Western Loudouners have pushed to bring better broadband connectivity and cellular coverage to the rural area for years, but some fear that accessibility might come with a health-related price.
Last May, Verizon requested the Town of Lovettsville allow it to install six antennas atop the town water tower in the New Town Meadows neighborhood. According to Verizon’s request, the proposed installation is a response to cellular coverage concerns and increasing demand for streaming and data usage. Verizon noted that without the antennas, its customers in the area would have inconsistent internet access and unreliable voice communications.
Although Verizon isn’t requesting to install 5G antennas—which emithigher levels of radio frequency radiation and, nationally, have raised concerns about cancer risks and other adverse health effects—residents have voiced similar health concerns about the proposed antennas.
That’s because they would accompany antennas on the tower that already emit radio frequency radiation and—some claim—have been affecting the health of residents for years.
Marsha Lessard, who lives 100 feet from the water tower, said the emissions from the existing AT&T and Sprint antennas affect her husband, who received a brain injury while on a military tour in Afghanistan, and her son, who was diagnosed with autism and frequently undergoes brain wave therapy.
Lessard said that when she and her family moved in four years ago, there was one antenna on the tower—one that faced the opposite direction of their house. Now, the tower is completely wrapped in them. Lessard believes the emissions from those antennas cause or intensify her husband’s tinnitus and lethargy.
She said the emissions also negatively interact with her son’s health. She said that while her son typically responds well to brain wave therapy, he hasn’t done as well since they moved to Lovettsville, which is why they’re moving away this year.
“This is the sole reason why we are moving,” she said, noting that several other neighbors are also concerned about radio frequency radiation causing health issues.
Lessard backs her concerns up with studies and news of similar incidents.One of those is a 2004 study performed by the National Association of Fire Fighters, which found thatradio frequency radiation exposure causedneurological problems forsix California fire fighters working and sleeping in stations with cell towers.Lessard also pointed to an April 2019 incident in which Sprint shut down a cell tower on a California elementary school property after several students developed cancer.
But the Town Council might not be able to take any of that concern into consideration when voting on Verizon’s request. That’s because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 establishes that “no state or local government … may regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the Commission’s regulations concerning such emissions.”
“It’s never a good position to be in to where you can’t help somebody because you’re legally prevented from being able to do that,” said Town Planner JoshBateman.“That’s the exact position we’re in.”
But Lessard said the Town Council doesn’t have to approve Verizon’s request. Instead, she suggested the town deny it and let the AT&T and Sprint leases expire.
“They’re not required to say yes,” she said.
Mayor Nate Fontaine said that, while the additional cellular service would benefit residents, especially in emergency situations, he and other town leaders understand the environmental and health concerns residents have. On Jan. 9, the Town Council instructed the town staff to consider performing a study on the existing, and potential future, radio frequency emissions.
That information would give the town and residents information about the level of exposure and, if those emissions turn out to be higher than what’s permitted, give the town grounds to contact the Federal Communications Commission.
Bateman said that, while he’s convinced the added antennas would not threaten residents’ health, he understands the information on radio frequency emissions won’t, and shouldn’t, dispel residents’ concerns.
According to the American Cancer Society, there is “very little evidence” to support the notion thatliving, working or going to school near a cell tower increases the risk of cancer or other health problems. The society claims thatthe energy of radio frequency waves given off by cell towers is not enough to break chemical bonds in DNA molecules and that the wavelength of radio frequencies is too long to affect individual cells in the body.
The FCC asserts that results from studies examining thepossibility of a link between radio frequency radiation exposure and cancer have been inconclusive.
According to the FCC, a human can absorb 4watts per kilogram of radio frequency radiation beforeharmful biological effects occur, or 272 watts for a person weighing 150 pounds. The commission states that while the maximum power radiated from a cell tower in any direction typically does not exceed 500 watts, that energy quickly dissipates as it moves farther away from the source.
The FCC goes on to state that an adult absorbs radio frequency energy at a maximum rate when the frequency of the radiation is between 30 and 300 megahertz. But cellular wireless radio services, like the antennas found on the Lovettsville water tower, use frequencies in the range of 824-894 megahertz. Because of those data points, the FCC claims that it is “extremely unlikely” for a person to be exposed to radio frequency levels from cell antennas.
Bearing both sides of the debate in mind, Town Manager Rob Ritter said the town staff would report on the feasibility of the radio frequency emission study to the Town Council at the Feb. 6 meeting. Fontaine said the council could vote on Verizon’s request at that point.