming from cell phone antennas. These antennas pollute the environment continuously with low- level radio frequency emissions. RF radiation has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause cell damage in lab animals. Studies done in Spain, Germany, Israel, Austria, Egypt and the Netherlands indicate significant adverse health effects from living near cell antennas. In September, the European Environmental Agency urged precaution. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has classified electromagnetic fields as Class 2B carcinogens, as has the World Health Organization.  

The recent BioInitiative Report (, published in August, 2007, written by 14 scientists and public health advocates states, “There may be no limit at which exposures do not affect us. Until we know if there is a lower limit below which bioeffects and adverse health impacts do not occur, it is unwise from a public health perspective to continue “ business-as-usual” deploying new technologies that increase ELF and RF exposures, particularly involuntary exposures.”  

Many scientists with excellent reputations have found ill effects from exposure to RF radiation only to have their funding cut off and their reputations ruined. The case of Robert Becker is an example of a giant in this field who had his lab closed and his career smashed in the 1980’s when he started alerting the public to the connection between power lines and leukemia. How can studies be replicated and refined if funding is denied and researchers fired? Louis Slesin (MA in Chemical Physics from Columbia, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Policy from M.I.T.), who is the editor of Microwave News says in an interview in October, 2007 with the Institute for Inquiry, a non-profit web-based organization and journal, “A new generation of scientists comes along, asks the same question, finds the same effect and publishes the results, but then the funding dries up and the issue remains unresolved….The major player is industry (electric utility and telecommunications), and its principal objective is to shut down all health research.” 

We need the health questions answered if we want our government to set emission standards that are protective. Instead, our FCC standards were set by representatives of the industry and the military, but there is a growing consensus that those standards are too low. Countries such as Switzerland, which both honor the precautionary principle and have good cell phone service, operate within standards that are 100 times more protective than our own. Must we in South Berkeley live in a degraded environment because we live downtown? How is Berkeley going to sell the concept of infill and density if living in these multi-use neighborhoods means being exposed to harmful radiation?  

There is also a growing consensus about cell phones themselves. The Karolinska Institute of Sweden has found a 39% increase in brain tumors on the side of the head radiated by cell phones among people who have been using cell phones for 10 years or more. Recently, Marcus Antonietti of the Max Planck Institute, one of Germany’s most renowned scientific research facilities, warned of greater danger than previously thought from these emissions. He has limited his daughter to no more than five minutes a day on her cell phone!  

The City’s own health officer, Fred Medrano, submitted a report in July, 2006, after reviewing the literature, that states that he does not know whether RF radiation is safe or not. Are the chances 50-50? 70-30? What percentage of chance makes it acceptable to irradiate people, young and old, people who happen to live in the flatlands? To date, there has been no measuring of these emissions to find out if South Berkeley is out-of-whack with other neighborhoods. 

Verizon is presently threatening to sue the City of Berkeley. If our local ordinance is thrown out in court, even those of you who live in more affluent neighborhoods may be effected. If tall buildings are the desirable hot spots, why not the Claremont Hotel, or the Lab up the hill? Perhaps you will find the trade-off of having towers close by worth it: The closer the antenna, the weaker the signal, and the less radiation going into your head. 

Personally, I want no part of this devil’s bargain. I prefer my low-tech cord phone, and I don’t like being a guinea pig. Class divisions aside, all of us are in this boat together. Our environment needs repair in many ways, and this issue of wireless technology is one of them. The insanity of the present type of irrational development gets even worse when guided by the proprietary interests of the telecom companies. According to law, when a company puts up cell antennas in a particular location, every other company can put up antennas in the same location in order to compete for business. This is called collocation, which increases the health risks to a particular neighborhood. If these microwaves can go through our walls, then they also go into our bodies, and no amount of tin foil on our windows, as suggested by Gordon Wozniak at our last council meeting, is going to protect us. 

So what is the way out of this horrible conundrum? 

We have to stand up for our democratic right to control the health of our community and protect our children and ourselves. Berkeley Neighborhood Antenna Free Union (BNAFU) believes that our city should not be intimidated by the threat of a lawsuit by Verizon or by nay-saying attorneys and technocrats who are afraid to challenge existing telecommunications law. We need to assemble a team of people who are passionate about this cause and who have legal knowledge from all angles: Is there no constitutional, environmental, or public interest law that could be brought to bear on this case? Has the whole issue of need vs. capacity and transmission of voice vs. film and music data been explored legally? We want our city officials to do EVERYTHING in their power to pressure the courts: We want them to use connections to Boalt Law School, to mayors and attorneys in other cities, to national Democratic Party officials and representatives to help us stand up for what is right. When we allow the corporations to muzzle the free speech of our government representatives, as The Telecommunications Act of 1996 does, then it is time for both moral courage and outrage.  

We saw that courage and leadership in Max Anderson, our council member, who spoke up for the people of South Berkeley at the October 23rd City Council meeting. He put forward a motion to support our local zoning board’s refusal to grant the antenna permit on U.C. Storage Building. Yet, because he mentioned his obligation to protect the health of his constituents, Verizon appealed once again to the federal court in Oakland to have our local ordinance immediately thrown out. We believe that our government officials, and city staff workers and managers should have the right to freely and publicly respond to the issues of health concerns without risking a lawsuit or compromising a positive outcome in court. The right to free speech should not be curtailed in anyway! The laws of the FCC are ripe for change by Congress but unless we denounce the Telecommunications Act, and take it to the courts- and the streets- Congress will not get the message. 

New technologies exist that do not emit RF radiation and are actually much faster. One such example is underground fiber-optics. From all I have read, I hope that wireless technology, which relies on radio frequency microwaves, goes the way of the Edsel. But more than that, I hope and pray that we are mistaken. Wouldn’t it be nice to have our cake and be able to eat it too? In the meantime, with cancer rates as high as they are, our bodies are saying NO. There are too many different kinds of environmental triggers for us to go into denial about this one. Our city council is still waffling on whether to grant Verizon a permit. Please support us by showing up once again-yes, folks, it’s a drag, but we need you once again- at Old City Hall at 7:00 on Nov. 6 to say to our representatives: DON’T SELL US OUT. STAND UP AND LEAD.