Hang Up and Listen

If there’s a single symbol of the revolution in modern communication, it’s the cell phone–that ever-tinier, ever-more-multifunctional ear appendage that keeps us in touch with the whole world, wherever we may be. Thanks in large part to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA), the empire of wireless communication is spreading unchecked across our landscape. There are antennas on apartment buildings, church steeples, water towers, and anywhere else a signal made of electromagnetic radiation can be transmitted and received. It’s hard to resist the convenience. But a growing body of evidence shows that the microwave radiation from proliferating cell towers–and cell phones themselves–poses a significant health risk. And the industry-friendly regulatory system in the United States is failing to address the problem.

Scientists, local governments, and grassroots organizations around the world have long been warning about the health hazards of electromagnetic radiation (EMR). While all electrical devices, from hair dryers to computers, produce EMR, the most hazardous waves are those on the radio frequency (RF) section of the electromagnetic spectrum, including radio, television, and microwave signals. Microwave radiation is considered particularly worrisome.

Certain individuals, like Arthur Firstenberg, are highly sensitive to almost any amount of EMR. As Firstenberg reports in The Ecologist (June 2004), his medical career was derailed by his body’s intolerance for electronics in the operating room, as well as computers and other everyday devices. His dilemma spurred him to research the effects on humans of EMR in general and microwaves in particular. In 1996, the first year of massive cell phone expansion, what he found prompted him to create the Cellular Phone Task Force. According to Firstenberg, “each of dozens of cities recorded a 10 to 25 percent increase in mortality, lasting two to three months, beginning on the day in 1996 or 1997 on which that city’s first digital cell phone network began commercial service.” Around the same time, he says, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set public exposure limits for microwave radiation at “levels at least ten thousand times higher than levels which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, were causing reports of illness from all over the world.”

Firstenberg also details a number of reports and research projects, including a German study that discovered a host of infirmities in cows raised near cell towers, as well as French, Spanish, and Dutch studies that documented dizziness, nausea, chest pains, and other symptoms in human beings similarly exposed.

While the FCC regulates wireless service providers and sets standards for safe levels of RF radiation, it’s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that has authority to monitor the health effects of cell phones. Information posted on the FDA’s website (www.fda.gov) sends a mixed signal, saying, “The available scientific evidence does not show that any health problems are associated with using wireless phones. There is no proof, however, that wireless phones are absolutely safe.”

As for the FCC, its safety standards for wireless phones are based exclusively on the so-called thermal model, which says that at dangerously high levels, microwave radiation will heat human tissue, just like it heats food in microwave ovens. While acknowledging that scientists have noticed biological effects at lower levels of radiation, the FCC Web site (www.fcc.gov) claims that “further research is needed to determine the generality of such effects and their possible relevance, if any, to human health.”

Meanwhile, study results continue to come in, indicating that microwaves are quite dangerous even at low, nonthermal levels. Bo Sernelius, a Swedish physicist, has theorized that radiation from mobile phones “may cause a massive increase in the forces that living cells exert on each other,” as Duncan Graham-Rowe reports in NewScientist (April 2004). Such an action may cause cells to clump together or blood vessels to contract. Sernelius’ theory still needs to be confirmed experimentally, however.

As the evidence accumulates, a number of organizations are encouraging action. The EMR Network (www.emrnetwork.org) was established to, as the site puts it, “challenge the thermal model of harm from radiofrequency radiation upon which the U.S. exposure guidelines are based.” It also works against a provision of the Telecommunications Act that it claims poses serious political problems as well as health hazards.

Before 1996, any group of citizens could stop base stations and antennas from being erected in their neighborhoods by citing concerns over the health hazards posed by radiation. Under the TCA, local and state governments still have a say on the siting of antennas, but can’t base siting decisions on health or environmental effects. It’s an example of how, despite disturbing (if not fully conclusive) evidence of risks, Congress and our regulators are more willing to risk public health than the health of a profitable industry.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG TROUBLE: In an effort to raise public awareness about the potential dangers of electromagnetic fields (EMFs), artists Larry and Debby Kline placed a series of freestanding fluorescent light bulbs along the power grid in Southern California. According to Orion (Sept./Oct. 2004), “the bulbs, whose plasma is excited by the ambient EMFs emanating from high-voltage lines, light up without a direct electrical connection.” Disturbing stuff, considering that children living in homes with high magnetic fields have a greater risk of developing leukemia. The installation, located at the entrance to the Chevron Pipe Line Company in Kettleman City, California, is titled Cathedral Gate. Other examples of the Klines’ politically charged conceptual artwork can be seen at www.jugglingklines.com.

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