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Towering Hazard

Wireless antenna opponents worry about microwave harm

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It's not lack of a signal that has one Boise neighborhood alarmed, it's concern about what those signals are doing to their bodies and brains.

Residents surrounding Longmont Street and Broadway Avenue are mounting a campaign against a proposed wireless Internet antenna that Clearwire wants to erect on top of the Tates Rent building at 1502 Broadway Ave. A formal proposal for the 60-foot tower was presented to the City of Boise's Planning and Zoning Commission on March 27.

The antenna would replace a 50-foot wooden tower already on the building. The concern is not just about a possible eyesore but the potential health hazards. Talk of a second tower the company wants to build on top of the Schuck's Auto Supply store at 2213 Broadway Ave. increases the worry.

The towers would, in effect, sandwich Garfield Elementary School between two sources of microwave radiation.

"I'm old enough to remember when they didn't think lead, asbestos, radiation or smoking was bad for you either," said Barbara Robinson, who is leading the effort to stop the towers.

Her fears center on the controversy surrounding the cause of numerous nervous system disorders, which she outlines in a flier she started distributing once she learned of the proposal.

Robinson's five-page flyer cites studies that link cell phone towers to "cancer and brain tumors, Alzheimer's senility and dementia, Parkinson's, autism, headaches, sleep disruptions and fatigue, altered memory function, poor concentration and diminished spatial awareness."

It warns her neighbors that, "there is simply no way to make wireless technology safe."

Carl Arriola, CEO for Tates Rents, was recently made aware of neighbors' concerns.

"We care about our community and we're going to look into it," he said. Tates must approve the contract for the tower before it can be installed.

Neighbors received a formal notice of the meeting dated February 20, but only seven people showed up to one brief information session held at Idaho Pizza, Robinson said.

"The time frame was very short," she said. "I received the notice on the Friday before the meeting. There wasn't much time to prepare or rally neighbors who hadn't received notice."

Robinson has used information collected by Susan Clarke, director of the Environmental Health Advocacy League, to back up her claims.

According to Clarke, research indicates that short-term neurological effects appear around wireless towers long before cancers that may take up to 15 years to develop. She quotes various studies that show these disorders are chiefly the result of decreased melatonin production, which is linked to disturbances in concentration—such as attention deficit disorder—sleep disorders and cognitive impairments. Sources used in Robinson's flier range from government-funded surveys to epidemiological and laboratory studies conducted in the United States and abroad.

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's council of experts recommended more studies on possible adverse health effects from cell phones on pregnant women and children. The panel noted that exposure ranges have not yet been determined for any populations, and that most studies to date have only looked at short-term outcomes.

Almost at the same time, the Australian Centre for Radio Frequency Bioeffects Research said it could confirm changes in brain function as a direct result of exposure to cell phone radiation. This study also warned that adverse effects on developing nervous systems in particular remain unknown.

The French government has issued an official warning to parents to limit cell phone use by their children.

Additionally, the Indian Council of Medical Research issued preliminary findings of a study last year, suggesting that cell phone radiation can compromise reproductive health by reducing sperm size, weight and count and DNA integrity. Indian government scientists have said exposure to these particular wavelengths is more dangerous than either asbestos or smoking in terms of public health hazards, given significantly higher rates of tumors of the brain and acoustic nerves.

These findings are contested by organizations such as the World Health Organization, although critics argue that WHO data is too old. They cite recent studies issued by professional organizations such as the American National Standards Association and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

But not all experts have made up their minds.

"I haven't looked into this issue," admits Dale Stephenson, an associate professor and certified industrial hygienist at Boise State. "We have these towers all over the world. We don't have any conclusive evidence. We only have some studies, both for and against. I can't really see how we can say there's an issue at this time."

Internet, cell phone and tower transmissions and emissions are largely unregulated in the United States, unlike signals from AM/FM radio and television antennas.

"Several of our people said they do not know of any studies that show a public health concern from cell towers," said Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Shanahan said that both New Jersey and California have issued cautionary warnings, and Utah is contemplating the possible regulations.

"That's really outside our venue," said Jerry Todd, public information manager for Planning and Zoning. Boise Municipal Code establishes standards for the location of wireless communication facilities, but none of them address radiation frequency or maximum coverage areas.

Jason Evans, who heads the local Clearwire Site Development Team, referred all questions to the company's public relations office when approached for an interview.

Evans' name and signature are on the neighborhood meeting notice, and he is listed on the project application submitted to the city.

Clearwire general manager Alan Lawrence shipped BW a statement that read, "Clearwire is sensitive to the concerns of the community and works diligently to comply with local, state and federal laws, including applicable zoning and environmental laws. Clearwire uses commercially reasonable efforts to locate its antennas on existing structures, to limit the expansion of telecommunications sites in our communities."

While the statement did not address the specifics of the current application, it said that "Clearwire is committed to protecting the health and safety of its customers and the communities it serves. In building its network, Clearwire adheres to all applicable government rules and regulations, intended to maintain telecommunications operations within established safety standards," Lawrence wrote.

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