Cellphones, antennas, towers… radiation happens

cellphone antenna pole in Wimsheim, Germany

Image via Wikipedia

Radiation from the A-bomb test witnessed by my then-Marine husband in the early 1950s was registered on a small badge worn around his neck. They double-timed from foxholes toward the site of the blast. As far as we and the U.S. government know, all of those guys went on to lead long and healthy lives — and we went on to deadlier bombs anyway. We do now know a little more about those sorts of radiation damage.

We don’t know much about the tiny emissions from cellphones, iPhones, cellular antennas, texters, Skypers, whatever. The suggestion that any of those cyber-issues could possibly cause harm draws scoffs and derision and denials, but the truth is we simply don’t know. Some folks would still like to find out; maybe even find out before harm is done rather than after. An ongoing mini-battle in San Francisco is typical of such citizen struggles everywhere:

The increasing popularity of smart phones is pitting companies looking to expand their coverage against city residents concerned about the dangers presented by a growing number of cellular antennas.

Nearly every week, the city Planning Commission hears from a company looking to add to the thousands of cellular antennas already in the city. And, like clockwork, local residents turn out to fight the plans.

“These towers should be away from residences, away from schools and away from other vulnerable populations,” said Doug Loranger, who, as founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union, has been fighting the cellular companies for a decade.

That’s not easy to do in a city as densely packed as San Francisco, where hills and tall buildings have long made radio transmission a challenge.

The crowds that jammed local stores looking to buy the new Apple iPhones last month demonstrate another part of the problem. San Francisco has a reputation as one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country, and the people buying the various new smart phones want fast and easy access to the Internet on their handheld devices, which means more demand for service.

This demand for service drives the rush to install more antennas and modify the existing ones. As long as they meet emission standards set in 1996, they are deemed fine, and cannot be challenged on the basis of health, a frustrating reality for potential challengers. Because that actually is the issue: whether — or at what point — emissions can indeed become damaging to one’s health. And though radiofrequency radiation emitted by the antennas has not been proven to have any damaging effects, activist Beverly Choe, whose children attend school near one such installation says, “it doesn’t seem prudent to add more radiation until we’re sure of the effects.”

“People want service where they live, where they work and where they play,” said Rod De La Rosa, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “We’re trying to roll out more high-speed data transmission by increasing the size of the pipe and not just for voice.”

T-Mobile is just one of the service providers looking to boost their presence in San Francisco. Just last week, Clearwire, a new company providing wireless data service only, came to the Planning Commission with requests to add antennas to existing sites in Bernal Heights and by San Francisco General Hospital.

“Starting last year, we’ve had a big increase in requests for modifications (of existing sites) and for new antennas,” said Jonas Ionin, who oversees cellular antenna requests for the city’s Planning Commission. “What we’re finding today is that the increases aren’t necessarily based on voice traffic, but on data downloads.”

The city already is home to 709 cell sites, some with as many as 12 separate antennas. Although many of the recent requests have been for upgrades and additions to those existing sites, there is also a growing call for new spots for cellular antennas, which means more battles to come.

Those continuing battles have one interesting aspect that other battles can’t always claim. No one is waiting to find out who’s right. “The funny thing is that people call me on their cell phones to complain about the new installations,” said Diego Sanchez, a city planner. We may all be addle-brained from telecommunicating before we find out where it’s coming from. A lot of us grew up in asbestos-infused schools and homes, and we’re probably all eating mercury-infused seafood (not to mention drinking petroleum-infused water); life is hazardous to one’s health.

Tension over cellular antennas mounts in city.

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