5G’s a Hard Cell: Residents sour on towers going up across La Jolla

Peter Venieris poses with his daughter Grace, 3, in front of a 5G tower recently installed in front of their La Jolla home.

About a month ago, when AT&T workers removed a telephone pole from the intersection of Miramar Avenue and Pearl Street, nearby residents celebrated.

“We thought the undergrounding (of electrical wires) the City promised us by 2011 was finally underway,” said Harris Cohen, whose deck is 20 feet from the pole.

Then, the workers returned to the same spot with a pole that was 6 feet taller, to accommodate the new 5G antenna they subsequently installed.

“The workers told me they’re going to put these up and down Pearl Street,” Cohen told the Light. “And each (telecommunications) company is going to have to install their own. This is what I call blight.”

Residents Danielle Douglas and Peter Venieris — married physicians who work separate emergency-room shifts at Sharp Grossmont Hospital — have another concern. They’re the parents of two boys, ages 6 and 8, and a 3-year-old girl.

“I am not an expert in this field,” Douglas said. “I don’t know what this (technology) does. But I know that my kids play out here every day. I spend so much time cooking organic and making them exercise, and now I have someone exposing them to unknown amounts of radiation?”

5G miniature cell towers — which include transmitters and relay boxes — will soon blanket La Jolla and the rest of San Diego. They’ll either appear on old or new telephone poles or, if an area is undergrounded, on newly installed cement poles. AT&T plans to roll them out here first — by year’s end, according to reports — with other companies eventually following. (Cohen, a retired tech manufacturer, said he was told that Verizon and T-Mobile/Sprint would lease pre-existing pole space from San Diego Gas & Electric.)

The City’s Development Services Department maintains a map, called the Small Cell Supplemental Tool (Public), showing the location of all permitted telephone poles the City has authorized for 5G installations.

The map is shown below, although a City spokesperson told the Light: “It’s too early to tell the exact logistics of the installations. At this point, the City is still in the process of identifying and mapping out locations.”

This map shows the 5G miniature cell tower installations approved by the City around La Jolla. AMIs are advanced metering infrastructure, mounted on water meters, used to send data to a gateway that routes it to the City. IQ nodes are image quality multi-sensors installed on light poles.

What is 5G?

5G (5th Generation) is a network that can deliver peak transmission speeds five times faster than today’s 4G LTE. Eventually, speeds more than 20 times faster are expected. At first, consumers who use 5G only for their cell phones will notice slight improvements, such as faster movie downloads and fewer GPS mistakes and dropped calls.

In the long run, however, 5G will help transform San Diego into a “smart city,” syncing autonomous vehicles to each other and to stoplights, enabling real-time facial recognition in video-security software, and who knows what else because it hasn’t even been imagined yet.

“5G is a big part of taking things to the next level,” said Daniel Newman, principal analyst and founding partner of the industry consulting firm Futurum Research. “It will improve traffic patterns and make it easier for cities to be as exact as possible in terms of dealing with population shifts. You can design roads better — many things you couldn’t do before because you couldn’t provide continuous connectivity.”

Implementing 5G isn’t about building dishes atop the highest hills anymore, however. The technology runs at a higher frequency, meaning shorter wavelengths that are more easily interfered with by vegetation, rain and other common objects. So, smaller cell antennas must be installed a block or so apart along streets and at public facilities.

AT&T employees install a 5G miniature tower on a pole in front of La Jolla resident Harris Cohen’s house.

Strict SD regulations

On July 23, the San Diego City Council voted 7-1 to pass some of the country’s most protective regulations about where 5G towers can and can’t go. They include special protections for historic areas, limits on visual impacts and instructions to keep the new antennas unobtrusive. (For example, radials and mounting brackets must be concealed, antennas must be painted to match poles and companies must avoid visual clutter.) New installations will have to meet historic criteria set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and neighborhoods could appeal approved antenna locations to the City Planning Commission.

These changes are all aesthetic concerns because the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act prohibits states or cities from basing any decisions on wireless-communications towers on their environmental effects — including human health impacts — as long as those towers comply with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines.

According to Douglas, this is ridiculous.

“As a concerned mother, I don’t want my family, or anyone else, to be experimented on,” she said. “There are enough questions about the validity of this technology, and the claims that it is safe from a health perspective, that we need to take a second look.”

According to the FCC’s website, its guidelines “were derived from the recommendations of scientists and engineers from the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.” Based on thresholds for known adverse effects, the FCC states, “they incorporate prudent margins of safety.”

Radiation education

Some radiation — aka electric and magnetic fields (EMF) — is undeniably bad for humans. Ionizing radiation (gamma rays, X-rays and ultraviolet light) strips electrons from atoms and molecules, altering biological tissue and mutating DNA (the largest known cause of cancer).

But non-ionizing radiation (visible light, infrared light, microwaves and radio waves) has long been considered safe because it doesn’t do that — although, in concentrated doses, microwaves pose a different problem. They rotate the polar molecules in water, heating it up. (Since human bodies consist of 60 percent water, this is why all microwave ovens come with protective mesh screens.)

The FCC continues to base its regulations solely on EMF’s heating effects because, its website reads: “at relatively low levels of exposure to (telecommunication) radiation, i.e., levels lower than those that would produce significant heating, the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven.”

The chorus of scientists questioning this assertion is growing louder, however.

Danielle Douglas, right, plays with her children (Cy, 6; Kieran, 8, and Grace, 3) in front of their house and the 5G miniature tower that AT&T recently installed 100 feet from their property.

In fact, a $30 million study of 3,000 rats released in November 2018 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found high exposure to high levels of cell-phone EMF associated with “clear evidence of (malignant) tumors in the hearts of male rats,” “some evidence of (malignant) tumors in the brains of male rats,” and “some evidence of tumors in the adrenal glands of male rats.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website: “Studies have shown that some workers exposed to high magnetic fields have increased cancer rates. But such associations do not necessarily show that EMF exposures cause cancer.”

Scientists have looked carefully at all the EMF evidence, but they disagree about the health effects of EMFs, except to say that “better information is needed.”

An environmental lobbyist group, Physicians For Safe Technology, calls it “problematic that the rapid and unobstructed deployment of 5G millimeter technology is being pushed by the telecommunications industry in Congress without pre-market study of health or environmental effects, without provisions for post-market study, without precautions and without appropriate public input.”

Last September, the city of Mill Valley enacted an urgency ordinance to block 5G towers in its residential areas.

The legislation allows authorities to enact regulations affecting the health and safety of residents. San Anselmo and Ross have already adopted similar ordinances.

Interestingly, the lone vote against San Diego’s new regulations was cast by District 2 City Council member Jennifer Campbell, a retired physician, who explained why in a text message to The San Diego Union-Tribune: “The scientific information in regard to health effects of 5G is inconclusive at this time.”

Research consultant Newman said: “Like anything else, usually it’s society’s burden to prove something is harmful.

“Studies should continue, and if they could determine that this is a risk, we would need to consider how to mitigate that — like asbestos.

“But I think at this point,” he continued, “very few people are going to want to forgo the benefits of faster connectivity because of the possibility of an unproven health risk.”