Trunk Lines

Should we be worried about the aesthetic and health effects of cell-phone towers and wireless technology?

| December 12, 2001

Local officials say the recent city/county measure approving the possibility of cell towers on parkland merely adds protective provisions to an existing ordinance. But some park supporters and neighborhood organizations say they are violating the public trust for profit.

"Most people think parks ... should be a commerce-free zone," says Don Richardson, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter. "I think that it's improper for the city council to launch a sneak attack on parks for commercial gain."

Voicing concerns similar to those of the 30 protesters at city hall on the day the ordinance was passed, Richardson says he has received dozens of phone calls from citizens concerned about the aesthetics of the towers. Towers typically reach 40 feet above the treeline, and opponents also cite the possibility of adverse health effects associated with cell technology.

Skyrocketing from 6.4 million to 118.4 million users in just a decade, the wireless technology of cell phones and laptop computers is now an integral part of American business and communication. And in an effort to provide service, more and more towers are popping up around the country.

Russell Blumenthal, a partner of the cell-tower company Tower Ventures, says that while most of Memphis is covered, additional towers may have to be built in some areas to meet increasing demand. Blumenthal says one of his company's towers can host up to eight cell carriers simultaneously. Such technology can help prevent situations like the one at Summer and I-240, where three towers mar the skyline.

One of two industry representatives on the three-person committee responsible for writing the cell-tower ordinance, Blumenthal is in favor of cell towers in public spaces, including parks.

"It's a great thing for the city," he says. "The suburbs have been doing this for years. When we build on city property, the money goes into the city coffers and as landlord the city gets to decide on how [the tower] looks and where it goes."

The city of Germantown is pleased with the approximately 30 towers located on public property, says Forrest Owens, a city park official. Germantown receives $21,000 per year and a city ordinance mandates towers be less than 100 feet tall and forbids multiple towers in one area. The biggest problem, Owens says, isn't the towers themselves but the 500-square-foot fenced compound at the base.

According to Richardson, Memphis has other options besides using parkland. He says there is transfer technology that can use pre-existing utility poles, but city officials don't want Memphis Light, Gas, and Water receiving revenue that could go to the city. Richardson also contends that the city's eagerness to enter the cell-tower business could also saddle it with outdated technology.

James Vaughan, manager of industry operations for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, says the future of wireless is digital technology, which can operate with shorter, less obtrusive antennas. "These new antennas," Vaughan says, "can be installed on the side of a building. They're stealthier."

Vaughan says the third generation of wireless technology will make the Internet available anywhere by laptop or PalmPilot. But while the new antennas will be less invasive, he says they won't necessarily replace the older equipment. Until low-impact technology is the standard, however, providers will continue to place their towers wherever they are allowed.

In the River Oaks neighborhood of East Memphis, Hazel Lewis and her neighbors narrowly avoided having the city's first cell tower in a residential area. One of her neighbors cut a deal with a tower provider, but residents organized and rallied in opposition to the agreement. In response to their complaints, the city placed the tower on municipal property outside the neighborhood.

Lewis says she believes cell towers should be banned from residential neighborhoods for health concerns, aesthetics, and the loss of property values.

One researcher has said that cell technology is history's biggest biological experiment. And some governing bodies are beginning to look deeper into claims of health problems associated with cell technology. California, Palm Beach, Florida, and New Zealand have banned cell-phone towers near schools. Italy and Switzerland have recently slashed permitted emission levels.

The Federal Drug Administration and the cell-phone industry claim cell phones and cell-phone towers are safe, but researcher George Carlo disagrees. He has spent six years and millions of dollars researching the issue and has broken ranks with the industry by saying cell phones may not be safe.

"The wireless industry has not taken steps to protect consumers," he wrote to the FDA. His report cited higher brain-cancer rates, tumors of the auditory nerve, and genetic damage among cell-phone users. Cell-phone critics also point to a study that found a two- to four-fold increase in lymphoma in mice exposed to cell-phone-type radiation.

Even if you believe your government and the cell-phone industry, you also have to discount the instincts of trial lawyers, who smell blood in the water. Attorney Peter Angelos, who has won billions from the asbestos and tobacco industries, recently filed a multimillion dollar class-action lawsuit against cell-phone providers. He claims he wouldn't have taken the case unless he thought there was a 90 percent chance of winning.

Can cell-phone technology lead to long-term health problems? Are we experimenting with our health by using wireless technology? Depends on whom you want to believe. The bottom line: It's your call.

You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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