Cell phones and other wireless devices rely on microwave radiation to transmit their
signals. These signals in turn depend upon antenna facilities to relay calls, data,
and other information from one location to another. The problem, as more and more
people are beginning to realize, is the nature of microwave radiation. According to
the November 25, 2000 issue of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet,
there is a growing body of scientific research documenting potential adverse health
effects of microwaves on people, animals and the environment. The problem arises
both from the electromagnetic fields produced by antennas and cell phones, as well
as the specific microwave frequencies used by these devices. Just as a light
flickering at a certain frequency can trigger epileptic seizures in certain individuals,
there is evidence emerging that the frequencies used by a typical digital cell phone
and its antennas mimic or interfere with human physiology in various subtle yet
potentially damaging ways. Studies have linked exposure to microwave radiation to
conditions ranging from sleep disorders, memory loss and suppression of immune
response to leukemia and other forms of cancer. These studies also suggest that
those with developing or weakened immune systems, such as children, the elderly
and the ill, are particularly at risk. As this scientific evidence continues to
mount, people from countries as far afield as Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, France,
Denmark, Israel, the UK and many others have been organizing to oppose the placement
of antennas near their homes, schools, hospitals, farms, and wherever those potentially
most vulnerable live, work or play.
Here in San Francisco, the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (SNAFU) was formed in the
Summer of 2000 as a city-wide coalition of individuals, neighborhood organizations, and veterans of
neighborhood struggles against antennas to confront the telecom industry and the City Planning
Commission over the placement of wireless antennas in their residential communities. Until this time,
many of these disputes had occurred in relative isolation, with individual neighborhoods largely unaware
of similar struggles taking place throughout the City. SNAFU arose out of the necessity of enacting
effective legislation at the city-wide level that would take into consideration the legitimate concerns
of residents and strengthen the City's existing guidelines for antenna placement.
The main obstacle in San Francisco, and indeed throughout the United States, has been the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which preempts local governments from denying permits for antennas based upon health and safety concerns about radiofrequency radiation as long as antennas meet Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) emission standards. The standards set by the F.C.C., an institution in no position to claim a long and distinguished history of expertise in public heath matters, are among the least protective in the world. Switzerland, for example, has standards that are over 100 times more stringent.
Faced with this legal preemption, in August 1996 San Francisco adopted Wireless Telecommunications Services (WTS) Facilities Siting Guidelines to regulate the placement of antennas throughout the City. Once the Guidelines were implemented, the City Planning Commission, acceding to pressure from lobbyists for the telecommunications industry, began using the federal preemption of health and safety issues as carte blanche and refused to deny a single application for an antenna facility. According to a partial inventory compiled by the City Planning Department in response to community pressure, the result is that over 2,500 wireless antennas operated by the licensed cell phone carriers are now operating in the City and County of San Francisco. And this figure does not include the tens of thousands of unlicensed WiFi antennas that also operate in homes, businesses and parks throughout the City.
In the wake of the federal Telecommunications Act, the City and County of San Francisco spent almost 5 years simply ignoring the growing body of federal appeals court case law interpreting this Act in ways that give local governments more, not less, control over siting decisions. Perhaps even more importantly, the City did not – and still does not – take into consideration the cumulative effects of the radiation from antennas that have been erected in the wireless gold rush atmosphere that has ensued. Many residents are concerned about the possibility that the present cumulative impact of all antennas in San Francisco may exceed federal guidelines. Their concern is not without precedent: at Lookout Mountain, Colorado, where measurements of cumulative radiation levels from wireless antennas located in that community were taken, the results showed emissions that exceeded F.C.C. limits.