Will New York halt for 5G health concerns?

Should New Yorkers be concerned by potential 5G health concerns?
Should New Yorkers be concerned by potential 5G health concerns?
Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Should New Yorkers be concerned by potential 5G health concerns?

Will New York halt for 5G health concerns?

As New York gets closer to deploying next-generation wireless networks, some are raising red flags.
June 14, 2019

New York is supposedly in a race with the country – and the country with the rest of the world – to deploy next-generation 5G wireless networks that could bring us capabilities like remote surgery and, perhaps less significantly, the ability to download whole movies in a matter of seconds. But as New York takes intermittent steps in the direction of deploying the necessary infrastructure to accommodate 5G networks, activists raising concerns about dire health effects of cellphone and wireless radiation are gaining some political traction.

Last month, the Syracuse Common Council voted to approve a deal that will allow Verizon to install small cell towers in the city that can transmit data on a new part of the radio spectrum that 5G will use. But approval of the deal Verizon worked out with Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh was a somewhat close vote, passing by five to three.

In the months leading up to that vote, some on the Common Council raised concerns about the potential health risks of 5G. “We’re getting calls also and we’re getting letters from people telling us to vote no, because they’re concerned about the cancer, the frequencies and all that good stuff,” Common Council President Helen Hudson said at a meeting before the vote in early May.

Concerns about the health effects of radiation from cellphones and cell towers are nothing new, but the looming expansion into 5G includes specific changes that has some more worried than before. Across the country, small but vocal groups of local activists are bringing awareness to what they call adverse health effects of cell phones and other wireless technology. Manhattan Neighbors for Safer Telecommunications is one such group in New York. While most groups are small in number, there are national associations, like Americans for Responsible Technology, that pull these local factions together. Cellphones emit radiofrequency radiation, which is non-ionizing, or low-frequency and low-energy. Unlike ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays, which are ionizing radiation and much higher on the electromagnetic spectrum, non-ionizing radiation is emitted by devices including radios and remote controls – widely viewed as harmless.

But 5G will be slightly different. 5G networks will use frequencies that are higher on the radio spectrum than what is used now. These are known as millimeter waves, and while the frequencies are roughly 10 times higher than what’s used today, they’re still about 10,000 times lower than frequencies of x-rays, gamma rays and ultraviolet. 5G will also require more cell towers to be built. In order to transmit millimeter waves, small cell towers like the ones coming to Syracuse will be perched on top of light poles, stop signs and buildings, meaning that they’ll be closer to homes and schools. And in order to provide full coverage, small cell towers need to be placed closer together than cell towers are now. In Syracuse, they’ll be installed on nearly every block.

The concern among activists fighting 5G is that combined with our expanding use of cellphones and wireless networks, these small cell towers close to home will lead to constant, long-term exposure to radiofrequency radiation. They fear that will lead to unknown negative health effects.

But many experts, researchers and organizations including the American Cancer Society, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. National Toxicology Program don’t classify radiofrequency radiation as cancer-causing for humans. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies them as possibly carcinogenic, but they also list coffee as a possible carcinogen. “For four generations of cellphones, I've seen people claim health effects, but there just hasn't been any conclusive evidence,” said Ted Rappaport, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, computer science and radiology medicine at New York University. Rappaport also founded NYU WIRELESS, a multidisciplinary research center focusing on wireless communications and applications.

Still, these debates about whether there are health concerns persist – and lawmakers and elected officials have taken notice. A small town north of San Francisco recently blocked deployment of small cell towers over community health concerns. And earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Thomas Suozzi, who represents parts of Long Island and Queens, wrote a letter on the subject to Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radiofrequency devices. Suozzi notified Pai that his constituents had concerns about the health effects of radiofrequency radiation, and about the fact that the FCC’s limits for safe radiofrequency radiation exposure are higher than in other countries. U.S. Reps. Andy Kim and Peter Defazio also wrote similar letters.

Suozzi and other elected officials are acting in part on behalf of activists like Debbie Torinese Persampire, a woman who lives in the town of Huntington on Long Island, and the founder of one of the advocacy groups challenging the buildout of 5G networks, Citizens for 5G Awareness. Persampire said she founded the group about two years ago, when she saw a small cell tower go up about five feet away from her backyard fence and began researching what it was. “I have young children, and I wanted to know whether or not it was still safe to continue living in this home with this antennae, this small cell antennae right outside,” she said. Since then, Persampire has taken on the fight against 5G full-time, and her group has over 1,300 members on Facebook.

