Radio pollution: tangles and hazards in Brookline

Radio pollution is both an old and a new controversy here. The old controversy began in the early twentieth century, when AM broadcasting, as we know it now, took off after invention of the vacuum tube in 1906. Between the end of World War I and the end of World War II, it was the only commercially significant radio. There was then, of course, no television and no wireless communication serving the general population. A signature of a classic comics character, Dick Tracy, was the fantasy of a “two-way wrist radio.”

Golden-age service: The so-called “golden age of radio” starting about 1910 was tarnished by interference between stations using close frequencies. Like counterparts in the newspaper business, radio entrepreneurs treated broadcasting space at first as a free good, although it was not. Brookline once found that seemingly any number of news stands could occupy a corner. Any number of radio stations cannot. They may interfere, creating buzz and static. Government regulation started during World War I.

In 1922, a few AM stations were granted “clear channel” rights–prime use of a frequency at high power. WBZ of Boston at 1.03 MHz and WTIC of Hartford at 1.08 MHz are the only ones in New England. WTIC shares rights to its frequency. WBZ, however, broadcasts 24 hours every day at 50 kW from Brighton, with exclusive North American rights to appear at AM 1030. Initially broadcasting from Springfield, MA–the first commercially licensed U.S. radio station–WBZ can be tuned in nationwide, thousands of miles away.

Short-range services: At ultra-high frequencies (UHF) used during World War II for military radar and afterward for satellite, digital cellular and close-range services–around 1 GHz (1,000 MHz) and higher–earthbound transmission ranges are less than 100 miles, sometimes less than 100 feet. Signal energy is readily absorbed by soil, trees, buildings and body tissue. Signals do not travel far inside most buildings. That is why we cannot use GPS satellite location-finding indoors, except perhaps at a window.

At the low end of UHF, Verizon mounted its so-called “4G” cellular service on an LTE model, using carriers in 0.7 GHz bands–becoming popular across North America, Europe and Australia, plus large parts of South America and east and southeast Asia, including India and Japan. Because of lower frequencies, LTE is somewhat less attenuated by buildings than most UHF. However, lower frequencies also make LTE more vulnerable to crowding; there is less bandwidth to share among users.

During the past year, Verizon began expanding “4G” service using AWS spectrum, with carriers in 2.1 GHz bands. To sustain expansion, Verizon needs to increase the density and number of its cellular stations, while reducing power and limiting ranges. Those factors tend to make Verizon cellular services environmentally more friendly but more expensive. They also help to explain why Verizon is paying high-priced lawyers, trying to persuade Brookline to allow the company zoning variances for locating cellular base stations in residential areas.

Risks and benefits: Whether that is in the best interest of Brookline residents depends partly on how it might affect environmental risks. As we gradually learned from long controversies over nuclear power, there is probably no risk-free technology. Even spinning and weaving spread dust in the air that can cause lung disease and factory explosions. Risks from UHF radio became safety and health issues during the wartime 1940s, with the development of radar. Those concerns have continued.

UHF radio energy is more strongly absorbed by materials than lower frequency signals. An easily measured effect is heat. From the 1940s through the 1980s, heat was the main widely studied and well documented hazard. During the Reagan administration, a federal agency produced what has become the reference for nearly all current “environmental assessments” produced by or for industries. [Guy, et al., 1986] That was soon reflected in a so-called “consensus” standard, ANSI C95.1, updated but not basically changed since 1992.

During and before the early 1980s, most common household exposure to UHF radio came from occasional use of increasingly popular microwave ovens. There were few radar zones or microwave transmitters, no digital cell phones or base stations and no close-range emitters such as cordless telephones, WiFi, Bluetooth and “smart” meters and appliances. Few would deny economic benefits and conveniences of the more recent technologies. However, the commonplace uses and continuous exposures occurring today were not anticipated in research conducted before the mid-1980s.

Health and safety: It is unreasonable to expect that a 1986 evaluation of risks and hazards from UHF radio would reflect today’s environment. Nevertheless, that is what cellular service companies are encouraging. So-called “environmental assessments” rehash research before the mid-1980s, ignore about three decades of more recent discoveries and conceal shortcomings through technical jargon and numbers. Findings of “no significant impact” are all but guaranteed by lax standards based on obsolete research.

More recent research on health effects of UHF radio exposure–sometimes called “microwave exposure”–starting in the early 1990s, found associations with disturbances in humans, wildlife and laboratory animals. In 2011, documented risks of brain tumors persuaded a branch of the World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, to classify “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields” as a potential carcinogen. Other types of disturbances have involved biochemical, neurological, behavioral and developmental changes.

In 2012, an association of health researchers published a compendium of findings, calling for stronger standards. While other researchers criticized the effort as unfocused, it brought attention to neglected but potentially significant elements, including pulsed sources, common in telecommunications, and individual differences, with a few percent of the population who may be hypersensitive.

While industry groups commonly claim that allowed power levels are conservative by factors of 10 to 50, the association claims they are excessive by factors of 100 or more. Its findings are currently unassimilated. So far, no government-sponsored organization has sorted through the many reports, developed priorities, conducted well controlled research or performed regulatory analysis.

Investigation and regulation: Hazards from UHF radio exposure are not simple to investigate. Calibrated UHF survey meters with appropriate sensitivity cost around $20,000 or more. Some potential problems have been described as accumulating over long-term exposure, others as affecting a few percent of the population. Effective research may need large numbers of subjects and long durations. Mitigation measures have also received little attention so far, although UHF radio signals are readily blocked by even thin metal.

Zoning regulations, again at issue in Brookline, are not very flexible tools to address potential UHF radio hazards. However, a longstanding tradition in zoning, reacting to other uncertainties, has been to separate industrial activities from residential areas. That is currently the approach of Brookline’s zoning. As long as they do not prohibit telecommunication services, by leaving niches in which services can be located, zoning regulations are an obvious way we now have to reduce potential hazards that we cannot yet estimate well.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 7, 2014

Arthur W. Guy, et al., Biological Effects and Exposure Criteria for Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields, Report 86, [U.S.] National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, 1986

Barry Mishkind, WBZ and WBZA in Boston and Springfield, MA, Hammond Museum of Radio (Guelph, ON, Canada), 2004

Hammett and Edison, Statement re proposed base station site CA-SBR022, County of Santa Barbara, CA, 2007

Don Hayes, Petition Number 08-27 MetroPCS, Re 639 Granite St., Braintree, MA, Zoning Board of Appeals, 2008

Robert Baan, et al., Carcinogenicity of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, Lancet Oncology 12(7):624-625, 2011

Where did our RF standards come from? Hammett and Edison, Consulting engineers (Sonoma, CA), 2012

David O. Carpenter and Cindy Sage, Eds., BioInitiative Report: A Rationale for Biologically-based Public Exposure Standards for Electromagnetic Radiation, BioInitiative Group (Santa Barbara, CA), 2012 (25 MB)

Kevin Fitchard, Verizon quietly unleashes its LTE monster, tripling 4G capacity in major cities, Gigaom Tech News, December 5, 2013

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