Although the coronavirus has been front and center in the news, another public health issue is confronting residents of Nassau County – 5G cell sites.
5G networks are the latest generation of mobile phone technologies, which work by sending signals to and from nearby cell towers using radio frequency (RF) waves.
As these sites pop up throughout our communities, residents have banded together to demand that the local government – which controls land use and zoning – stop them. The objections are grounded in both aesthetics and health. The cell sites are ugly, but more importantly, residents fear the electromagnetic fields they emit present health hazards.
These fears are justified.
The amount of RF energy absorbed from the phone into the user’s body is known as the specific absorption rate, or SAR. FCC regulations establish the maximum allowable SAR level for cellular devices, but these regulations were set in 1996, well before the advent of 5G, and they only apply to devices operating at frequencies up to 6.0 GHz. 5G operates at frequencies between 30 and 300 GHz.
Because 5G’s high-frequency waves can only travel short distances and cannot easily penetrate objects, multiple small cell sites must be placed close together to relay signals across long distances and around obstacles. This results in a dense concentration of cells on street lights, utility poles, and buildings near homes, schools, and workplaces.
The FCC’s safety guidelines don’t account for this.
The federal Government Accountability Office therefore recommended in 2012 that the FCC “reassess the current RF energy exposure limit, including its effects on human health.” In 2015, the FCC acknowledged that “further examination” was needed on this subject.
But the FCC never conducted this reassessment.
Even after the U.S. National Toxicology Program released a study in 2018 linking RF radiation from 2G and 3G networks to cancerous growths in rats, the FCC continued to maintain that there was “no scientific evidence establish a causal link between wireless device use and cancer,”
The same federal government told us that the post-9/11 air at Ground Zero was safe.
So why should we care what the FCC says? Can’t our local government set its own safety standards and refuse to approve the installation of 5G cell sites that don’t meet them?
Sadly, no. The reason has to do with the legal doctrine of “preemption.”
The U.S. Constitution provides that federal statutes are “the supreme law of the land.” As interpreted by the Supreme Court, this means that any state statute that “interferes with or is contrary to” a federal law is preempted by, and must yield to, the federal law.
Here, the applicable federal statute is Section 332(c)(7) of the Communications Act, which provides that if a cell site’s RF emissions are within the FCC’s allowable limit, local governments can’t cite health concerns as a basis to prohibit its installation.
In other words, due to preemption, if a small cell site complies with the FCC’s decades-old exposure standards, there’s nothing a locality can do to stop it from being installed.
Recognizing this, many municipalities simply delayed issuing permits for 5G infrastructure.
The FCC caught on, however, and in 2018 it imposed new regulations designed to accelerate matters. Among other things, it created a “shot-clock” that opened up local governments to lawsuits from 5G providers if a decision on a small cell permit application was not rendered within 60 days.
These new regulations eliminated the little power that local officials had to influence the 5G deployment process.
Many are frustrated that their health concerns about the 5G networks in our communities are being ignored. Because of federal preemption, these frustrations are properly directed toward Congress, not our local elected officials.
It is up to Congress to give local elected officials more say in the 5G deployment process. Congress can also require, through legislation, that the FCC reassess and modernize its current RF energy exposure limit given developments in wireless technology and infrastructure.
Kathleen Rice, who represents many of our communities in the U.S. House of Representatives, has been uniquely situated to make a difference on these issues, but she has failed to do so.
Although Ms. Rice signed on to a bill this session to nullify the FCC’s regulations regarding the 60-day shot clock, this limited action did nothing to mollify her constituents’ concerns about the possible health hazards of 5G cell sites.
While other Members of Congress, including Tom Suozzi, have demanded that the FCC address the safety of 5G infrastructure, Rice has kept silent on this issue. Not once since she has been in office has Rice pushed for the FCC to conduct the safety reassessment urged by the GAO eight years ago. Nor has Ms. Rice ever introduced or co-sponsored any legislation that would amend the Communications Act’s preemption provisions.
5G will help cities deploy technology like connected vehicles and smart grids. While this undoubtedly presents great opportunities, we must be certain that it is safe.
Our communities have suffered with toxic plumes in our waterways, pollution of our aquifers, Superfund sites in our backyards, and cancer clusters. We are uniquely sensitive to and concerned about any contaminant – RF waves included – that could potentially endanger public health where we live and work.
Kathleen Rice’s deafness to her constituents on this issue is troubling. When it comes to 5G, we must now ask Ms. Rice, loudly, “Can you hear me now?”