By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The thing that got this and every other group going was the scientific literature. Leif Salford, a professor of neurology at the University of Lund in Sweden, has described mobile-phone technology as “the largest human biological experiment ever,” with no certain outcome. Another prominent expert and government consultant, Gerald Hyland of the University of Warwick in England, wrote in an article for the British medical journal The Lancet that “[I]f mobile phones were a type of food, they simply would not be licensed because
there is so much uncertainty surrounding their safety.”
The Federal Communications Commission regulates mobile phones for direct thermal effects — in other words, you can be pretty sure they won’t burn your ear off, even after prolonged exposure. But the FCC says nothing about the longer-term, non-thermal effects of low-level radiation, effects that the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health and other august bodies are still busy investigating in the wake of preliminary studies possibly linking cell phones to a frightening array of medical disorders including infertility, insomnia, mental disorientation, brain damage and cancer.
The FCC has another nasty surprise up its sleeve, too, one that sends already suspicious neighborhood activists into paroxysms of indignation. Under the 1996 Federal Telecommun-
ications Act, cell-tower opponents are specifically prohibited from raising any of their health concerns at zoning hearings. Astonishing, but true: According to Section 704 of Title VII of the act, state and local governments have no authority to refuse permission for a cell tower “on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions.” Never mind that the science is far from complete, or that the Food and Drug Administration recommends a policy of “prudent avoidance” of cell-phone radiation, especially with children. The Telecommunications Act was, in the words of its chief sponsor, former Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota, “the most lobbied bill in history.” As a result, the phone companies were let entirely off the hook.
The health provision is already being challenged on constitutional grounds in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, though, neighborhood activists have to think up very clever strategies to defeat the cell towers without actually mentioning the one thing on all of their minds — what all this cell radiation might do to their bodies. At the West L.A. Planning Commission meeting, the Jeffer Mangels lawyers tried a bit of everything: questioning the wisdom of upsetting the strictly residential zoning around the country club, questioning the aesthetics of putting a fake pine tree in among a grove of eucalyptus, even questioning the procedural correctness of the zoning administrator, a halting man named Dan Green. Nothing, though, was as effective as sitting back and letting the other side shoot itself in the foot. Paul Albritton unwisely began one sentence with the phrase, “I probably shouldn’t say this,” but proceeded to say it anyway: that AT&T could create a “Disneyland” world in which a cell tower could convincingly be made to look like anything. One planning commissioner, Flora Krisiloff, replied that she found this line offensive in the context of the quiet, tree-lined streets and multimillion-dollar homes of the Riviera.
Albritton responded: “But my daughter loves Disneyland.”
“That’s why it’s in Orange County!” yelled an enraged Palisadian from the gallery.
AT&T’s application was speedily turned down by the planning commission four votes to one.
The Palisades cell wars began almost three years ago, with a brace of proposed towers that would have directly exposed school children to electromagnetic radiation. Sprint wanted to place a tower at the Paul Revere Middle School, right on the Palisades-Brentwood border, while the now-defunct Metricom had its eye on the tower of the Methodist Church in the heart of the Palisades Village. Metricom offered the Methodist Church, which has an elementary school on its campus and another four unaffiliated schools in the immediate vicinity, $10,000 a year — almost certainly less than the church could have asked for, but enough to dazzle the church leaders into agreement without undue concern for the possible downsides.
No sooner were the zoning-variance notices posted than residents, especially school parents, were digging up research from groups like the Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) Network, which has an exhaustive Web site, and writing articles about their findings in the Palisadian Post. The Los Angeles Unified School District, already embroiled in the Belmont fiasco, wasted no time banning the future placement of cell towers on or near its properties. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, it noted, had classified electromagnetic radiation as “a possible human carcinogen.”
That knocked Paul Revere Middle School out of the picture, but the battle at the Methodist Church was just heating up. According to Kathrin Werner, a film producer, mother of two children and political neophyte who spearheaded the Methodist campaign, the community only knew about the proposed tower through a notice posted on the church bulletin board in the last week of the school year. After reading up on the issue, she found herself becoming enraged. “I’m a fairly levelheaded person. I don’t get radical about anything,” she said. “But this is ultimately about greed, and that upsets me as a human being.”