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Anti-Antenna Group Still Making Waves
By Joe Franklin
A group of about 50 households within Noe Valley has banded together to form Noe Valley Families, a task force committed to keeping cell phone antennas off Noe Valley rooftops until more is known about possible adverse health effects from electromagnetic radiation.
The neighbors, mostly in the area of Sanchez and Elizabeth streets, came together informally last fall to picket the Noe Valley Ministry, which had agreed to let Cellular One and Pacific Bell Mobile Services install six antennas in the church steeple. Their loud public outcry against the antennas eventually forced the phone companies to back out of the deal in December. Since then, members of Noe Valley Families have vowed to resist any new antenna sites, despite the growing demand for wireless communication.
With no cellular antennas currently positioned in Noe Valley (the nearest one is atop St. Luke's Hospital at Cesar Chavez and Valencia streets), the group admits that phone reception in the neighborhood is spotty. Still, its members aren't willing to have clear communication at any cost.
"This issue is a spontaneously erupting grassroots one that is happening beneath the level of a lot of media coverage," said Elizabeth Street resident Christopher Beaver, chief organizer and spokesperson for Noe Valley Families. "Whether it's going to stay or go away I don't know, but I do know that we will continue to fight any phone company that intends to come into Noe Valley until we have more reliable information about the possible health effects of these antennas."
The activists are also lobbying for San Francisco to adopt a "wireless zoning plan" that would ensure the responsible placement of commercial communications equipment. "We want to limit the location of these antennas to no less than 500 meters from residences, schools, childcare centers, hospitals, and nursing homes," Beaver said.
In March, Beaver shelled out a large portion of his own cash to bring New Zealand physicist Neil Cherry to San Francisco to address the city's first "Antenna Free Zones" conference, an event organized by Noe Valley Families. At the March 21 conference, and later at a public meeting at the Metropolitan Community Church on Eureka Street, Cherry discussed his belief that "a growing body of peer-reviewed studies shows evidence of radiation-induced changes in cells and animals, relating to brain dysfunction, sleep disruption, reproductive problems, and cancers." In his view, "microwave radiation is a highly probable carcinogen."
Also present at the conference was San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano. Ammiano has introduced legislation in support of a master plan that would at a minimum keep the antennas away from schools and daycare centers. (Because children's cells multiply at a faster rate, they are thought to be at greater risk of developing disorders from exposure to cancer-causing agents.)
Ammiano said he expects to receive a draft of the legislation from the city attorney's office by early May, at which point public hearings can begin.
"It's an uphill battle because ostensibly we are preempted by the Federal Tele-communications Act from banning the antennas on the basis of possible health effects," said Ammiano. "As a result, we have to be creative, so we are attempting to regulate placement [of the antennas] by staying within the boundaries of what we actually have jurisdiction over, such as land use and zoning."
In the meantime, Ammiano has talked to investigators at the Public Health Department and asked them to review the data on whether chronic exposure to low-level radiation from cell phone antennas is unsafe. He also plans to lobby the feds for more local control in establishing standards for this kind of equipment.
As for Noe Valley Families, its members have continued to call for a moratorium on new antenna sites in San Francisco. They also have sought feedback from neighborhood groups. This spring they won the backing of one of Noe Valley's largest organizations.
At its March meeting, the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, which represents many of the shops and businesses along 24th Street, went on record as "supporting the moratorium on the placement of cellular phone antennas on roofs or inside structures designed to camouflage their appearance."
In April, Christopher Beaver and Judy Irving, a cofounder of Noe Valley Families, spoke to the residents group Friends of Noe Valley and described their research on the potential hazards of electromagnetic radiation, as well as the latest developments on nearby Sutro Tower.
Meanwhile, the cell phone companies say they are getting mixed messages from residents in the neighborhood. According to Lynn Bunim, a spokesperson for Pacific Bell Mobile Services, her company has no plans to erect antennas anywhere in Noe Valley. But the hole in coverage has caused static among customers.
"Clearly we have an obligation and a desire for our subscribers to have quality service, regardless of where they live," Bunim said. "There are people, very prom-inent people, who live in the community and who have called to complain about the quality of their service.
"It's a catch-22," she continued. "And all I can say is at this time it's impossible to have it both ways. But who knows, maybe as time goes by, other technology will present itself."