Activists fired up over bill that would expand wireless


A dozen or so people shuffled into the Bolinas Commons last week for a presentation from the Ecological Options Network, a Bolinas-based activist group that often focuses on electromagnetic radiation. Popcorn was passed around during a presentation led by Mary Beth Brangan, co-director of EON. The group of majority elders listened and jotted down notes about political affairs that tend to go unnoticed. 

The main issue on the agenda was Senate Bill 649, which would expand California’s wireless network capacity. 

If passed, the bill would streamline permitting for telecommunications companies to place two-way microwave radiation antennas called “small cells” on utility poles, street lamps, traffic lights and street signs to bolster wireless coverage. The potential radiation from antennas placed throughout neighborhoods has inspired West Marin activists to rally against the bill.  

“The electromagnetic radiation exposure would be too much, unless we stop it,” Ms. Brangan said.

One hundred and fifty cities across the state have opposed S.B. 649, both because of its potential health effects and because it would limit public input and local control over where the small cells are installed (except in areas such as coastal zones and historic districts). 

The bill is widely perceived as an attempt by telecommunications companies to ease restrictions on installing wireless antennas and equipment in public spaces as they prepare to leap from fourth-generation wireless to 5G to accommodate faster cell phones and driverless cars.

As Ms. Brangan expounded on the bill’s implications, she was asked what efforts local representatives had taken in approaching the legislation. 

“I’m horrified to see our own District Two Senator Mike McGuire has pushed this through the Senate. He acted as a de facto sponsor, even though he didn’t write it,” she said. “People say it’s because he has great ambitions…” 

Inverness resident William Now is also tuning in to the bill. “If there were one single legislation that thousands of people should take to the streets to protest over, it’s this,” said Mr. Now, who’s made trips to Sacramento to lobby against it. “It’s going to impact everybody’s health and electro-sensitive people in particular.” 

As the chair of the West Marin Wireless Radiation Action Group, which he founded, Mr. Now sent a letter to the Senate’s Local Government Committee last month opposing the bill, stating that the “Americans with Disabilities Act fully recognizes Electromagnetically Hyper-Sensitive citizens’ rights to be accommodated for with regards to wireless.” 

The letter cites the International Association of Fire Fighters’ opposition to the use of microwave antennas in fire department facilities due to concerns over health hazards. In their opposition, the I.A.F.F. pointed to a study conducted in 2004 of six California firefighters working and sleeping in stations with towers that found symptoms such as a lack of focus, severe headaches and sleep deprivation were linked to radio frequency radiation exposure. (S.B. 649 explicitly excludes the installation of small cells on fire department facilities.)

“If the bill recognizes the firefighter concerns as legitimate, then the Local Government Committee should extend the same protections to the citizens and public places in our local jurisdictions,” Mr. Now wrote. 

Since its first reading in February, S.B. 649 has been moved through the senate with major support from almost every senator. (Senator Steve Glazer from Orinda has so far cast the only no vote.) Last week, it skated through the Local Government Committee, and it will be heard on July 12 by the Committee on Communications and Conveyance. 

The bill is sponsored by CTIA, a nonprofit advocacy group representing the wireless communications industry.

The California Council on Science and Technology, the state’s authoritative body on policy issues involving science, has not published a report explicitly on electromagnetic radiation but did complete an extensive study on the health impacts of radio frequency exposures from smart meters in 2011. Smart meters can broadcast on a frequency that’s between 900 and 2,400 megahertz, almost identical to a 4G antenna.

The council found that while radio frequency emissions from smart readers at low levels were unlikely to produce thermal effects, “It is not scientifically confirmed whether or what the non-thermal effects on living organisms, and potentially, human health might be.”