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Cell phone towers make waves

Flickr photo by Nguyen-Anh Le. http://www.flickr.com/photos/discopalace/853965582/

As many San Franciscans know, dropped calls are such a common problem with cell phones that in 2002, Verizon Wireless launched a commercial empire based on that now-famous tagline:

COMMERCIAL: Can you hear me now? Good … Can you hear me now? Good. ANNOUNCER: How do you build America’s largest wireless network? By never being satisfied.

Well, the announcer is partly right – you can actually build any network in America with cell phone towers. In fact, there are already over 150,000 cell phone towers all over the U.S.

The Verizon guy is an actor representing one of Verizon’s “test men,” real people who go out and test the network’s strength all over the country, pretty much just like in the commercial, to see where more cell phone towers are needed. And with cell phone usage increasing, the market is growing.

Well, KALW’s Laura Klivans went out on one of these test runs in the city to see whether more is really better.

LAURA KLIVANS: A large white SUV is parked near the corner of Masonic and Golden Gate just north of the Panhandle. It’s pretty nondescript, except for the fact that it’s immaculate, and…

ERIC STONE: We have a number of antennas that are on top, which are antennas for testing our voice modules. I’m a baseline technician, working for Verizon Wireless. The “Test Man” as you say.

That means technician Eric Stone spends his days on the job driving around the Bay Area, collecting…

STONE: … data and voice calls through our network and our competitor’s network as well. KLIVANS: So you’re literally that guy who’s – almost like that guy who’s in the Verizon commercials? STONE: I’m that guy except for the jacket and the glasses. And the hair. [laughter]

Yeah, Stone’s more like one of those support people behind the “Verizon Guy” – and there are more and more guys like Stone all the time. A recent government study found that a quarter of U.S. households rely only on cell phones.

MICHELLE ISERI: People are moving indoors a lot and using their phones indoors … And so now you have to penetrate into people’s homes.

Michelle Iseri works on system performance for Verizon.

ISERI: As you bring on more and more subscribers to the network, you have to make sure that you add the appropriate capacity in the network. And we at Verizon are doing that.

And here’s how they’re doing it.

ISERI: There’ll be a pole. More like a PG&E pole or a light pole. And there’ll be actually antennas on that pole. And we actually have those in San Francisco in lots of different places in San Francisco. So the big huge cell towers we’re used to seeing – you can’t build those in the city of San Francisco. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you might not even know that there’s a cell site there.

But there is a cell site there, receiving and transmitting radio frequency radiation. And that invisible activity is exactly what’s bothering San Francisco’s Hilary Passman Cherniss.

HILARY PASSMAN CHERNISS: We are standing at the corner of Lawton and La Playa. And we are looking at a utility pole that has about a 10-foot extension on the top of it with a brown, it looks like a really big Coke can, and along the utility pole are three brown boxes that comprise the cell phone antennae or cell phone tower … We just, another parent of the pre-school noticed it, right, a couple days before Thanksgiving is when they put ‘em in, I think. KLIVANS: Did they tell you guys they were going to put them in? PASSMAN CHERNISS: Nope, no public hearing is required in San Francisco to put up a cell phone tower. They didn’t tell anybody, except the city ... This particular cell phone antenna belongs to T-mobile and the pole is owned by PG&E.

Passman Cherniss is standing across the street from the Sunset Cooperative Nursery School near Ocean Beach.

PASSMAN CHERNISS: I have two kids that go to school here right now, so I don’t want them to be directly under a low-frequency emitting radiation source for four hours a day…

Passman Cherniss was worried, so she did some research. And though she couldn’t find anything conclusive, what she did find got her angry.

PASSMAN CHERNISS: There are tenuous links to cancer, tenuous links to autism. There are health impacts from being next to low frequency radiation that is on all day, and our kids are at school all day long being subject to the radiation.

While some research links cell phone radiation to cancer, most studies don’t get that far. Investigations in this new field are just that – new. And incomplete. Last spring, a World Health Organization study came up with mixed results and called for more research.

Still, Passman Cherniss thinks ignoring what could be a potential health hazard is reckless.

PASSMAN CHERNISS: I’m hoping that this one comes down. I don’t think it’s safe to have this right near the pre-school. And as you know, we can’t contest it on grounds of safety because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. DOUG LORANGER: Under the federal law which was passed in 1996, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, local governments are not permitted to consider the health impacts when deciding where or where not to allow cell towers to be placed.

Doug Loranger is the co-founder of two organizations that focus on the impact of wireless technologies. He tries to persuade local lawmakers to regulate cell phone antenna placement.

LORANGER: Ones that people tend to be most concerned about are the ones dealing with the radio frequency radiation, or the microwave radiation to be more accurate, that cell towers use to communicate with people’s cell phones and Blackberries and other people’s wireless devices. There's no debate that at high enough levels, radiofrequency microwave radiation can cause health effects.

There are warning signs on those utility pole-placed cell phone antennas, telling technicians to avoid close contact. But there’s nothing warning residents of any potential danger – because nothing is proven.

Still some municipalities are trying to go further. The City of Berkeley passed an ordinance in 2009 in an attempt to regulate the distribution of cell phone antennas. Because of federal protections, that’s shaky ground. Just a year earlier, the city settled a federal lawsuit with Verizon over its antenna approval process.

Doug Loranger says if cities can’t legally control where the antennas are going up, cell phone companies should at least give local residents a voice in that process.

LORANGER: Since there’s uncertainty involved in the long and short term about the health impacts, we should be erring on the side of caution and not putting cell towers next to elementary schools, for example – not next to hospitals, not next to residences where people are living near these things 24/7.

But that might not be so realistic in a time when people are becoming increasingly dependent on their phones – a trend keeping Verizon’s system performance specialist Michelle Iseri very busy.

ISERI: People are starting to use their devices differently so people are using their smart phones as if they’re small computers. So that increases their usage and that increases their capacity so we are definitely forecasting and keeping up with that capacity. We are building capacity into our network as we speak.

While that’s improving our current convenience, it’s also making us the subjects of one very comprehensive, and potentially precarious, public health experiment.

In San Francisco, I’m Laura Klivans for Crosscurrents.

This story originally aired on August 30, 2010.