Throughout civilization, people have made laws to strengthen our abilities to survive and co-exist. Rules can increase awareness of potential harms and limit them. While nobody likes being told what to do, society depends on sane rules—like children looking both ways before crossing a street.
Historically, rules protected health and nature
Throughout history, rules and regulations have aimed to protect lives, health and the environment.
Hammurabi’s Code (1770 B.C.) created liability: if a bridge collapses and injures or kills a person, the builder is responsible. The Hippocratic Oath directs physicians to “First, do no harm”. The Commandments spell out ten simple rules, including rest every seven days.
Professional Engineering statutes developed about a century ago require builders of infrastructure (bridges, buildings, power lines, telecommunications, etc.) to evaluate each project with due diligence and certify its safety before using it.
Federal regulations requiring seat belts dramatically decrease the death rate from automobile accidents; others prevent household appliances from causing electrical shocks, short-circuits and fires; yet others prevent or minimize workers’ injuries. The National Environmental Protection Act requires environmental impact studies before drilling for oil or deploying telecom infrastructure.
Contemporary regulations protect technology
Increasingly, rules’ emphasis has shifted from protecting the environment and public health to protecting technology.
In 1934, when the U.S. Congress established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency encouraged inventors to market electronics as long as they don't create “harmful interference"—anything that interferes with the existing radio or TV broadcasts or cell phone or Internet services. At the FCC, “harmful interference” has never included harm to health or the environment (caused by radiation-emitting electronics or infrastructure).
Call this exclusion of nature.
Section 704 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act prohibits state and local governments “from restricting or influencing the siting of wireless antennas and towers based on environmental grounds.” In other words, no health or environmental concern may interfere with the placement of a (radiation-emitting) cell tower.
Call this law a great win for telecom corporations, and a complete disregard of ecosystems and public health.
In 2013, the FCC reclassified our ears’ outer parts (the pinnae) as extremities, the same as hands and feet. (Until 2013, FCC considered the pinnae parts of the head.) According to FCC, extremities can safely absorb nearly four times as much radiation as the head and the trunk1.
I don’t know what to call this. Like plants, birds, insects and other animals, we humans function by electro-chemical signals. Even at rest, our cells have measurable voltage. Reclassifying our ears as extremities does not change the fact that exposure to electromagnetic radiation (EMR) can impair living creatures. Any person who aims to limit their EMR exposure is woefully on their own.
Public health impacts of EMR exposure
In studying the impacts of EMR exposure, some scientists consider only the immediate, thermal (heating) effects on tissue.
Others study EMR-exposure’s non-thermal effects. They ask: “What are the consequences of EMR exposure for infants in utero, children with developing brains, anyone working or sleeping near a router, cell tower or transmitting “smart” utility meter and using a cell phone or a laptop? What are the consequences of using a mobile device for more than 30 minutes per day?”
Peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that EMR exposure’s non-thermal effects include DNA damage2, increased risk of brain tumors3, sperm damage4, miscarriage5, behavioral problems in children exposed to cell phone radiation in utero6, autism7, breast cancer8, increased risk of thyroid cancer9, vision problems and much more.
Underwriters like A.M. Best and Lloyds of London advise insurance companies not to insure against damages to health caused by wireless devices. Swiss RE has rated exposure to man-made electromagnetic fields higher than any other emerging risk, including fracking, GMOs and the re-emergence of asbestos.
EMR exposure’s impacts on wildlife
EMR exposure (from cell towers) also potentially impacts wildlife. It can lead to the decline of animal populations, reduction of some species’ useful territory, reduction of natural defenses, reproduction problems and aversive behavior10.
When pesticides, harsh winters or the Varroa mite cause bee colony collapse, we see sick or dead bees. With colony collapse, bees simply disappear, signalling a navigational problem. Studies show that radiofrequency radiation disrupt bees’ navigational ability11.
But the FCC does not recognize non-thermal effects of EMR-exposure—such as disruption to navigation—as harmful interference.
Modernizing the Hippocratic Oath
The Precautionary Principle modernized “First, do no harm”. Developed in 1998 by scientists, farmers and breast cancer action groups, it advocates for preventive action in the face of uncertainty—like not using a pesticide, or not giving a child a laptop—when there’s a reasonable suspicion of the product’s dangers. A guideline in environmental decision making, the Precautionary Principle also advocates for shifting the burden of proof to an activity’s proponents, exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions, and increasing public participation in decision making.
We’ve developed technologies without the Precautionary Principle for decades. Many people believe that telecommunications are “necessary.” Now, how/could we apply the Precautionary Principle?
