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.

Alcohol fee = 'cause for harm' money: A funding idea whose time has come

cocktails.JPG

Image by Bright Meadow via Flickr

Booze, it seems, causes some people to do drunken things, get in trouble (i.e., do harm, at times), go off to the E.R., occasionally in an ambulance. So why not tax the booze to pay for the E.R. and ambulances? This is being proposed by San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos in one of a bunch of efforts to fill the gaping budget hole that this city, like virtually every city in the nation, is facing.

It is called a “cause for harm” fee. A fee, explains San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, differs from a tax because it can only be spent for the specified purpose for which it was collected. We don’t like the word Tax these days.

No fair! say the bar and restaurant owners; five cents more per martini will kill the business! I doubt that. Having put in my time as a martini (among other things) drinker, I can absolutely certify that if you want a$6 cocktail you’re not going to pass it up at $6.05.

“Cause for harm” fees, in fact, seem like a pretty good idea:

  • Oil company digging fees (say, five cents a quart) for spills, etc.
  • Leaf-blower fees to mitigate noise, air and clogging-the-storm-drain pollution
  • A dead cell phone fee to ship dead cell phones to another planet if there’s one that wouldn’t really mind
  • Pigeon fees… well, just because

You can create your own list. Fees of this “cause for harm” type are collected in other states, though more often used to pay for things like treatment and education rather than transportation to the ER. In any event, they clearly make sense. And somehow the cause/effect principle seems like one that should pick up wider support.

Maybe Mr. Karzai could impose a few fees of his own, and use them to send all those troops back home.

Supervisor’s fee on alcohol a terrific idea.

Cell phone radiation danger: true or false?

from Grandview Park in San Francisco

Image via Wikipedia

Head-zaps, otherwise known as cell phone radiation levels, messing with your brain? Nobody knows. What we do know is that cell phones emit radiation, just as radio and TV stations do at somewhat higher levels. What we also know is that nobody cares much. The back-and-forth going on between legislators and cell phone industry lobbyists suggests that a few people do care… but it’s a long road from caring to understanding to any kind of meaningful action.

In California, where local and state efforts to increase information made available to consumers have met with mixed results, an explanation in the Letters section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle offers some interesting perspectives. To understand them, it helps to know about the city’s Sutro Tower (above), a looming structure completed in 1973 and now furnishing transmissions for 11 TV stations, 4 FM radio stations and about 20 wireless communication services.

Local electrical engineer Bill Choisser has this to say:

The power of radio waves falls off as the square of the distance. This means one watt an inch from your head (typical for a cell phone) has the same effect as 1 million watts 1,000 inches from your head. The strongest TV signals on Sutro Tower run i million watts. A thousand inches is about 83 feet. Whether putting your head 83 feet from Sutro Tower every time you talk on the phone bothers you, is up to you.

San Francisco’s board of supervisor’s voted last week to require disclosure of the measure of cell phone radiation next to sales displays, something unlikely to make the tiniest bit of difference to sellers, buyers or anyone else. The FCC has a similar requirement likely to make even less difference.

CNET’s Christina Jewett, on her California Watch blog, summed up some of the action at the state level, where Sen. Mark Leno‘s bill to make radiation level information more accessible recently died. Leno emphasizes, in a statement on his website that there’s no definitive evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer or other illnesses. Supporters argue that there are potential health effects dangerous enough to warrant making more information available, Jewett explains, while opponents termed the whole business expensive and unnecessary.

When the bill was a going concern, it did little to slow the never-ending party that lobbyists for AT&T Inc., one of its chief opponents, tend to host at Arco Arena. The firm spent about $535,000 on lobbying during the first quarter of this year. From Kings games to Disney Stars on Ice to a Valentine’s Super Love Jam, legislative staffers continued to enjoy the hospitality. (Details below).

Whether the lobbying effort led to the bill’s demise may never be known. But the debate at least is bringing out more information on the issue, one that regulators and scientists pledge to keep watching.

Given the number of Americans walking around (or sitting, or standing in place) with cell phones plastered to their ears, I for one am happy that somebody is watching… and that Bill Choisser is explaining.

State hangs up on expansion of San Francisco phone law | California Watch.

