Stop the Tower

Back Up Next

Posted 3/27/01

Who's Looking Out for Us?

Timothy Cooper

Mr. William Reed's column ("The hour of the tower," 3/18), represents a welcome shift in tactics by the American Tower Company (ATC) --away from its vitriolic and racially divisive paid advertisements to a more civil tone befitting civil democratic discourse. Unfortunately, the new tone fails to make up for the lack of merits in their case. And while it may be too much to ask for Mr. Reed to stop lambasting Mayor Williams for his gutsy opposition to a project roundly condemned by the public, it should not be too much to ask for Mr. Reed to get his basic facts straight.

Mr. Reed claims that "the Ward 3 Neighborhood Advisory Commission (ANC)" was receptive to ATC's new plans. First of all, there is no such thing as the "Ward 3 ANC"; there are individual ANCs in each ward of the city. What Mr. Reed mistakenly referred to as an ANC is actually the Tenleytown Neighbors Association, which has absolutely no connection to our city government. Now--several years after ATC started planning construction of its ill-fated tower--it has yet to visit a real ANC, which is in part why ATC has earned the ire of the community and gotten itself into big financial trouble.

An ATC lawyer's claims that the group was "receptive" to ATC's new plans is somewhat surprising, since many of the group's members had already signed petitions against the tower and even volunteered to circulate them after I spoke to the group last January, long before ATC ever arrived.

As to whether or not, as ATC claims, the community had been misinformed about the legal issues in the case, it is ATC that surprisingly relied on a "miscodified" regulation instead of the basic DC Zoning Commission's 1989 order, which unequivocally states that the construction of antenna towers is not a matter of right and requires a "special exemption." This means ATC may be found in violation of DC zoning law, despite its claims to the contrary. If anyone should have known about the basic law of the land, it should have been ATC and its fleet of lawyers.

ATC also claims that their spec tower is vital, enabling "the entire metropolitan area to benefit from [HDTV and wireless telecommunications]. If their tower is so vital, then either Maryland or Virginia should be only too glad to have it. Tenleytown is already choked with cell towers and HDTV broadcast towers, which continue to serve "the entire metropolitan area." Indeed, every major TV station broadcasting from Tenleytown has HDTV capabilities in place. So what's new here? ATC's tower and its so-called "cutting-edge" technology is as redundant as heavy watering after a long rain.

And while ATC may have 15,000 towers scattered across the country (all the more reason it should have known about DC's basic law on antennas), we would be most curious to know how many of those 15,000 towers are located inches from a pedestrian sidewalk, local businesses, and major secondary and primary arteries. As for falling ice, one has only to inquire of WRC-TV, WTTG-TV, and the 4th District police station which houses the District's tower to learn of the horror stories of sheeting ice shattering car windshields parked below. The inevitably of casualty to human life from ATC's proposed tower is self-evident.

Lou Vitale--a national expert on electromagnetic radiation (EMR) -- has said ATC's proposed tower is nothing less than a monster "worth fighting." It would be the largest telecommunications tower on the East Coast, capable of holding up to 250 antennas, larger than the number of antennas sitting atop the World Trade Center. Moreover, according to Mr. Vitale, it would significantly "increase the radiative intensity" around the tower. DC already has one of the highest levels of EMR transmissions in the nation.

Remember, this tower is not being proposed for location in the middle of a Kansas cornfield. It is being placed in the heart of a residential area, near ten schools, a public library, various retirement homes and churches. By replacing three dilapidated towers of inconsequential height and replacing them with one massive tower, our community will be acquiescing to a substantial increase in the existing EMR levels. Why should this be of concern even if they are still below federal standards?

While there is still no consensus in the medical community about the possibility of harmful effects of athermal, non-ionizing radiation on DNA structure, some studies have in fact demonstrated a casual link between chronic exposure to low levels of electromagnetic radiation and DNA damage. This is the kind of radiation that is emitted from broadcast towers and cell towers. Dr. Henry Lai, a Research Professor at the Bioengineering Department of the University of Washington, among others, maintains that long-term exposure to low levels of athermal, non-ionizing radiation is as damaging to DNA as short term exposure to high levels of radiation.

And a recent survey by Sage Associates of reported biological effects from radio frequency radiation records studies that have determined that as little as 0.16 W/cm2 has adversely affected motor function, memory and attention of school children. Other studies point to changes in the immune system of individuals at levels equal to 30-50 W/cm2. These levels fall far below the current "safe" FCC standards of 200 W/cm2. Unfortunately, US standards are among the highest in the world. Switzerland, Poland, Italy, and Russia, which used athermal, non-ionizing radiation effectively during the Cold War, permit levels of only 10 W/cm2, one twentieth of our national standards. A prudent policy might be to revisit US standards in light of a new generation of studies on the matter.

Under current DC zoning law, there are no provisions to ensure EMR readings of the cumulative output of existing antennas, let alone assess the impact of future antenna farms. Worse, the FCC lacks the basic ability to even effectively monitor and enforce industry compliance. That office was closed years ago. So who's looking out for us? The answer is: Only us.

The writer is the president of the Stop the Tower Coalition

Back Up Next