PALO ALTO (KPIX 5) -- Wireless carriers are aggressively expanding their 5G networks. But there are still no studies about how safe the technology is. It's an issue that has divided communities across the Bay Area.
One case in point: Palo Alto. Residents fought long and hard to slow the spread of wireless antennas in their neighborhoods. The city finally released a new wireless ordinance that steers 5G cell towers away from residential areas and bans them within 600 feet of schools. For everyone else, it's 20 feet, including homes for seniors.
"I think it's outrageous, how they have behaved," said Chris Robell, whose parents live at the Channing House retirement home. Robell first noticed a small 5G cell tower right next to Channing House last spring.
When Robell asked about it, he says an employee with AT&T, which owns the 5G installation, told him: "If you're worried about the small cell node, you ought to be a lot more worried about the macro cell tower on the roof at Channing House."
It turns out Channing House, home to some of the most prominent retirees in Palo Alto, is also home to a 4G macro wireless cell tower on the roof, installed back in 2006.
"My parents and other residents had never had this disclosed to them, ever," said Robell.
According to the American Cancer Society, there is no strong evidence that radio frequency waves from cell towers cause any noticeable health effects. But it says more research is needed, especially for any possible long-term effects.
"In Palo Alto, hundreds and hundreds of people are expressing concerns about 5G and these cell towers," said Robell.
"I think it's the unknown," said his mother, Mary Robell. "We don't have definitive answers."
Responding to residents' concerns, Channing House hired a consultant to test EMF emissions from the rooftop tower here last year. The results came back way below the exposure limits deemed safe by the Federal Communications Commission.
But critics say those limits, set by the FCC in 1996, are outdated. "It's just a giant experiment on the entire population and the planet," said Joel Moskowitz, Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.
Moskowitz says hundreds of peer-reviewed studies from 41 countries have found that exposure to radio frequency emissions from macro towers, like the one on top of Channing House, can have serious health impacts.
"Headaches, what people describe as brain fog, memory and confusion, skin conditions, heart palpitations, a whole range of symptoms have been associated with long term exposure to prior forms of cell phone radiation," said Moskowitz.
As for the new 5G towers, there have been no studies at all to date on potential health impacts. 5G is different from older RF technologies because it uses both slower microwaves and faster millimeter waves that transmit at up to billions of cycles per second.
"Thousands of scientists and doctors have signed appeals, calling on governments at least to establish a moratorium until we can understand what the hazards are," said Moskowitz.
But David Witkowski with advocacy group Wireless Communications Initiative says peoples' fear of exposure to electromagnetic radiation from cell towers is unfounded. "If you expect that there were health effects, you would expect them to be showing up in the population by now after 25 years. And they're not," said Witkowski.
While there have been hundreds of studies finding health impacts, hundreds of others refute them, Witkowski said, noting cities cannot consider health concerns when permitting wireless equipment.
"The FCC has said the guidance on health is a federal matter," said Witkowski. "And as long as you remain within the guidelines that are set forth by the FCC then you cannot deny a permit or application for a site based simply upon the fact that you or a group of citizens believe that it's unsafe."
Not only that, the FCC requires cities to expedite permits for cell sites, to help speed up the 5G rollout. "Wireless communications is an extremely critical part of 21st-century life," said Witkowski. "The communications network has been critical for our resiliency against the pandemic and our ability to communicate has allowed people to stay at work. It's allowed people to attend school remotely."
Channing House turned down our request for an interview. In an email CEO Rhonda Bekkedahl told us "I would be surprised if residents were not notified in 2006 given the transparent culture at Channing House … the antennas have not been a secret."
As for the new 5G small cell tower outside the building: "Channing House was not consulted" about it, said Bekkedahl.
Bekkedahl told us Channing House makes about $36,000 dollars a year from leasing its roof to T-Mobile. Mary Robell organized some other residents and led a petition to Channing House's board asking to terminate the contract. "It's a risk, and I don't know why we need to take that risk for $36,000 a year," said Mary Robell.
But Bekkedahl told us there's no way out. She's locked in for another 12 years, and only T-Mobile can break the contract. Chris Robell isn't taking no for an answer.
"You can relocate this equipment somewhere else that's not where seniors live 24/7 right? That is the issue. And they deserve that respect and they certainly deserve to know about it," said Robell.
While Palo Alto's wireless ordinance has a residential zone of exclusion, exceptions can be made to allow wireless communication facilities just 20 feet from homes. There are also exceptions to the 600 foot setback for schools. That can go down to 300 feet.
T-Mobile provided a statement saying,
T-Mobile operates all of its cell sites consistent with the radio frequency exposure requirements established by the FCC and endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. They were recently reaffirmed by the FCC in December 2019. When we build or upgrade cell sites, T-Mobile complies with all notification and application requirements put forward by a local City or County Council. These depend on the nature, type, and location of a proposed facility. The last upgrade of this Palo Alto site took place in 2017 and did not include 5G.
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