Latest boomer gadget: tombstone microchips

Microchip e microciop

Image by Un ragazzo chiamato Bi via Flickr

This may be one step farther than some of us want to go. But for those seeking to live, somehow, forever, the Canwest News Service reports on a new e-gimmick on the market and apparently targeting the boomer generation. There are several more paragraphs in writer Misty Harris‘ report, but this space suggests that the following, and particularly the last sentence, cover everything you really need to know.

Ensuring virtual life after death, new microchip-enabled headstones allow the Me Generation to share their stories from the grave, with passersby simply swiping markers with a cellphone to retrieve biographical details — everything from the deceased’s political beliefs to their favourite recipes.

“My wife and I had just lost relatives and found it so underwhelming, in a sense, to know that these people had contributed so much and yet their lives were being summed up with just names and dates,” says John Bottorff, founder of Objecs, the Arizona company behind the RosettaStone grave markers.

The palm-sized tablets can be mounted to existing headstones or installed on new ones. Each is engraved with custom symbols representing the deceased’s life — an Rx for a pharmacist, for example, or a sheriff’s star for a police officer — and contains a Near Field Communications radio-frequency identification tag, which allows biographical data to be loaded onto any NFC-enabled phone with the wave of a hand (NFC is expected to be standard on new mobile phones in North America by 2012).

A unique web ID is also engraved so people without NFC can raise the dead — or at least their personal histories — on any computer.

As early as 2015, seniors will outnumber children for the first time in Canadian history, while the number of centenarians is projected to triple — perhaps even quadruple — by 2036.

For end-trepreneurs, this represents a killer opportunity.

Microchip tombstones latest boomer gadget.

Child predators & citizen cops: part two

Where are the limits to the rights of self-protection? Has the internet’s ability to make instant connections also created instant-cops who can go too far?

Earlier today I posted a story about a suspected predator in my local San Francisco park who turned out to be an innocent man — but only after his photo and suspicions of his being a predator had circulated widely on the internet and local TV, thanks to a campaign started by an anxious mom. She had spotted him near the playground, unaccompanied by a child.

Several readers have weighed in off-site to say I should have more sympathy for the mom, because she was only protecting her child and others. Maybe.

Years ago, when my own children were growing up in an urban area comparable in potential lurking dangers to San Francisco today, there was a man who appeared around elementary schools over a period of months, exposing himself to little girls. He became fairly famous among teachers, parents and children as “the man in the white car”, though he always managed to elude the police.

One afternoon when my then 7-year-old daughter was walking home alone (the school was about 3 blocks distant and the times were not quite so parentally protective) a white car pulled alongside her, stopped just ahead and the passenger-side door opened. But about a half block away was my 9-year-old son, lagging an appropriate distance behind.  He sped up, taking a pencil out of his pocket and calling his sister’s name, which was enough to cause the white car to scratch off — but not before they had written down his license number. Extraordinary children, of course, as they are mine, but to be truthful every kid in town had been so thoroughly trained in what to do it was practically a reflex reaction.

The man lived about a mile away. The police paid several calls on him. Because he had not been actually caught doing anything, and it had been over six months since the last episode, involving a child who couldn’t give any description, he was not accused of anything. But the police knew where he lived (as did I, since they drove my son by the house to reconfirm it was the car) and he knew they knew, and he knew his license number was in a file of some sort that could be easily found. That was the last episode involving the man in the white car and local schools.

Could he have gone on to frighten, and possibly molest, other children? Probably. Should we have painted a red “X” on his door, or taken his picture and put it up in the post office? I don’t think so. Plenty of phone calls flew back and forth, but there were no cellphone cameras or e-mails or internet sites at the time so the net was not cast quite as wide. And nobody called the TV station.

I am still pretty sure the man in the white car was a bad guy. We now know the man in the neighborhood park was not. In either case, there’s that business of being innocent until proven guilty. Trial by internet can mess with the system, which while imperfect is still the best we’ve got.

OMG: Texting drivers crash, maim, kill — to the tune of 1.6 million annual accidents

Nearly 28% of crashes, some 1.6 million per year according to the National Safety Council, can be attributed to drivers who are talking on cell phones or texting. Crossing the intersection of Clement Street and Arguello Blvd in San Francisco an hour or so ago I almost made it 1.6 million plus one: driver on phone, self on foot, alert driver blasted horn at talking driver with whom I thought I’d made eye contact (apparently not) or this space would’ve been toast. Are we a nation of nuts, or what?

