|Back To Previous Page|
|Print This Page|
Are Cell Phone Towers Unhealthy?
It is nearly impossible to walk down the street in Cambridge and not realize the impact the cellular telephone industry has had on day-to-day life. Cell phones are everywhere - on the bus, in the grocery store, in the hands of the driver in the next lane.
But Catherine Brady and Nancy Cole, who live on Porter Park, need not leave their house to see the industry's mark. They can look out their bedroom window and seen four Nextel antennas within 10 feet of their bed.
Those same antennas are 10 feet from next-door neighbor Pat Herrington's teenaged sons' bedroom, and the Porter Park residents are crying foul, fearing the antennas may be damaging to their health.
The four antennas - plus eight more on the building - were installed on the Masonic Temple, 1950 Mass. Ave., in December 2002 after the Board of Zoning Appeal granted Nextel a special permit in July 2001. Porter Park residents, whose properties back up on the rear of the temple, say the permit was granted illegally, an appeal that was denied by the BZA on July 17, 2003.
Meanwhile, an attempt by Verizon to place antennas atop 1648 Mass. Ave., a residential apartment building with ground-floor retail space, was denied by the BZA in June because the location was too close to residences. Verizon is appealing that case.
As cell phone use increases, companies are battling for rights to site antennas throughout the city to improve service. But the Cambridge City Council now wants to take a step back and look at what effect those antennas have on nearby residents.
A City Council order adopted unanimously Aug. 4 asks City Manager Robert Healy and the law department to propose language that would tighten up the regulations guiding the placement of cell phone antennas near residences.
"It is quite obvious that people in the city are being surprised by where cell phone antennas can end up," said Vice Mayor Henrietta Davis, who introduced the order. "I know that we are hamstrung by the federal government, but we should do as much as we can within those regulations or within those restraints."
Local authority was limited significantly by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, in which the federal government said cities and towns cannot prevent towers or antennas from being built based on anything but aesthetics. Health effects, or possible health effects of electromagnetic radiation exposure, cannot be taken into account at the local level, the Federal Communications Commission has ruled.
"The research hasn't been done ... The research hasn't been done to connect the rest of the dots because the industry is funding the studies," said Janet Newton, president of the EMR Policy Institute, a lobbyist group based in Vermont that is fighting the cell phone industry. EMR stands for electromagnetic radiation.
City Councilor Anthony Galluccio, who wrote a letter supporting the residents at 1648 Mass. Ave., said the city needs more information about health effects before it can make an informed decision.
"I think we need to get a handle on the level of risk involved with cell phone towers in proximity to residential dwellings. I don't know the answer to it, but clearly residents think there are health risks involved," he said.
Currently, antennas are allowed anywhere in the city not zoned as open space so long as "nonresidential uses predominate in the vicinity of the proposed facility's location and that the telecommunication facility is not inconsistent with the character that does prevail in the surrounding neighborhood," the zoning code says.
But Porter Park residents want to know how their neighborhood is not considered predominantly residential.
"[The FCC] says 10 feet isn't too close, but I don't think they know enough to say that," Brady said. "We'd like to see them removed and put someplace that's not so close to housing."
Possible health effects aside, Brady said she and her partner, Cole, have been harmed financially. Just months before the antennas went up, the two built a $100,000 addition on their house, but they are convinced their property value has diminished as a result of the antennas.
Davis said that diminished property value is a valid concern.
The most alarming part for Brady and other Porter Park residents is the issue of notification. Although the BZA file on the case has letter to abutters notifying them of a hearing in June 2001 and the subsequent decision approving the permit in July, nine abutters and neighborhood residents signed affidavits swearing they never received such letters.
"The really frustrating thing here is had we been able to go to the original hearing ... we might have been able to stop this," Brady said.
Brady said she did not learn of the decision until she looked out her window just before Christmas last year and saw construction on the roof. Although that was well past the 90-day appeal period, which ended in November 2001, Brady and her neighbors hired a lawyer and appealed the decision. Their appeal was denied.
Inspectional Services Commissioner Robert Bersani testified at the appeal hearing that his assistant said she sent them out. In a recent phone call to the Chronicle, he said he had nothing further to add on the notification issue.
Representatives from both Nextel and Verizon maintained the health effects are insignificant and that the FCC has deemed the antennas safe for usage in residential neighborhoods.
Wireless companies pay rent, approximately $1,500 a month, to property owners who agree to house antennas.