Public Comment

Cell Phone Sites and the Politics of Cancer

By Harry Brill
Thursday April 15, 2010 - 03:00:00 PM

he French Hotel and Cafe on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley has agreed to allow the installation of ten cell phone antennas on its roof. Most of those who work there will not in the short run feel any different, and those who do, perhaps by experiencing headaches, fatigue, or poor concentration, are unlikely to attribute it to the electromagnetic emissions. The same applies to the many cafe customers for whom it is a second home. Since these rays are invisible and silent, they can be easily ignored. In the long run, however, the emissions will not ignore them. 

The combined power and influence of government and the private sector have subjected the members of the public to a major assault on their health. For a long while, the federal government claimed that exposure to asbestos and cigarettes were safe. The belated public recognition that these are carcinogenic has unnecessarily cost many lives and much human suffering. Now the mythology is that the current level of emissions are safe persists despite plenty of solid evidence to the contrary.  

The history of this official betrayal began in 1996, when the 104th Congress and President Clinton bowed to a multimillion dollar campaign by approving the notorious Telecommunications Act. Passed overwhelmingly by both the Democrats and Republicans after only 1 1/2 hour debate in each house, its purpose was to remove any serious obstacles that could frustrate the interests of business. This incredibly undemocratic law effectively eliminates the legal rights of the public to oppose the installation of cell phone sites on environmental and health grounds. Both state and local government are prohibited from adopting emission standards that would be safer for the public than the very inadequate and dangerous levels set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). So by law, for example, presenting evidence of substantial cancer rates among those living near cell towers is prohibited. 

As the risks of exposure to electromagnetic radiation were already suspected, Congress and President Clinton should not have ignored these warnings. In fact, just a few months before the bill was passed a Senate committee held hearings about cancer among law enforcement officials who use traffic radar guns. A few years earlier a congressional committee, responding to media publicity on the cancer risk among cell phone users, also held hearings  

Had the legislation mandated the safest possible levels of emission, it would certainly not have been a death blow to the industry or its ability to earn a profit. In some countries, the level of emissions is set hundreds of times lower than in the United States. But safer standards would entail additional costs, which the industry is committed to avoiding. What the deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996 accomplishes most of all ,then, is to expose the public to the highest level of emissions to assure the industry the highest rate of profit. Indeed, the institutional obsession with profit maximization explains why we lack clean air, clean water, and more generally, a green environment. 

Since the Telecommunications Act passed, more evidence has emerged about the dangerous consequences of electromagnetic radiation. Yet Congress has failed to revise the legislation. Consider the following. In the German city of Naila a study found that those who reside within a radius of two-tenths of a mile from cell towers were three times more likely to develop various cancers than those living further away. Breast cancer topped the list. In a neighborhood in Tel Aviv, the incidence of cancer was quadruple for residents living near a cell tower. Children are especially vulnerable to electromagnetic radiation. Their rate of leukemia due to cell site exposure is twice the average for children living further away. Generally, the risk of cancer appears to be related to the proximity of residents to cell sites. In an apartment building in London, the rate for those living on the top floor, right below the cell site, was 10 times higher than the average for the City. 

In the U.S. the emission level is set by the FCC. The problem, however, is that FCC is regulated by the industry. Rather than protecting the public, the FCC serves to insulate the industry from public interference. This is not surprising since many of its employees are either past or future employees of the industries over which they have oversight. It is as if the FCC is a subsidiary of these corporations. 

Like the air we breathe, the hazards of electromagnetic radiation are difficult to avoid. There are almost 2 million cell sites and antennas in the U.S. and these numbers are growing rapidly. Among the reasons that we are unaware of the high density is because more than a fourth of those installed are camouflaged. As the newsletter EM Watch notes, cell phones are installed inside chimneys, church steeples, and even on trees and flagpoles. Also, some gas stations and tombstones accommodate antennas. Cell towers and antennas are also being installed on top of buildings and schools. The fees that some property owners are tempted with apparently outweigh any concerns they may have about the health risks of those who occupy these properties and who live in the neighborhood. But not only businesses are tempted by the industry. In El Cerrito, a neighborhood is battling against the installation of a 77 foot transmission tower in a boy scout camp close by. The camp would receive $2,200 a month. 

There is an upside to the prevalence of cell phone sites. The very large number of individuals and families from diverse social and economic backgrounds creates a tremendous potential for mass based organizing that addresses the assault on our health and well being. Not least, it is an issue that an alert, well organized public can prevail.  

Those of you who are interested in learning about the density of cell site radiation in your neighborhood should access the following web address: . Then type in your address and follow through. Be prepared for an unpleasant surprise on the extent to which you and your family are being bombarded. Then share the information and your concerns with neighbors. Encourage both neighborhood and inter-neighborhood meetings to discuss how best to confront the outrage. By ignoring or making light of the problem, we have much to lose. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the risks of electromagnetic emissions. By acting together, we have much to gain, including our right to live a life that is not cut short by the narrow selfish interests of corporate America.