But why, if experts say there’s no reason to fear that radiofrequency will cause cancer in humans, are groups like Citizens for 5G Awareness getting the attention of lawmakers? Some argue it’s because the body of research is lacking. While it’s true that high-quality studies haven’t found clear evidence of an increased risk of cancer from cellphone use in humans, the methods of most studies are not ideal, in part because it’s hard to measure long-term effects of radiofrequency radiation when our use of cellphones is still relatively new and constantly evolving. A review of medical studies on cellphone radiation in Vox found that there’s not enough high-quality evidence to make a definitive determination. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, told Vox that any position can be argued based on the current science because there’s not enough evidence. The Vox review also found that there is little data about other health effects of cellphone use, and no conclusions about what steady exposure does to kids – which is what Persampire and other advocates speak about most.

But the studies touted by the other side have limitations as well. One of the studies that anti-5G advocates point to as proof of health risk was conducted by the National Toxicology Program at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whose results were published last year. The study found that high exposure to radiofrequency radiation from cellphones was linked to some negative health effects in male rats, including clear evidence of heart tumors, some evidence of brain tumors and some evidence of tumors in adrenal glands. While the results from the reputable study are significant, experts warn that they’re not directly applicable to humans. For one, the rats in the study received nine hours of exposure to radiofrequency radiation – at higher energy levels than 4G and 5G emits – per day over their entire bodies, which is quite different to how humans use cellphones.

Another subject of criticism that has been raised – and not just by activists – is the fact that the FCC’s guidelines for safe radiofrequency radiation exposure have not been updated since 1996. Suozzi, Kim and Defazio raised this concern in their letters to the FCC, while a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommends that the FCC reassess its current exposure and testing requirements. In his response to letters from lawmakers, Pai noted that the FCC has been in that process since 2013, reviewing its current rules and soliciting expert comment to determine whether the current regulations should be changed.

“5G has the ability to transform our nation, and we must be sure that all relevant stakeholders have a say in the implementation process,” Suozzi said in an emailed statement. “The FCC has circumvented the authority of local governments in its rulemaking process and I would urge them and all the relevant health agencies to work with members of Congress and local governments to address the concerns of constituents around the country.”

So while those raging against the forthcoming 5G buildout are getting support from some lawmakers, it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to stop the next generation of wireless. Still, with a handful of lawmakers taking on the issue, and hesitation within local governments like Syracuse, groups like Citizens for 5G Awareness will likely continue to be a vocal faction. “The harder we push, I feel like the harder they push back,” Persampire said.

At a 5G conference hosted by Verizon and City & State in April, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said that her office has received dozens of phone calls about health concerns. “The scientists say it’s not an issue, but then you’ll see some scientists who say it is. I don’t know,” Brewer said.

New York City has not yet deployed pilots of 5G as other cities have, but it’s not far away. “While regulation of 5G radio frequency rests with the Federal Communications Commission, we are taking a thoughtful approach to prepare for its implementation in New York City,” said Robin Levine, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

Greg Loh, chief policy officer for the city of Syracuse, said cities should follow the FCC’s lead, adding that Syracuse is taking extra precautions. “While Syracuse did enter into an agreement with Verizon Wireless, the Federal Communications Commission had already established the ability for wireless carriers to provide this service in Syracuse and in other cities around the country,” Loh wrote over email. “Our agreement with Verizon Wireless actually requires a higher standard of testing of small wireless facilities than would be available without the agreement. New technologies always have some unknowns, but it was our belief that any agreement needed to have controls in place to mitigate even potential risks.” The city of Syracuse will be able to test any facilities to ensure levels are below the FCC limit or require Verizon to do so, and would shut off any that are found non-compliant.

And while future research may support or disprove some of the fears, New Yorkers probably have bigger things to worry about in the meantime. “People need to be more worried about putting on sunscreen and getting too many x-rays and taking too many flights above 10,000 feet, than they need to be worried about 5G cellular,” Rappaport said.

Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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