(TNS) -- SACRAMENTO — A bill co-authored by a Bay Area assemblyman that would block the ability of cities and counties to control the installation of microwave radiation antennas is doing more than alarming many local officials.
It’s also frightening grass-roots activists and scientists, who argue that if Senate Bill 649 becomes law, a projected 50,000 new cellular antennas will be installed on public buildings and utility poles in California neighborhoods, creating a risk to public health because of the possible dangers of radiation and electromagnetic frequencies emitted by cell towers.
“My analogy is to cars,’’ said Ellen Marks, a San Francisco-based leader of the California Alliance for Safer Technology, a group that is trying to keep cellular antennas away from homes, schools, offices and parks. “The auto industry made them as safe as possible with air bags — and reduced their pollution. But nobody is putting pressure on the telecommunications industry to do that.’’
For months, as the bill has sailed through legislative committees, she and members of other environmental and health organizations have been trying to educate lawmakers about the potential dangers of cell towers.
They point to research, such as a partial study released in May 2016 by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The research showed there’s a link to two types of cancer, prompting the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer to note that the results “mark a paradigm shift in our understanding of radiation and cancer risk.’’
Similar concerns about cell tower radiation were raised in 2015 by two Southern California firefighter unions. Those concerns led Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, to agree to exempt all fire stations in the state from a related bill he authored that year that streamlined the time for wireless telecommunications system permits.
Now, as SB 649 — authored by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, co-authored by Quirk and sponsored by the main trade group for the U.S. wireless telecommunications industry — awaits a vote Friday by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, fire stations are once again exempted.
Both Quirk and Hueso have called the criticism of their legislation overblown, contending the “scientific consensus” is that having a cell tower in your neighborhood is safe.
For most of his career, Quirk wrote in an op-ed piece this summer, he has worked “to safeguard the public’s health and safety locally and globally.’’
SB 649 is primarily supported by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, which says it will help boost the economy.
Repeated phone calls this week by the Bay Area News Group to the Washington, D.C.-based CTIA seeking comment on potential health concerns related to cellular antennas were not returned.
Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said the trade group has a habit of ducking the issue, and instead “points their finger to the federal government and the Federal Communications Commission and the health agencies that claim it’s safe.”
The CTIA “never says it’s safe because the industry will be in deep water when the lawsuits play out finally before a jury,’’ said Moskowitz, who has studied and written about the issue for eight years.
SB 649 also caps how much a local government could charge phone companies for leases to $250 a year. That’s another reason the bill remains strongly opposed by the California State Association of Counties, the League of California Cities and the Rural County Representatives of California.
Why are fire stations exempted in the bill?
Hueso’s chief of staff, Ana Molina, said the exemption was included in SB 649 to be consistent with Assembly Bill 57, Quirk’s bill that sped up the permit process and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015.
Quirk’s chief of staff, Tomasa Duenas, said that her boss’ original decision to exempt firefighters in that 2015 bill “stemmed from concerns they (firefighters) raised about their ability to negotiate working conditions.’’
But Lew Currier, a director of the Los Angeles County Firefighters Local 1014, said the “working condition” that worried his members the most was exposure to radiation or electromagnetic fields emitted by cell towers. So the union, as well as the union representing firefighters in the city of Los Angeles, directed its Sacramento lobbying group to intervene and amend Quirk’s legislation with a carve-out for fire stations in the state.
The urgency to amend the bill, Currier said, was prompted by a 2004 brain scan study by a Los Angeles neurotoxicologist of a group of firefighters in Carpinteria who had lived and slept inside a station near a large cell tower for five years. The study found brain abnormalities in all the men tested, including delayed reaction time, lack of impulse control and cognitive impairment.
The California Alliance for Safer Technology and similar grass-roots groups say they’re worried that the placement of the antennas will also affect average Californians, particularly children.
Other activists point to recent tests done by the Sausalito-based Scientists for Wired Technology that determined 19 “small cell” antennas installed in high-density fashion in a 3- by 6-block area in Palo Alto are exposing residents, workers and visitors to hazardous levels of microwave radiation.
In the recent op-ed, Quirk took umbrage at the criticism of SB 649.
Before he was elected to the Assembly, Quirk noted, he worked as a climate scientist at NASA. And while at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, he helped negotiate the ban on nuclear weapons testing.
“There is a scientific consensus that wireless antennas do not expose the public to undue radiation risks, and the safety limits adopted by the Federal Communications Commission have been validated by every agency of the federal government responsible for health and safety,” Quirk wrote.
But at least 230 leading international electromagnetic field scientists and health experts from 41 nations who have reviewed thousands of peer-reviewed, published studies on the health risks of wireless radiation exposure disagree with him.
In 2015, they issued an appeal to the United Nations and all member states to encourage the World Health Organization to exert strong leadership to develop more protective electromagnetic field guidelines, encourage precautionary measures and educate the public about health risks — particularly the risk to children and fetal development.
©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.