Portland Commissioners Want New Studies into Cell Phone Towers

While commissioners urge Oregon's Congressional delegation to act, they can't talk about possible health effects
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July 9, 2009 -- City Commissioner Amanda Fritz will send a letter to Portland’s Congressional delegation later this week on behalf of the Portland City Council, urging them to ask the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct new studies to determine the potential health hazards related to cell phone towers and the emissions from radio frequencies.
 
Along with the letter will be a resolution unanimously passed by the City Council on May 27 asking the FCC and FDA to update health studies related to wireless facilities.
 
Fritz spearheaded the issue while working on updating the definitions of how cell phone towers and other wireless equipment are sited throughout the city. During public meetings, many people raised concerns regarding the health impacts of radiofrequency radiation that is emitted from wireless equipment.
However, Fritz—and the rest of the City Council—are prohibited from even discussing whether any health risks are associated with wireless equipment.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 preempts local and state governments from citing health and environmental factors in the placement of cell phone towers, transmitters and other wireless devices.
 
But the concern Fritz’s office met with during the public meetings prompted a little eyebrow-raising.
 
“We started wondering ‘well, why can’t we go there?’” said Margarita Molina, a  liaison to the Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management in Fritz’s office.
 
After doing some research, Fritz’s office found that the FCC and FDA had not updated the laws regarding the regulation of wireless devices because of potential health hazards since the mid-1990s.
 
Since that time, the number of people using wireless technology has increased markedly. In May 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study concluding that, for the first time, there are now more households with wireless telephones than land lines.
 
“We thought it was reasonable to ask our Congressional delegation, the FCC and the FDA to take a second look,” Molina said.
 
Wireless signals are sent by radiofrequencies, which emit a type of non-ionizing radiation -- a low level form of radiation which upon contact with biological tissues does not destroy chemical or biological bonds at the cellular level.
 
It has long been an urban myth that cell phones cause brain tumors and other forms of cancer. It has also been thought that the radiation omitted from radiofrequencies have an negative impact on one’s memory, the ability to learn, concentrate and sleep. 
 
Scientific studies have not proven conclusively that cell phones and other wireless devices cause these health problems, according to Dr. Fred Berman, director of the Toxicology Information Center at OHSU's Center for Research and Occupational and Environmental 
 
"There's a lot of controversy," he said. "If you look at the literature, there's studies on the negative and positive side." Berman attributes the lack of conclusive scientific evidence to the methodology of studies done, which depend on asking people questions they might not be able to answer with complete accuracy -- such as how many times a week they use cell phones. 
 
Others think enough studies have been done to warrant new regulations to prevent a potentially huge public health problem.
 
"At this point, the science may not be able to push one way or the other hard enough for the regulators to really jump in there and develop meaningful reforms," Berman added.
 
However, Cindy Sage, a research fellow at Orebro University Hospital's Department of Oncology has a different perspective. “[Radiofrequency radiation] really does have an effect on one’s ability to function,” said Cindy Sage, who's co-editor of the Bioiniative Report.

This report, which was released in August 2007, is an independent study on the health effects of radiofrequency radiation from wireless devices. The report calls for greater regulatory oversight of the location of wireless transmitters and other devices.
 
“The effects of long-term exposure to wireless technologies including emissions from cell phones and other personal devices, and from whole-body exposure to [radiofrequency] transmissions from cell towers and antennas is simply not known yet with certainty,” the report found.
 
“However, the body of evidence at hand suggests that bio-effects and health impacts can and do occur at exquisitely low exposure levels: levels that can be thousands of times below public safety limits.”
 
By passing the resolution, Portland became the first major city in the country to ask the federal government to refresh health studies on wireless equipment. It was followed hotly on the heels by the Los Angeles Board of Commissioners, which passed a resolution on June 9 asking the federal government for local control and regulation of the citing of wireless devices.
 
Molina said Portland’s resolution is not as assertive as the one passed by Los Angeles because Fritz’s office did not conduct enough in-depth research to take a substantive position. It was not necessary to do that research, she said.
 
“Something like this has to come from the grassroots,” says Tim Crail, a policy advisor on Fritz’s staff.
 
“We're not looking for local control,” Fritz said during an earlier Council meeting on May 20.  “We're not saying there are health impacts. We are not suggesting that we are going to take the lead of jetting across the country.”
 
Molina wouldn’t be surprised if no action is taken by Oregon’s Congressional delegation, or by the FCC or FDA. “We don’t expect this to make a difference,” she said. Fritz’s office does hope, however, that the Council’s letter raises the awareness of the Congressional delegation. “We’re waiting to see what happens,” Molina said.
 
“If the U.S. is going to stay anywhere consistent with other world health bodies, then I think we will see a change,” Sage said. 

TAKE ACTION

Call your Congressional representative or Senator:
 
Representative Earl Blumenauer (District #3)
729 N.E. Oregon Street, Suite 115
Portland, OR 97232
Phone: (503) 231-2300
 
Representative David Wu (District #1)
620 SW Main, Suite 606
Portland, OR 97205
Phone: (503) 326-2901
 
Representative Peter DeFazio (District #4)
405 East 8th Ave., Suite 2030
Eugene, OR 97401
Phone: (541) 465-6732
Representative Kurt Schrader (District #5)
494 State Street, Suite 210
Salem, OR 97301
Phone: (503) 588-9100

Representative Greg Walden (District #2)
1211 Washington Ave.
LaGrande, OR 97850
Phone: (541) 624-2400
 
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden
1220 SW 3rd Street, Suite 585
Portland, OR 97204
Phone: (503) 326-7525
 
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley
121 SW Salmon Street, Suite 1400
Portland, OR 97204
Phone: (503) 326-3386
www.merkley.senate.gov

 

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