Ruling goes against Pittsfield cell tower neighbors, but fight might continue (copy)

An aerial view of the 115-foot monopole that Verizon Wireless erected in a south Pittsfield neighborhood in 2020. The city’s health director says her department does not have the expertise to evaluate neighborhood complaints of health impacts from the tower.

It’s an issue that’s bound to come up more frequently in the near future: As fifth-generation (known as 5G) cellular technology networks go up across America, many people will be unhappy with skyscraping cell towers also going up in their neighborhoods.

Some of those unhappy people can be found in Pittsfield. A cell tower located at the back of 877 South St. has been a source of consternation for some ever since development began on the structure located on a parcel off Routes 7 and 20. While it’s not located in a residential area, Alma Street is not too far off. Residents of that neighborhood say the structure is causing health problems in the area, and, seeking confirmation, asked city councilors to spur an investigation into their claims.

These residents deserve to air their concerns and be heard. That a municipal Health Department could produce a definitive conclusion on the effects of 5G that would satisfy all parties, however, is specious at best.

The city’s top health official has said as much: “The Health Department is not qualified and does not have the expertise to accurately assess the residents’ health concerns, nor is the Health Department qualified to assess the causes of the residents’ health concerns,” Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong said, adding that the Board of Health might refer the matter to the state Department of Health.

The technology behind 5G is relatively new, and saying anything conclusive about its residual effects will require research well into the future. The overwhelming evidence currently available, however, shows no connection between 5G towers and harmful symptoms in nearby living things.

“To date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies,” according to the World Health Organization.

Cell towers do emit radiation, of course, in the same sense that mobile phones, Wi-Fi routers and our own bodies emit radiation. The radiation emitted by 5G towers, like all cell towers, is nonionizing — that is, its frequencies are too low and its wavelengths too big to damage cells like ionizing sources, such as X-rays, do.

Nevertheless, many have expressed worries about 5G, including some who have delved into baseless and harmful rumor-mongering. As the coronavirus pandemic took hold last year, for instance, a handful of conspiracy theories blamed 5G networks as a source or accelerant of COVID-19 — an absurd notion thoroughly debunked by public health leaders and technology experts alike. Others have claimed that 5G and other cell towers cause increased cancer risk, a claim that was similarly made about 3G and 4G technology that has not been scientifically demonstrated but still demands long-term research.

Some living near the Pittsfield tower say they have experienced headaches, dizziness and nausea since the tower in their neighborhood went up. The residents were disappointed by Ms. Armstrong’s letter in reply to the City Council, which in January voted to request that the Health Department investigate “health concerns that have been reported by some of the residents that live near the cell tower.” We believe Ms. Armstrong is correct, however, that local health departments aren’t equipped for this level of assessment, and should be able to reference authoritative standards from state or federal health regulators, instead of charting their own intensive research projects.

As it stands now, those standards are lacking, and that will soon become a broader issue as more towers go up. The nature of 5G’s high-band frequency spectrum means networks utilizing it will require more infrastructure than 3G or 4G networks — about five times as much. That spells many similar conflicts down the road as America’s infrastructure moves into the 21st century and more towers are sited.

Ward 5 City Councilor Patrick Kavey noted that municipalities generally have their hands tied on telecommunications decisions, which are mostly regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The councilor still wants better answers for his constituents, though: “If our Health Department is unable to look into the health concerns of our residents, then who is?”

Just as the FCC has control over the telecom picture, so too should federal health regulators have a relatively concise standard that local health departments can reference in these instances. Whether it is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health, these are the entities best-equipped to have world-class experts in science, health and technology assess the copious available research on 5G and put forward a standard for state and local governments.

There are myriad reasons why no one wants a cell tower in their backyard, but health concerns demand that the relevant national authorities step up and do the research to give municipalities something to cite, and preclude the protracted process Pittsfield is going through now.