2014-06-21 / Opinion

Cellphone tower poses opportunity, not health risks

Cellphone use has exploded in popularity over the past 20 years, to the point where almost everyone now has one and land lines have become less common. As that customer base increases, so too does the demand for high-quality service so there are fewer dropped calls and instances of poor reception. To meet that demand, cell phone companies must erect communications towers to improve the relay of phone signals, and so many of them are necessary that it's simply not feasible for people to take a “not in my backyard” approach to these towers.

The Associated Press recently reported that many communities have been attempting to “hide” their cellphone towers by building them to look like trees or attaching them to other tall structures such as crosses on churches. Those efforts are a good way to maintain a cleaner, more rural look in a technologically advanced area, much like buried power lines.

But while their unsightliness can be overcome, cellphone towers often face opposition based on unfounded claims about their health dangers, which is much more difficult to address.

On Tuesday, the Biddeford City Council gave its initial approval to a contract zone for an AT&T cellphone tower, to be located at 384 Hill St. This tower would not be located in a residential zone, and would be surrounded by other industrial uses. In fact, the only reason a contract zone is needed here is because the city did not have the foresight to zone more areas of town to allow cellphone towers, not because it's a terrible place to locate one. Planner Greg Tansley has said the city's next comprehensive plan will seek to address zoning for cellphone towers to avoid the need for contract zones in the future. 

Many residents who live nearby the proposed site, and parents of children who attend the schools that will be within a couple of miles of the tower, have raised health concerns about its location ”“ and even threatened a lawsuit based on the tower devaluing surrounding properties.

The opponents claim the radiation from the cellphone tower will cause cancer, particularly in the children who are exposed to it, but there is simply no evidence for that.

The Federal Communications Commission has set limits for the maximum allowable exposure to radio-frequency energy from cellphone towers, and a third-party study found that emissions from this tower would fall below those levels. Opponents have, of course, called the findings into question, noting that the independent third party that conducted the study was paid by the cellphone tower applicant, Mariner Towers, and even disputing the motives of the FCC.

The American Cancer Society, however, states clearly on its website that most scientists agree: the level of radiation at ground level around a cellphone tower is no more significant than the levels of energy we experience regularly in urban areas from other signals, such as radio and television broadcasts. In fact, the ACS notes that using a cellphone exposes a person to radiation levels much greater than does living near the tower. The energy in RF waves has not been found to be strong enough to break down chemical bonds in DNA, the ACS reports, which is how radiation leads to the development of cancer.

Not only do the tower opponents' cancer fears have no basis in scientific evidence, but they also have no standing to call on the city council to deny the tower a contract zone: Per the federal telecommunications act, wireless facilities cannot be denied based on RF emissions if they comply with FCC regulations. This one does comply, according to the study, so there is no basis for denial. 

The Biddeford City Council is making the right decision in moving forward with the approval process for this tower, based on scientific evidence and what's best for the city, rather than succumbing to public outcry that has its roots in the NIMBY mindset. 

The new tower will provide better service to AT&T customers, and to those who use any other providers that may eventually be permitted to use the tower. It also will allow space for the city to install public safety and public works relays, which will improve communications for those departments, and the majority of the 14-acre lot will be turned over to the city for conservation or other uses. Mariner Tower will build a road to the site and will be accessing only 100,000 square feet to build and maintain the tower.

We're eager to see what the city will do with the rest of the site and hope they also take the time to educate the public about the realities of the RF waves that these towers emit.

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Today's editorial was written by Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Kristen by calling 282-1535, ext. 322, or via email at kristenm@journaltribune.com.

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