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.

Supreme Court leaves 'Healthy San Francisco' program to its own success

Healthy San Francisco, the city’s healthcare-for-all program, remains firmly in place after the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a suit by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association last week. It may or may not be the model for everywhere else, but a lot of reassured folks here are happy with it. Many are also healthier in the bargain. PBS NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels talked with several Healthy SF participants for last night’s report, while outlining how the program is working.

Until recently, San Francisco, a diverse city with a population of nearly 800,000, had more than 60,000 adult residents with no health insurance. They were not poor enough for Medicaid, nor old enough for Medicare.

While the nation struggled with reforming health care, this city began a program of its own that so far has enrolled more than three-quarters of its uninsured. It’s called Healthy San Francisco, and it is not, strictly speaking, health insurance. Rather, it’s a way to provide health care, but only within the city limits.

The plan was not particularly radical. It used mostly existing resources, like city clinics and nonprofit hospitals, to supply and coordinate care. Instead of flitting from one clinic or emergency room to another, enrollees choose a medical home, one of 30 public or private health centers in the city, where they go for low- or no-cost health care.

Once you choose your “medical home,” you can’t walk into another and get treatment. But the two Healthy San Francisco participants this writer asked (along with the patients and clinic directors Michel featured on the PBS show) indicate that customer satisfaction with the system — and with their one medical home — is high.

As to the costs, and who covers them, most San Franciscans other than the restaurant owners are fine with the plan. Restaurant-goers have gotten used to the friendly, small-print message at the bottom of the menu that lets them know an amount added to the tab goes to help pay for Healthy SF.

Each patient in Healthy San Francisco costs the city about $300 per month. That’s in line with insurance costs. It totals $126 million a year.

Depending on their income — and most are below the poverty level — enrollees pay nothing or from $20 a month up to about $200, plus co-payments. But that doesn’t pay for it all. The city has mandated that businesses with 20 to 100 employees spend at least $1.23 an hour per worker for health care, and that larger companies pay more.

That money can be used to reimburse employees for health care costs, to buy them health insurance, or it can go to Healthy San Francisco.

The Restaurant Association’s argument before the Supreme Court was not on Constitutional grounds, but rather that the city’s mandate that employers pay into the program violated federal law. The Court declined to deal with it all; the mandate stays. Susan Currin, CEO at San Francisco General, says emergency room use is slightly down. Director Hali Hammer of San Francisco General Hospital Family Health Center (one of the more popular medical homes) says they have hired new providers and expanded hours. The number of participants is growing at about 700 per week, and the Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that 94 percent of those participants are satisfied with the program. Paying that small extra amount for dinner out makes at least a few of us occasional diners-out feel a slight good-citizen glow. Something’s working.

San Francisco Ramps Up Care for City’s Uninsured | PBS NewsHour | Oct. 12, 2009 | PBS.

'Lesbian Health 101' seeks to open doors, minds

Years ago a lesbian friend, who would soon die of uterine cancer, told me how she hated going to her gynecologist and consistently postponed it. “I’m sitting there in the middle of all those bulging bellies and beatific smiles,” she said, “like some sort of an alien.”

How I wish she were alive, so I could send this clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle:

When Dr. Patricia Robertson held the first lesbian health clinic at San Francisco General Hospital in 1978, she decided to cover the “family planning” signs in the lobby – she didn’t want to deter patients who thought gynecologists were only for dispensing birth control and helping women get pregnant.

“We wanted to put together evidence-based research that would support clinical guidelines, so when we talk about why lesbians are different from heterosexual women we can back that up,” said Robertson, who is a professor in the UCSF department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences. “Doctors are going to be able to legitimize their advice after they read this book.”

The article points out that although progress has been made in health care since then, “lesbians are more likely than straight women to suffer depression and drug and alcohol abuse. They may be less likely to get regular health screenings like pap smears and breast exams.

With those disparities in mind, Robertson and Suzanne Dibble, a registered nurse with the Institute for Health and Aging in the UCSF School of Nursing, have put together the first textbook on lesbian health care. ‘Lesbian Health 101’ was released this month.

