In appeasing some Pittsfield residents who dislike a nearby cellphone tower, the Board of Health has set a poor precedent for future infrastructure projects that attract controversy.
City health officials recently told opponents of the communications structure located off South Street that they have asked Verizon representatives to remove or relocate the already-built tower. It’s the latest development in a spat that has stretched on since before the tower was initially proposed, far before it was built last July. After its construction, some who had previously opposed its nearby siting began registering health complaints, claiming they were caused by the tower’s radiation.
They repeatedly made their case to local health officials, who did what little they could to address the issue, including commissioning a third-party study to assess the tower’s radiation levels. That report showed the tower was emitting, at most, less than one-fiftieth of the Federal Communications Commission’s safety threshold.
The tower’s opponents deserve to be heard — and they have been. What also deserves serious consideration is that they have made a hefty claim about these ill effects — from tinnitus and headaches to an alleged higher occurrence of cancer — being directly tied to the tower’s operation and location, while offering scant actual evidence for this alleged causal link.
The health board has been upfront about the fact that there is not much it can do to assess or test these claims. Other public health groups have — such as the National Cancer Institute, National Toxicology Program and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of which have largely given cell towers and radio frequency radiation a clean bill of health in reaction to rumored effects on surrounding populations.
Now, though, the board has taken another kind of step entirely. Instead of doing what they can within their authority to examine the issue and engage with constituents, they’re formally asking Verizon to remove without compensation a key piece of communication infrastructure that’s already been built based on health-based arguments that the board knows to be so far uncorroborated. To be sure, these residents have been quite relentless in their pressure on local health officials, who have seen some turnover in critical leadership positions as of late. Meanwhile, health officials told anyone hoping to see the tower removed to not get their hopes up, with Verizon understandably likely to say no.
Given the fact that 5G networks will require larger buildouts, these conflicts stand to rear their head repeatedly. Now, a troubling blueprint has been set, not just for cell towers but for any potentially controversial infrastructure project — even after completion. Forceful but unsubstantiated pushback is legitimized. Health officials defer not to scientific consensus and the existing regulations based on it but to the heckler’s veto. It’s never a good time to weight the flawed wisdom of crowds over the tested groundings of science, but a pandemic is a particularly bad time for health officials to do so.