Portlanders React to New Stance on Cell Phone Use

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City residents opposed to having cell phone poles installed in residential areas hope the new position by the World Health Organization will help their cause

By: Amanda Waldroupe
July 27, 2011–Portland residents opposing the installation of cell towers in their neighborhoods think the World Health Organization’s recent announcement that cell phone use and cell towers can cause brain cancer will help their advocacy efforts.
“We’re of course encouraged,” said Anne Trudeau, one of the founders of RespectPDX, a grassroots coalition of Portland residents opposed to cell pole construction. “It corroborates what many people in the community have been saying.”

The World Health Organization (WHO), the branch of the United Nations dealing with public health, announced in May that increased cell phone use and the radiation emitted by cell phones may be possibly carcinogenic and increase the risk of brain cancer. By 2012, WHO will conduct a formal risk assessment of all studied health effects from such exposure.

Previously its position was that there was no conclusive evidence showing wireless devices cause adverse health effects. Many other organizations, including the National Cancer Institute, found that people using cell phones were at no higher risk of having brain, head or neck tumors.

Numerous Portlanders and neighborhood associations oppose the construction of poles with “wireless facilities,” the equipment and antennas needed to transmit cell phone signals, in their neighborhoods for health and livability reasons.
Wireless signals are sent by radiofrequencies, which emit non-ionizing radiation, a low form of radiation. Trudeau and others think the radiation can cause headaches, anxiety, insomnia and, potentially, cancer.

Residents have forcefully opposed pole construction for the last two years. The Irvington neighborhood used its status as a historic district to stop a pole from being installed on NE 22nd and NE Stanton. The Beaumont-Wilshire, Woodstock, and Eastmoreland neighborhoods have also strenuously opposed the poles.

But aside from advocacy, they’ve been unable to do much. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prevents local and state governments from citing health and environmental factors in the placement of cell phone towers, transmitters and other wireless devices.

In 2009, Portland passed a resolution pushed by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz asking the federal government to refresh its studies on the health effects of wireless facilities. Such studies haven’t been updated since the mid-1990s.
“Congress has done nothing about it,” Fritz said.
Fritz said the city of Portland could sue the federal government or individual wireless companies, but she thinks that’s futile. “I’m not going to waste the city’s money on something we know we’re going to lose.”

Senate Bill 679, introduced in the Legislature by Sen. Chip Shields (D-Portland), would have required a warning label, including information about possible health and biological effects, be put on cell phones. The bill, which came under attack from the telecommunications lobby and the Portland Business Alliance, died.

Trudeau says RespectPDX is now focusing its efforts on strengthening Portland’s ordinance and ensuring that cell poles aren’t built in residential areas. But until the Telecommunications Act is changed to allow health concerns to inform construction decisions, Trudeau thinks “it doesn’t have that much effect.”
“Eventually, federal, state and local laws and ordinances will be pressured to ‘come around’ and let the health impact issues drive, at least in part, our policies about placement,” believes Susan Prows, an Irvington resident. “The WHO stance will help us eventually reach a tipping point on this, I hope.”

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