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Mobilizing Community Concerns Against Mobile Phone Antennas

by Mark Winston Griffith, May 27, 2004
 Â The residents of 33rd Street in Astoria, Queens weren’t looking for trouble. It literally fell into their backyard.

In June of 2003 a curious set of engineering plans floated from the roof of a building and into the backyard of Mario Bazzolo, setting off a chain of events that could have long-term repercussions for the expansion of wireless technology in New York. As fate would have it, Bazzolo, an electrical engineer, immediately recognized what the details of the blueprint represented and in reporting his findings to his neighbors confirmed what some had suspected all along: That recent construction on the roof of 32-42 33rd Street was not the work of a cable television company, as one of the men working on the roof had falsely claimed. The antennae which looked onto surrounding homes and families on this quiet residential street were in fact part of a base station transmitting radio frequency (RF) signals used for mobile phones.

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Since that day in June in 2003, the residents living in and around 32-42 33rd Street, organized now as the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition, have been fighting to have these antennae removed. In doing so, they have become lay experts on “non-thermal ionizing radiation” (radiation that does not heat tissue) and have discovered that there are over 200 antennae located within a mile and half radius of their block, primarily on residential buildings. From there they have taken on the wireless phone industry and New York City zoning officials while prompting two legislators to introduce bills that would begin to more closely regulate the mounting of cell phone antennae in New York City neighborhoods and state-wide. Perhaps most importantly, the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition has inspired a growing city-wide effort to rein in what some consider to be the unchecked proliferation of cell phone antennae across the city, and to bring public awareness to potential health risks posed by their radiation emissions.

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The cell phone industry, mostly in the form of wireless service providers and communication technology companies, real estate developers, construction companies and others with a vested interest in a multi-billion dollar business, say these fears are unfounded. In extolling the safety of cell phone base stations, they also emphasize the importance of cell phones in times of emergency (almost ten thousand 911 calls are made from wireless phones in New York everyday) and point to American society’s growing reliance on cell phones.

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Debating Possible Health Risks

Cell phones started appearing regularly on New York City streets in the early 1990s. Today there are approximately 10.5 million wireless phone subscribers in the city alone. More to the point, there are thousands of cell phone antennae throughout the city, although no one knows the exact number or even how to get an accurate count. Yet while cell phones have become a highly visible and ubiquitous feature of modern life, the mobile phone industry’s rooftop infrastructure remains largely unnoticed by the general public. In fact, there was little evidence that the public cared where cell phone towers were placed until there was political opposition to recent attempts by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to rent public school rooftop space to cell phone companies.

Cellular phone facilities typically consist of three primary parts: the antenna, the base station, and the equipment. Antennae send and receive signals to and from cellular phones using RF radiation at frequencies between 800 and 1990 megahertz (MHz) which is greater than most FM radios, cordless telephones, and television broadcasts, but less than microwave oven frequencies.

At the heart of the dispute between organizations like the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition and the New York Wireless Access Coalition, a wireless industry advocacy association, is their interpretation of research that has been done on the safety of these antennae. While the radio frequency used by cell antennas may seem no more dangerous than a microwave oven, it is the constancy of the emissions and the proximity of antennae to humans that has raised questions among scientists and prompted countless health studies. Most of the research done so far is limited and inconclusive at best, neither denying nor concluding that cell phone antennas pose a public health threat. In fact, at a recent City Council hearing, both wireless phone advocates and their detractors quoted excerpts from the same World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet to champion their cause.

The wireless phone industry, public health officials and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) all point to the fact that there is no smoking antenna, no proof that the radiation produced by cell antenna radio frequencies constitutes a real health risk. As a result, wireless advocates maintain there is no justification for trying to impose regulations on the cell phone industry.

Anti-proliferation organizers and members of the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition acknowledge that cell phones are important mainstays in today’s society, but argue that the need for more scientific research is reason enough to at least monitor cell phone antennae construction. Evie Hantzopoulos, a spokesperson for the Coalition who freely admits to being an avid cell phone user herself, points to the city’s experience with asbestos as a cautionary tale of how medical science is often years behind the growth and use of new technologies, innovations and materials.

The research debate is a highly complicated one, not only because opinions within the scientific community - some of which has been underwritten by the cell phone industry itself - vary greatly, but because no one has yet been able to complete a long term study that accurately simulates real life conditions and antenna exposure.

While Jessica Leighton, the Assistant Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health testified at City Council hearings that antennas were “unlikely” to pose a health risk, she also admitted “it is fair to say that some questions have not been conclusively answered. While more study may be warranted, it would take an enormous amount of time, money and expertise…Entirely different training, expertise and professions are required to evaluate emissions, exposure and health outcomes.” Leighton concluded that “Better studies are based on very large populations, followed for many years into the future… Short-term health studies conducted locally are not likely to shed meaningful light on these issues.”

The Fight In Astoria

In addition to the seemingly divine hand that delivered the errant blueprints to Bazzolo’s doorstep in Astoria, it took a very aggressive community organizing campaign by the coalition for the issue of cell tower proliferation to take on a broader city-wide profile. After learning that the owner of 32-42 33rd Street was renting rooftop space to T-Mobile, residents discovered that the rooftop was accessible to the residents of the building, lacked proper signage and that three of the antennae were openly exposed, within mere feet, to people living in the adjoining building - all in violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines.