The textbook is written in medical language and designed for doctors, nurses and other health care providers, although Robertson and Dibble say they’re encouraging lesbians to use it as a resource for understanding their own health issues. Most of the chapters were written by health care providers who are also lesbian.

Chapters in the nearly 600-page book focus on a wide variety of health issues, from heart disease and breast cancer to partner violence and how to decide which woman in a relationship should get pregnant.Some sections focus on the risk factors that affect lesbians more than straight women – higher smoking rates, for example, or what effect not having children might have on breast cancer risks – while others address how doctors can best meet the particular needs of lesbian patients.

Many of the health issues that affect lesbians can be tied to stress related to their sexual orientation, Dibble said. Discrimination, the stress of coming out to family and friends, or feeling ostracized and alone can all lead to health problems.

Dr. Erica Breneman, an obstetrician-gynecologist with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, said she’s pleased to see such a textbook available to doctors now, even if it’s troubling that the book is even necessary.

“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need this,” Breneman said. “A woman who happens to be gay shouldn’t need much that’s terribly different than a woman who is straight. But the reality is, because of the particular demographics of lesbian women, they do have other health issues.”

Perfect worlds, it seems, are slow in coming.

‘Lesbian Health 101’ seeks to open doors, minds.

God, Thanksgiving & Mother Theresa

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos spoke briefly, and with holiday hilarity, this morning to several hundred Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and assorted other believers at the annual San Francisco Interfaith Thanksgiving Breakfast — “the biggest crowd I ever addressed at seven in the morning.” The event highlighted some of the work the SFIC does in the city: an annual winter shelter for homeless men, a citywide disaster preparedness program, a variety of ongoing efforts to promote understanding, cooperation and general interfaith goodwill. Agnos told a tale of encountering Mother Theresa which is condensed and paraphrased below as a Thanksgiving present from this space.

Coming home one Sunday night during his tenure, the mayor got a message (this was in the late 1980s, pre-cellphones) from his wife saying Mother Theresa was at their door. (“What should I do?” “Let her in.”)  When he walked into the living room, sure enough, there was the diminutive nun in her blue and white habit, seated on the Agnos’ sofa with another nun on each side. She wanted the mayor, she explained, to secure a particular piece of property for her good works. It was after 9 PM.

“I’ll get right on it, first thing in the morning,” Mayor Agnos said.

“No,” said the tiny nun in her quiet voice. “God’s work does not wait until morning.”

The property in question was in an area of town into which few ventured after dark. When that factor was mentioned as cause for caution, however, Mother Theresa would have none of it. “God,” she said in her still-quiet voice, “will protect us.”

So the mayor, the three nuns, the mayor’s wife (who wasn’t about to miss this experience) and a police bodyguard Mayor Agnos invited along just in case God wasn’t paying attention, climbed into a police car and drove to the building in question. Working their way through a fence which had long before been erected around the property, they walked around the back to find a small group of homeless men gathered around a fire. It was not only getting later all the time, it was mid-winter.

“Oh,” the men said in unison, “it’s Mother Theresa.” She blessed them. Then the mayor asked if the building did indeed belong to the city. “Well, yes,” they said, “but we’ve been living here for several years and nobody’s bothered us.” So the mayor assured the nun that he would get to work on her request first thing in the morning.

She was not finished. Next, she wanted to see about another piece of property, this one necessitating a trip to San Francisco General, the City/County hospital of last resort for citizens in need. By now it was getting on towards midnight.

At that hour at San Francisco General, Mayor Agnos explained, most of the people on site are the cleaning crews and base-level helpers — all of whom immediately recognized Mother Theresa. “When we got ready to leave,” said Agnos, “it was like a football huddle. Everybody in the area gathered around this tiny nun you couldn’t even see in the middle of the crowd.”

“When you die and go to heaven,” said Mother Theresa to her fellow laborers, “you will meet God. And God will bless you for your good work.”

“So,” concluded the Mayor as he opened his arms to indicate those around the room, “when you die and go to heaven, you will meet God. And he or she, whomever, will bless you for your good work.”

Makes you thankful to be in the presence of so many people doing good work.