The issue has gotten the attention of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the Orthopaedic Trauma Association, folks who see the reality of these abstract statistics every day. The two groups have joined forces to launch a print and PSA campaign designed to staunch the wound.

The campaign features a bloody, shattered windshield accompanied by the words:  OMG! Get the message. Texting while driving is a deadly distraction.

It’s definitely time. According to the AAOS release, “general statistics on distracted driving are startling:

  • 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some type of distraction. (Source: Virginia Tech 100-car study for NHTSA)
  • Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. (NHTSA)
  • The worst offenders are the youngest and least-experienced drivers: men and women under 20 years of age. (NHTSA)
  • Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

Wall Street Journal “Driver’s Seat” blogger Jonathan Welsh posted a commentary somewhat courageously including himself in the Bad Guy category in discussing the billboard camapaign:

So, when did you stop texting behind the wheel? It’s a loaded question, but appropriate for many if not most of us. I don’t think I know anyone with a mobile phone and a driver’s license who doesn’t tap out the occasional message while driving.

In the era of multitasking and rapid communication, driving and texting are a tempting combination. Too bad it’s so dangerous.

“To say this habit can be deadly is the truth. It is an outcome we unfortunately see every day,” said AAOS president John J. Callaghan. “The problem with the use of 24/7 communications devices is that every driver believes he or she is immune to slip ups, but isn’t.”

Of course many people are so immersed in typing or reading their handheld screens that they might miss the billboards as they drive past. We have all seen — or even performed — outrageous driving maneuvers after distractions caused us to stray from our lane, miss an exit or nearly run a red light. I find that once I get over the initial anger I always feel at least a touch of empathy.

This space feels no empathy at all. It’s easy to be righteous when you never got into the phoning/texting/driving habit, and easy not to have done so if you were grew up in the dark ages before cell phones were invented.

Still, staying alive is good. I hope the lady driving the beige SUV through the intersection of Clement and Arguello gets the message before it’s too late.

Texting While Driving: Medical Groups Speak Out – Driver’s Seat – WSJ.

Girl drivers more aggressive than boys – and texting, loud music now the norm

My 19-year-old granddaughter, who totaled her car a few months ago, swears she wasn’t texting at the time. Well… maybe the music was playing a little loud. She was unhurt, didn’t hit anyone else or damage anything other than her late lamented car, so there are a lot of blessings to count. But does she text occasionally? “Everybody does.” And in general, besides the decibel level, and the phone which is an extension of her left hand, a shrinking violet she is not. I hasten to say this is a young woman I greatly love and admire; she may also be typical of today’s teenage girl drivers.

Some big auto insurers are raising the rates they charge to cover teenage girls, reflecting the crumbling of conventional wisdom that young women are more responsible behind the wheel.

In a survey of teenage drivers, Allstate Insurance Co. found that 48% of girls said they are likely to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. By comparison, 36% of the boys admitted to speeding. Of the girls, 16% characterized their own driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005. And just over half of the girls said they are likely to drive while talking on a phone or texting, compared to 38% of the boys.

The results were “a surprise to many people,” says Meghann Dowd of the Allstate Foundation, an independent charitable organization funded by Allstate which sponsored the survey.

While teens fessed up about their own bad behavior, they also said their friends drive even worse. The study found that 65% of the respondents, male and female, said they are confident in their own driving skills, but 77% said they had felt unsafe when another teen was driving. Only 23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers. This suggests teens recognize in their friends the dubious and dangerous behavior they won’t admit to indulging in themselves.

A few interesting findings of the new survey:

16% of girls describe their driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005.

84% of girls are likely to adjust music selection or volume while driving, versus only 69% of boys.

82% of teens report using cell phones while driving.

23%of teens admit they have felt unsafe with another teen’s driving.

23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers.

More teens (22%) consider parents in the car more distracting than having their friends in the car (14%).

OK, geezer drivers (this one is still working on the DriveSharp program we all hope is building neurons in my brain and helping me expand my useful field of view) are an admitted hazard on the road. But this new data about our grandchildren isn’t terribly encouraging either. It’s a scary road out there.

Girls Say They Speed, Drive Aggressively More than Boys – WSJ.com.