Community Issues That Matter: Individual communities must weigh impact of cell phone towers on health

9:16 am | September 17, 2012

Do radio frequency emissions from cell phone towers pose potential health hazards? 

Photo by Danny Davis
This cell phone tower, located in Lynn Valley off Broad Street Extension, is one of 24 cell towers in Carter County. None are presently located inside the city limits of Elizabethton. With the advent of new 4G technology, additional cell phone towers are expected to be constructed in the area to serve residents and tourists.

In connection with its responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Communications Commission considers the potential effects of radiofrequency, or RF emissions from FCC-regulated transmitters on human health and safety.

In the absence of a uniform federal standard on RF exposure, the FCC has relied since 1985 on the RF exposure guidelines issued in 1982 by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI C95.1-1982).

In 1991, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers issued guidelines designed to replace the RF ANSI exposure guidelines. These guidelines (ANSI/IEEE C95.1-1992) were adopted by ANSI.

The Federal Communications Act requires that such aesthetic and property-value studies be done on a site-by-site basis. Federal law also prohibits local governments from denying applications for wireless facility siting or modification on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions if the facilities comply with the FCC’s regulations concerning such emissions.

The FCC mandates that personal wireless companies build out their systems so that adequate service is provided to the public. In addition, all antenna structures used for communications must be approved by the FCC in accordance with Part 17 of the FCC Rules.

The FCC must determine if there is a reasonable possibility that the structure may constitute a menace

to air navigation. The tower height and its proximity to an airport or flight path will be considered when making this determination. If such a determination is made the FCC will specify appropriate painting and lighting requirements.

The safety of cell phone towers is the subject of extensive scientific debate, according to Karen J. Rogers, who published in article appearing on the Mount Shasta, Calif., website (

“These towers emit radio frequencies (RF), a form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), for a distance of up to 2 1/2 miles. They are essentially the same frequency radiation as microwaves in a microwave oven.

Studies have shown that even at low levels of this radiation, there is evidence of damage to cell tissue and DNA, and it has been linked to brain tumors, cancer, suppressed immune function, depression, miscarriage, Alzheimer’s disease and numerous other serious illnesses.

“The Telecommunications Act prevents citizens from opposing the towers based on concerns about RF emissions, but we can oppose them on numerous other valid grounds. There are still rights we and our local elected officials maintain, that allow us local control of the number, size and placement of cell towers, while still providing for adequate cell phone coverage,” Rogers said.

Numerous communities have called for moratoriums on tower construction, allowing them needed time to study the issue, and enact strict ordinances that require the industry to respect community desires, such as building the minimum towers necessary, in appropriate locations.

“During these moratoriums, communities are preparing non-industry biased studies of cell phone tower need, and creating cell tower Master Plans, to help protect the rights and health of citizens, while complying with the law,” Rogers said.

The First Tennessee Development District provides guidance to local governments on cell tower placement. FTTD Director of Planning Glenn Rosenoff said he is not aware of any environmental impact study on cell phone towers that has been conducted in the region.

“FTDD local planning assists many communities within the FTDD region and supports their planning and zoning programs through professional planning advice, which includes reviewing and making recommendations on the siting of cell towers based on the community’s regulations.

“At times our office is asked to amend a community’s regulations, including cell tower regulations, whereby amendments are prepared to maximize its defensibility to other experts in the field and to meet compliance with local, state and federal law,” said Rosenoff.

According to Municipal Management Consultant David Angerer of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, the following factors should be considered by local governments, to protect the public interest, when establishing an ordinance on tower placement:

• Encourage a modern, nondiscriminatory and competitive telecommunications system within the community;

• Protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens in the community;

• Discourage antenna or tower proliferation and protect against visual blight and damage to community aesthetics;

• Avoid interfering with other types of telecommunications (fire, police, and other emergency communications);

• Create a reasonable and efficient permit application and review process;

• Assure that the tower will be maintained throughout its lifespan; and,

• Comply with the permit requirements of the FCC and Federal Aviation Administration.

Most communities within the FTDD region have adopted standards for regulating cell towers. However, there is no “’cookie-cutter’” set of regulations for the region, according to Rosenoff.

“Each community must weigh the impact of different uses and activities within their community and make a decision whether or not to regulate said use or activity, and if regulated, at what level. Each “’Zoning Ordinance’” is unique and amendments to ordinances are within the power and authority of the legislative body,” said Rosenoff.


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