cell tower (copy)

An aerial view of the 115-foot monopole that Verizon Wireless erected in a south Pittsfield neighborhood in 2020. 

In its latest efforts to appease those who have opposed the cell tower at 877 South St. since before it even existed, the Pittsfield Board of Health has set another troubling precedent. The panel threatened Verizon, the tower’s operator, with an ultimatum: Move it or face a cease-and-desist order to turn the tower off.

Cease and desist: Pittsfield Board of Health gives Verizon ultimatum over cell tower

It’s the latest move from city health officials who have faced a full-court press from some residents who fiercely oppose the tower’s existence near their neighborhood. Since the structure went up in mid-2020, those residents, mostly located in the vicinity of Alma Street, have complained of myriad health woes they say are caused by the tower’s operation. By deeming actionable these anecdotal, unproven and seemingly motivated claims, the city’s Board of Health is not just solidifying a scientifically unsound approach to controversial topics brought before them, which would be bad enough. It’s also risking the financial health of the entire city by picking a potential legal fight with a telecom giant on specious grounds.

As we have stressed in previous editorials on this subject, these residents should be heard, but we must follow the facts. There is little to no evidence that cell towers near residential areas, even 5G-equipped structures, cause the illnesses that the tower’s opponents say they’re experiencing — nausea, headaches, hives and cancer. Don’t take it from us. Take it from the National Cancer Institute, the World Health Organization, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Toxicology Program, not to mention an array of independent research.

This does not mean the residents who have complained of various ills aren’t experiencing them. The burden of proof is higher here than simply showing that some in the vicinity of the tower are stricken with various ailments which, from headaches to cancer, are unfortunately common. What’s also needed, and has been lacking, is a demonstration of not just correlation but causality to show that, despite the glut of scientific evidence to the contrary, these residents’ woes are being directly caused by the tower. That’s a distinction we would hope the Board of Health, of all municipal entities, would understand. That they continue to push this envelope suggests that it unfortunately doesn’t.

This does not even begin to address several other facts that are inconvenient to the tower opponents’ case. A survey conducted last year by third-party consulting firm V-COMM Telecommunications Engineering demonstrated that the tower is emitting less than 2 percent of the Federal Communication Commission’s safety threshold for electromagnetic radiation. Even if this radiation emitted at one-50th of the federal safety standard were directly sickening the surrounding population, why haven’t others in a similar radius come forward? So far, there appear to be no Lori Court residents or workers at nearby South Street businesses with similar tower-related complaints. If microwave transmission is the cause of the various ailments that tower opponents allege, we would expect those adverse effects to be observable elsewhere.

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Opposition to the tower was initially based on what some perceived to be an insufficient notification process. That issue is being debated in a case currently awaiting decision in the state’s appeals court after a Berkshire Superior Court judge tossed it in 2020. Meanwhile, if the Board of Health makes good on its threat to send a cease-and-desist letter to Verizon over the tower, the telecom company will not simply roll over. This is a matter of precedent for them as well. Plenty of people across America dislike the idea of cell towers in their backyards, whether for unfounded health worries, aesthetic concerns or other reasons. Verizon will do all it can to quash a potential blueprint for getting towers moved or turned off by complaining to local health boards. In this case, that could certainly include legal action against Pittsfield. That would mean the city pursuing a costly fight over turning the tower off with Verizon while defending itself against the abutters for the process of siting the tower in the first place.

Did the Board of Health even think of the precarious position in which it is placing the entire city? Not seriously enough, it would seem. “It’s expensive, it’s gonna take a lot of time, and the outcome may not be good,” Board of Health Chair Bobbi Orsi said. “But I don’t know what else we’ve got in our tool box.”

Doing something just to do something is never the wise move. We urge the Board of Health to consider a course of action that has always been available: Require a more reasonable burden of proof be met before furthering this already troubling precedent. What exactly is the “growing body of evidence” that contradicts institutions like the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization on this issue? Has the bare minimum of statistical work been done to compare the diagnoses of the tower’s opponents to others residing in a similar radius to the tower and, as a control group, residents outside the relevant radius? Perhaps most importantly, what is the legal and financial risk to the city if this course of action is taken to its logical conclusion? Those questions demand answers before the Board of Health raises the stakes by sending a cease-and-desist letter to Verizon.