City, Residents Weigh In On Impact of Small Cell Phone Towers

(Courtesy of EMF Safety Network)
Residents in Santa Rosa show their disapproval of the small cells mounted on this pole in a Santa Rosa neighborhood.

    While many people applaud new technology and rush to trade in their iPhones for the latest version, one technological leap has created a negative reaction among a number of residents, cities and states: 5G.
    This next generation of mobile data relies on a bandwidth that has a relatively short range but provides an exponential jump in data speeds (up to 10 gigabits per second). Referred to as “small cells,” the 5G antennae services hundreds of feet compared to the traditional microcell sites now used which cover square miles.
    Due to the limited coverage areas, more small cells (which must be closer to the ground than macrocells) are necessary, putting them in close proximity to homes and businesses. This has many worried about potential health hazards, and has prompted a number of lawsuits across the United States.
    At a recent Orinda City Council meeting, a large number of local residents spoke on their concerns regarding small cells and public health. Several children also spoke saying they were worried about the health effects of this new technology and asked that there be setbacks for schools. Orinda resident Chet Martine noted that the Federal Communications Commission had overreached itself.
    Orinda resident Ellie Marks has been watchdogging the technology industry since 2008 when she founded the California Brain Tumor Association, a nonprofit that aims to safeguard public health ( Marks became involved after her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which Marks believes was caused by his cell phone.
    “While the wireless industry says the ‘jury is out’ on the harmful effects of wireless technology, I don’t agree. The science is far more settled than the industry claims,” she says. Marks cites the National Toxicology Program’s 2018 study on the effects of 2G and 3G cell phone technology that documented a number of cancerous tumors in rats exposed to high levels of radio frequency radiation like that used in 2G and 3G cell phones. A copy of the report can be found on the tumor association’s website. Marks, who has testified before Congress on the health risks of cell phones, is working with a number of lawmakers including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Congressman Mark DeSaulnier.
    According to UC Berkeley’s Dr. Joel M. Moskowitz, who studies the health effects of wireless technology, “the FCC’s exposure limits and testing procedures adopted in 1996 are considered inadequate to protect human health by most scientists who publish research on the effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields on biology and health.” More on Moskowitz’s findings can be found at
    Regardless of health and environmental concerns, 5G small cells will soon be part of Orinda’s landscape and, most probably, be placed on existing infrastructure such as traffic lights, street lights and utility poles.
    On Sept. 26, the FCC removed barriers and accelerated the transition to 5G deployment. In order to meet its time table, the FCC preempted local control regarding the permitting of small-cell sites and the leasing of small-cell sites by local government to the carriers. The FCC order went into effect Jan. 15 with local governments having until April 14 to submit aesthetic standards for the small cells. 
    “We need to define what we can regulate, but we won’t have any control unless we get some guidelines into place,” said Mayor Inga Miller. 
    Planning Director Drummond Buckley agreed and suggested “an ordinance with flexible guidelines that can be changed. We also need to do some public outreach and, to buy us time, we should look at an ‘urgency ordinance’ to meet the FCC deadline and then develop a permanent ordinance.”
    To that end, the city is working with Telecom Law Firm, a Los Angeles-based practice that specializes in telecommunications infrastructure, land use and regulatory matters. They have been working with Danville and San Francisco on the scope of wireless sites.
    According to the FCC, it adopted its order to “ensure the United States wins the global race to 5G to the benefit of all Americans.” It is estimated that wireless carriers will invest $275 billion in small-cell infrastructure over the next decade, creating approximately three million new jobs and boosting the nation’s Gross Domestic Product by $500 billion. It will also save the wireless industry more than $2 billion in local government fees.
    The fast download speeds of 5G will support autonomous vehicles and transform industries such as health care and public safety, according to the FCC. In cities like Orinda where home Internet speeds can be relatively slow, it is anticipated to replace landline Internet service providers. 
    City Councilmember Amy Worth suggested city staff get information from other cities which have developed ordinances or are in the process of doing so and report back to the council. “Basically, doing nothing is not an option,” she says.
     Staff anticipates reporting back to the council at its April 9 meeting.

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