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Residents Move to Block Pac Bell Antennas
By Denise Minor
Neighbors of the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez St. have launched a formidable battle to stop Pacific Bell Mobile Services from installing cellular phone transmitters in the church steeple.
"I just don't know that enough research has been done on the effects of these transmissions. They could be dangerous for the kids," said Steve Coleman of 159 Vicksburg St., the father of a newborn.
Coleman was one of 30 neighbors who signed a petition in mid-September asking the Ministry to deny Pac Bell's request to lease space on the roof for its mobile communications equipment. The 111-year-old church and community center is located at 23rd and Sanchez streets.
Accompanying the petition was a packet of news articles taken from the Internet that raised questions about the health risks, particularly cancer, posed by electromagnetic radiation. (Pac Bell wants to install a transceiver box and three antennas in the steeple, to pick up and relay signals from its PCS wireless phones. The equipment would emit non-ionizing radiation, the same type as that coming from TVs, microwave ovens, and clock radios.)
"I know that the Ministry would be paid for this, and they're $60,000 in debt," continued Coleman. "But I'm amazed that a church would consider putting something like this in."
Pastor Joan Huff said she heard the neighbors' protests loud and clear at two informational meetings held by Pac Bell, one in August and another in September.
Huff has also received a load of information from the city's Health Department and scientists hired by Pac Bell. They claim that the emissions from the transmitter would be less than .02 percent of the federally allowable limit for radio frequency (RF) radiation.
At that level, there are no identifiable health risks, said Richard Lee, the Health Department's top industrial hygienist and the man in charge of reviewing all cell site applications in San Francisco.
"The FCC [Federal Communications Commission] set standards it feels are safe. Local communities cannot impose stricter standards than those set by the FCC. That was mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996," he said.
Lee said his department studied the FCC guidelines for two years and implemented the strictest regulations of any jurisdiction in the state. "We are constantly monitoring emissions," said Lee, noting that he personally spotchecks many of the 120 existing antenna sites around the city.
"I can tell you this about Pac Bell," he continued. "Their transmitters are not even hazardous if you touch them." Other cell phone antennas, like those of Pagenet and GTE, currently have higher emissions, he said.
But there appears to be disagreement among scientists on the danger of these emissions. Cincinnati biophysicist W. Gregory Lotz told the Cincinnati Enquirer in August that he believes cellular phone towers should not be built close to schools or other places where children gather. Lotz is chief of physical agents at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
"To err on the side of caution, you would not put them on school grounds," Lotz is quoted as saying. "I can't assure [parents] we aren't going to find something 10 years from now that we don't know now. It's a matter of making a decision on limited research and scientific information."
This sort of statement is disturbing to parents such as Lisa Jaicks, who lives on the corner of Elizabeth and Sanchez streets with her partner and preschool son. In January the youngster will likely attend the Noe Valley Nursery School housed at the Ministry.
"I feel very strongly that I don't want our son to be experimented upon," said Jaicks. "Our home is close to the church, he will be there mornings for school, and we go to Shabbat services there every other Friday. I don't want to take any chances that this could be harmful."
Nursery school parents in mid-September voted 12 to 5 against installation of the transmitter at the church.
Neighbors were also concerned about an article published in May in the journal Radiation Research. The story was about a group of Australian scientists who had found that cancer-prone mice exposed to radiation similar to that from cellular telephones developed twice as many cancers as mice in a control group of unexposed cancer-prone mice.
Another study, this one done by Drs. Henry Lai and Narendra Singh at the University of Washington, Seattle, found DNA breaks in the brain cells of animals exposed to emissions similar to those from cellular phones. DNA breaks can lead to cancer and other health problems if the body is not able to repair them, according to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
Dr. Jerold Bushberg, director of health physics at U.C. Davis Medical Center, said he was familiar with the Australian studies and found them flawed. Bushberg is under contract with Pac Bell to help promote antenna installation.
"First of all, these mice were genetically altered to be much more susceptible to cancer than normal mice. Secondly, they were submitted to radiation hundreds of thousands of times the level of what the industry considers acceptable," said Bushberg.
Many things that are harmful to mice are not necessarily harmful to humans, he added. In this study, the scientists isolated the Pim-1 gene, which is not a gene found in human beings. "I have no idea why they used the Pim-1 gene in this study and not the P-53 gene, which is found in both mice and humans," said Bushberg.
He also noted that even the high radiation reportedly used in the study was not a true indicator of the level of radiation the mice were receiving because they were kept in a room with an aluminum-like covering that caused spectral reflection, said Bushberg. Also, the radiation was measured by a human with a hand-held probe. Humans absorb a considerable amount of radiation, he said.
"The point is," he continued, "you can find individual scientists with some expertise holding a wide variety of opinions on any issue. But it takes groups of scientists with real expertise in an area to set safety standards."
As for Lotz of Cincinnati, Bushberg said that he doubted Lotz was much of an expert. "I bet he has never done work with transgenetically altered mice."
But to many neighbors of the Ministry, the fact that a study has found that transmissions from cellular telephones can cause biological alterations of any kind is cause for concern.
"There appears to be a clear consensus among knowledgeable persons that the safety of cellular telephone emissions remains an open question, one which requires more research immediately," wrote 23rd Street resident Michael Rugen in a letter to Reverend Huff on behalf of the neighbors. "Until that research is completed, we believe it is inappropriate for any of us to subject our neighbors against their will to high dosages of cellular [phone] emissions," wrote Rugen.
Judy Irving of 394 Elizabeth St. thinks people should be wary of scientists who try to convince them that this form of radiation is safe, despite some studies that indicate otherwise. "People have a healthy skepticism after DDT, Thalidomide, and all the other things scientists told us were safe but turned out to be deadly," said Irving.
Bushberg defended his profession. "Of the hundreds of thousands of recommendations made by scientists on health and safety issues, the vast majority have withstood the test of time. The vast majority have served society well," he said.
"But at the end of the day, everyone has to make their own decision. They have to listen to whomever they trust," said Bushberg.
Pastor Huff said she and the Ministry's six elders would evaluate information from both sides and reach a decision at their Sept. 30 meeting. If they decide to accept Pac Bell's proposal, the issue will go to the City Planning Commission for hearings.
Update: No Antennas in Noe Valley
Since cell phone antennas are such hot potatoes these days, the Voice tried to dig up the exact number and location of sites in Noe Valley and surrounding neighborhoods.
According to a list compiled last February, there are 119 cell phone antenna sites within the city limits of San Francisco, but none in Noe Valley proper. "We haven't been having a lot of success getting these into Noe Valley," said Kelly Pepper of the Planning Department.
After poring over the list -- which is organized alphabetically, not geographically -- the Voice determined that the closest sites to Noe Valley were a Cellular One site at 2601 Mission St. (near 22nd); a Sprint site at 3555 Cesar Chavez (near South Van Ness); and a Pac Bel site at 1045 Capp St. (near 25th Street).
Pac Bel also has an antenna in the Castro at 2324 Market St. (near Noe). The communications company Nextel has one above 16th and Mission at 3000 16th St.
Residents should note that Sprint withdrew its plan to put a transmitter atop the Hoffman Fire Station, following a public outcry last spring.