In response, the coalition quickly produced a 500 signature petition demanding that the antennae be removed, called on their public officials to get involved and requested an inspection of the base station from the FCC. In the process they also learned that securing the legal right to have the antennae dismantled would not, however, prove to be so easy.

Normally, telecommunication companies are required to apply to the Board of Standards and Appeals and then appear in front of a public hearing before they can build in a residential neighborhood. However in 1998 Deputy Commissioner of Buildings Richard Visconti issued an order that exempted cell phone companies from this long and expensive neighborhood process. Visconti explained his action by saying, “The department recognizes that the cellular telephone has become a prevalent form of communication essential to the public interest. As such, those companies wishing to erect cellular antennae and install related equipment are to be treated with the deference afforded other public utilities.”

As such, cell phone carriers operate under very little control or oversight, not only in New York, but statewide. According to an open letter issued by the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition, “telecommunication companies themselves are not required to inspect or monitor the sites. The FCC issues a blanket license for a geographical area. As long as the company self-certifies that the site meets federal guidelines, they can put up an antenna sites wherever they wish...[N]o agency on the local, state or federal level tracks where these antennae are being sited.”

Because the New York State Public Service Commission is regarded as a competitive market, they do not regulate wireless companies. Furthermore, local and state governments across the country are prohibited from using health concerns as a guiding principle in the zoning of cell phone antennae and base stations because, the FCC reasoned in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, there is no solid evidence linking cell phone technology with heath risks.

In the meantime, the coalition has questioned the validity of the exemption that was granted the wireless phone industry and contemplates a class-action lawsuit. Hantzopoulos asserts that Visconti’s action was “in violation of the New York City Charter” and he “had no authority to issue this exemption”.

The coalition has already been successful in compelling T-Mobile to remove three of the nine antennae, the ones that directly exposed residents in the adjacent building. By the time the FCC arrived in October of 2003 to inspect the site, it represented perhaps an even more significant victory for the coalition: The Queens Chronicle reported it was the first inspection of a New York City cell phone antenna ever conducted by the FCC. What arguably should have been routine, was, in fact, a landmark event for the agency that took months and a great deal of applied political pressure from Queens to achieve. As a result of this experience, Hantzopoulos surmised that when it comes to wireless technology, the “FCC has neither the expertise nor the capacity to ensure public safety”.

Legislative Action

Indeed, the coalition’s allies have proven to be closer to home. A target of the coalition’s advocacy, Astoria City Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. has introduced a bill that, if passed, would mandate that the city maintain a list of where cellular phone antennae are erected, thus giving the public the ability to at least track antenna locations. Vallone has called for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to study the long-term effects of living and working near multiple antennae and base stations and has already prompted the City Council Committees on Health and Housing and Buildings to hold hearings in April of 2004 on the proliferation of cell phone antennae.

Astoria Assemblyman Michael Gianaris has been pushed even further in sponsoring Assembly Bill 9897, which is designed to “promote the responsible and efficient placement of wireless facilities in residential areas”. Specifically, the legislation would establish a four-month moratorium on the construction of wireless facilities, allowing time for the establishment of a new siting board that would ensure certain criteria are met before a wireless tower is erected.

Gianaris’ legislation would also mandate a study on the health effects of cell phone tower emissions; require companies to demonstrate the need for each wireless facility; require written notice of the facility to residents living within 500 feet of the proposed tower; call for public hearings on specific construction proposals; and require that cellular phone facilities conform to the aesthetics of the surrounding neighborhood.

The cell phone industry has not taken this lying down. In her testimony before the New York City Council hearings, Laura Altschul, Director of National Siting Policy at T-Mobile USA Communications, said that while these legislative initiatives are “well intentioned, they have the potential…to threaten the city’s wireless communications systems and undermine the advances New York City has made in telecommunications to date.” In addition to emphasizing the important role that cell phones play in originating 911 calls, Altschul argued that the tracking of cell phone antennae could be exploited by terrorists to threaten homeland security.

A Growing Movement

But the protest genie may have already escaped the bottle, both locally and nationally. For instance, several independent grassroots campaigns in San Francisco aimed at halting the placement of wireless antennae in residential areas joined forces in 2000 under the banner of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (SNAFU), a city-wide coalition of individual residents and neighborhood organizations. And taking the lead from the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition, community boards #1 in Queens and #7 and #8 in Manhattan have passed resolutions calling for the study of potential cell antenna health risks, while boards #3 in Manhattan and #10 in Brooklyn have recently placed the matter on their agendas.

In the meantime, with three antennae removed, but six remaining on the roof of 32-42 33rd Street, the Astoria Neighborhood Coalition continues its fight and has become the leading grassroots voice for people across New York desperate for information and advice regarding cell phone antennae. Hantzopoulos says that she and the coalition members have received countless emails and phone calls from people facing their own dilemmas: Co-op boards and landlords wondering whether to accept money from companies seeking to put antennae on their roofs; cancer victims questioning their own close exposures to antennae; residents, grassroots organizations and elected officials considering how to mount their own local anti-antenna campaigns; even a parent trying to decide whether to buy a house on the coalition’s block. “This is going to be a major public health issue in the years to come,” Hantzopoulos said. “The public is just beginning to learn about it and they will be outraged.”




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