PITTSFIELD — People unhappy about a new cell tower in south Pittsfield heard of two promising developments, when health officials took up their issue last month.
Neither, it turns out, will come to pass as described.
Representatives of the state Department of Public Health will not appear at a forum to answer questions about the safety of electromagnetic radiation. That forum was supposed to be taking place this week.
And experts from the DPH’s Environmental Toxicology Program will not conduct field research in an attempt to determine whether reports of headaches, dizziness and nausea can be linked to the powering up of a Verizon Wireless tower last summer at the rear of a lot off South Street.
The city councilor for Ward 4 came away from an April 12 Board of Health meeting thinking the city’s Health Department had secured support from the DPH for a forum and an initial epidemiological study.
“That was the impression I got,” said Christopher J. Connell. “Absolutely. I thought [Dr.] Alan (Kulberg) was all on board.”
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It was Kulberg, the board’s chair, who told people logged on to the online meeting that the city needed wider expertise to understand whether the cell tower was the source of reported ailments. And he and Gina Armstrong, the city’s health director, suggested that the DPH’s involvement would fill that gap.
“I’m not saying there isn’t a causal relationship,” Kulberg said that night, speaking of the tower and health concerns, “but these things have to be done in a rigorous epidemiological way. … We feel this is the most scientifically valid way to do it.”
Armstrong said that in the months that residents have been pressing for answers, her department, in addition to dealing with COVID-19, was getting a handle on a complex question.
“We were researching the resources needed to address this concern,” Armstrong said at the meeting. “Working on a plan took some time … to do this to the level that is necessary.”
Armstrong urged people to contact the DPH, suggesting that the agency involvement would bring the deeper look that residents have been seeking in sustained outreach to the Health Department and City Council.
“They will report back to the Board of Health … on how many people have, in fact, been impacted and what the possible association is,” Armstrong said.
The fact that there will be no such report frustrates Connell, who had joined with Ward 5 City Councilor Patrick Kavey to push for action.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Connell said. “They’re either stalling or hoping the issue goes away. We have a health concern, and they’re not responding. It’s a city issue because we allowed the permit for the tower.”
Courtney Gilardi of Alma Street, a leader of neighborhood opposition to the tower, said the resources offered through the DPH are not game-changing.
“They can offer a referral to a doctor who has a background in environmental medicine,” she said. “This is exactly what our physicians offered us seven months ago. We have not moved forward at all.”
Armstrong says now of the outreach to the DPH: “It was unclear to me what level of assessment their referral sources could provide.”
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When the board meets Wednesday, Armstrong says it again will try to provide answers to residents, in part by building out City Hall’s understanding of the issue.
“The Health (Department) and Board of Health are working through a process to educate ourselves more about cell tower EMF [electromagnetic fields], governmental guidance and other reports on the health impact … and to look at best options for facilitating a plan to address resident concerns,” Armstrong said in an email, in response to questions.
She told The Eagle that the DPH’s role with the issue in Pittsfield will indeed be more limited than the response outlined at the April meeting.
“At this point, MDPH Environmental Toxicology Program is available to speak with residents about their concerns related to the South (Street) cell tower,” Armstrong said. “They do not conduct field work for EMF or have referral sources for that.”
A spokeswoman for the DPH confirmed to The Eagle that the agency is not conducting a health study.
Its assistance is limited, she said, to advising Pittsfield health officials and fielding questions from residents and directing them to information on the Bureau of Environmental Health website. In at least one case, the DPH offered a resident a referral to a medical expert.
The department declined the city’s invitation to present information about health issues linked to electromagnetic fields at a health board meeting.
In an April 26 email to city councilors, Armstrong wrote that the health board had decided, at its April 12 meeting, to invite DPH staff to join the board’s early-May session. Residents who joined the session were invited to send in questions that state experts could help answer.
“We are very disappointed to learn that representatives from the environmental toxicology program will not be attending the next BOH meeting,” Armstrong wrote in comments to The Eagle. “The Board is considering other panelists and a format to facilitate information to the public about technology safety at a future date.”
Planning for an alternative forum will come up at Wednesday’s meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. and can be viewed online through Zoom by using meeting number 828 3529 8060. People can also call in to 312-626-6799.