Immediate next steps
To prioritize protections for nature and public health over telecommunications and corporate profits, we’ll need to revise our thinking—and our laws. To slow or prevent deployment of new infrastructure, including 5G (fifth generation of mobile networks, with cellular antennas deployed every three to ten houses), we probably don’t have time for new laws. We’ll need to depend on existing ones. Revisit Letter #9 which recommends requiring signage to protect workers at antenna sites and enforcing professional engineering statutes that require certifying antennas’ safety from fire, collapse and other hazards before deploying new infrastructure.
For long-term protection of U.S. public health and wildlife, the following legal actions apply; other countries will likely need similar regulations12.
- Amend the Telecommunications Act’s Section 704 to allow local governments to determine their own setback policy on telecom equipment.
- Mandate a clearly stated federal law that FCC standards do not preempt the ability of injured citizens to go to court and recover damages caused by the trespass of electromagnetic radiation into their bodies.
- Mandate The Cell Phone Right to Know Act. Proposed by Representative Dennis Kucinich in 2012, HR 6358 is still worthwhile: require telecom companies to allow epidemiologists access to cell phone users’ records for health research, give the EPA authority to determine biological safety standards on cell phones, and require specific absorption rate (SAR) labelling on mobile devices.
- Include biological harm in the FCC’s definition of harmful interference: “Acute, chronic or prolonged exposure to radiofrequency signals and emissions that endangers, degrades, obstructs or repeatedly interrupts biological functioning of a person, plant, animal or ecosystem, or that results in adverse health effects from malfunctioning of medical devices."
- Mandate third-party testing of SARs and warning labels on all electronic devices that picture how far radiation penetrates the head when the device is near it and state: “This device emits electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may cause cancer and other diseases. Users, especially children and pregnant women should keep this device away from the head and body.”
- Enforce National Environmental Policy Act requirements of environmental assessment before deploying new telecom infrastructure near sensitive habitats.
To create cultural change
Given our society’s ubiquitous deployment of telecommunications, what is within anyone’s control? What is beyond control? How can anyone impose limits on EMR exposure and telecommunications use?
I don’t get easy answers to these questions. I have learned that cultural change happens—and spreads—by meeting in groups of seven. (Think of civil rights and women’s movements.) And so my prayer is for each of us to have friends with whom we can discuss questions related to nature and technology—and strengthen our movement toward respecting our own health and wildlife health.
1 O.P. Gandhi et al, “Electromagnetic absorption in the human head and neck for mobile telephones at 835 and 1,900 MHz,” IEEE, Transactions on Microwave Theory and Techniques, vol. 44 (1996): 1,884-1,892; J. Wiart et al, “Analysis of RF exposure in the head tissues of children and adults,” Physics in Medicine and Biology, vol. 53 (2008): 3681-3695.
2 NIH/National Toxicology Program cell phone radiation study.
4 Adams, Jessica A., Tamara S. Galloway, et al., “Effect of mobile telephones on sperm quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” Environment International 70 (2014): 106–112.
5 “EMFs and Miscarriages: The Evidence Mounts,” Microwave News, December 18, 2017.
6 Divan, H., et al., “Prenatal and postnatal exposure to cell phone use and behavioral problems in children,” Epidemiology 19 (4)(2008).
7 Herbert, Martha, and Cindy Sage, “Autism and EMF? Plausibility of a pathophysiological link part I,” Pathophysiology 20 (3)(2013); Martha Herbert and Cindy Sage, “Autism and EMF? Plausibility of a pathophysiological link part II,” Pathophysiology 20(3)(2013).
8 Davis, Devra Lee, PhD, MPH, Cell Phone Radiation and Breast Cancer—A Review of the Evidence, Environmental Health Trust, 2015. Exp Ther Med. Ya-Wen Shih, Anthony P. O’Brien, et al, Exposure to radiofrequency radiation increases the risk of breast cancer: A systemiatic review and meta-analysis, Spandididos, 11. 9.20.
9 Incidence of thyroid cancer has nearly tripled over the last three decades, likely because of environmental factors including wireless phone use; Carlberg et al, 2020 shows a steep increase in thyroid cancer in Nordic countries.
10 Balmori, A., “Electromagnetic pollution from phone masts: Effects on wildlife,” Pathophysiology, (2009).
11 Thill, Alain, “Biological effects of electromagnetic fields on insects,” Unwelt Medizin Gesellschaft; 33 1 3/2020. In studies a review of 83 studies of EMR’s effects on insects, 72 show negative effects.
12 For more studies about EMR’s biological effects, visit www.BioInitiative.org, www.saferemr.com and www.ehtrust.org. For more info about telecom law, see B. Blake Levitt’s Cell Towers: Wireless Convenience? or Environmental Hazard? (New Century, 2000) and Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves (Harvest, 1995); see also my book, An Electronic Silent Spring, (Steiner, 2014) and www.ElectronicSilentSpring.com.