A recent City Council hearing on what might have seemed a rather mundane topic — setting a framework for dealing with the siting of 5G wireless antennae — drew an unusually large and vocal crowd. The issue wasn’t, as might be expected, one of property rights, sightlines or setbacks. Rather, the audience members were largely arguing the city ought to do what it can to keep 5G out of Keene.
The argument, similar to that made years ago regarding cellphone use (and the accompanying towers that relay the signals), is that the radio waves used by the 5G system could be harmful, perhaps causing cancer or other illnesses.
Perhaps you recall the great cellphone-cancer scare. The main claim was that because people put phones up to their ears, leaking emissions could, over time, lead to brain tumors. And because they emitted a lot of radio waves, those now ubiquitous towers could cause illnesses to those who live or work near them. The kicker was that, like many such theories, it would take a lifetime to really disprove.
Well, it’s been a few decades since cellphones became common — though there’s no doubt their use has exploded over the past dozen years or so. So far, no major outbreak of cancer or other health problems — unless you count carpal tunnel, distracted walking and driving or falling off high places while trying to get selfies.
According to the National Cancer Institute: “… there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans.”
The American Cancer Society notes a study by the U.S. National Toxicology Program did find that rats exposed to radiofrequency waves had an increased risk of tumors; but the rats were exposed over their entire bodies for nine hours a day over the rat equivalent of 70 years.
That’s a hard study to make conclusions from, but it does, at least, open the door to the argument that radio waves could cause health problems.
And in the new version of the debate, over 5G, there’s a twist. That’s because 5G uses shorter, higher-frequency waves than older technology, which requires more relays — called “small cells” — closer together. That means the signals would be more concentrated. Those attending the meeting also had the chance to argue not enough research has been done on these specific waves.
We wouldn’t discount the chances those in attendance are correct. At the very least, they raise a legitimate concern. But it’s not a concern for the city government.
The hearing’s subject was a draft ordinance that would create location, design and aesthetic standards for erecting small wireless facilities on public rights-of-way. The fact is, 5G is coming, and the city’s leaders would be remiss if they don’t prepare for it. That’s their duty. In fact, the ordinance is in response to federal law, which says the city can’t prohibit 5G providers.
Those raising the health concerns ought to bring those arguments to the federal and state authorities that can actually look into the health implications of a 5G infrastructure. The Legislature last year created a state panel specifically to study 5G’s health effects.
We’re reminded of the calls by area citizens for the city to deny any and all natural gas projects, on the basis that our society ought to be moving toward more renewable energy sources and away from fossil fuels. There’s an underlying sense of public good there that’s admirable, but in practice, the idea is unworkable. It would lead to expensive lawsuits the city would likely lose, and would harm consumers in the meantime as service lagged.
The city of Keene is in no position to stop the advance of 5G technology. Refusing to participate would only hinder those in the city who are eagerly awaiting better cell service. And choosing not to plan for it would be folly, allowing the siting of small cells in a haphazard way that would undoubtedly worsen any worries over health, among other problems.