Although COVID-19 has been front and center in the news, another public health issue confronts residents of Nassau County: 5G small cell sites.
5G networks are the latest generation of wireless technology, which works by sending signals to and from nearby cell sites using radio frequency (RF) waves.
As these sites pop up throughout our communities, residents have demanded that local government, which controls 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 a cellular device into a user’s body is known as the specific absorption rate, or SAR. While Federal Communications Commission regulations establish a maximum allowable SAR level, these regulations were set in 1996, well before the advent of 5G. Moreover, they only apply to devices operating at frequencies up to 6 GHz. 5G operates at frequencies 50 times that.
Because high-frequency waves can only travel short distances and can’t easily penetrate objects, multiple 5G 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.
In 2012, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended 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 no further examination was ever performed.
Instead, after the National Toxicology Program released a study in 2018 linking RF radiation from 3G networks to cancerous growths in rats, the FCC maintained that there was no scientific evidence establishing a causal link between wireless device use and cancer.
Hard to imagine, coming from the same government that said the post-9/11 air at Ground Zero was safe.
One would think that local governments could set their own safety standards and refuse to approve the installation of 5G cell sites that didn’t meet them. This isn’t the case.
Under the legal doctrine of “preemption,” federal statutes are “the supreme law of the land,” and supersede all contrary state laws. As relevant here, the federal Communications Act provides that if a cell site’s RF emissions are within the FCC’s decades-old exposure limit, local governments can’t prohibit its installation due to health concerns. Further, pursuant to FCC regulations, localities can be sued by 5G providers if they don’t timely issue permits for small cell sites.
It’s up to Congress to give local governments more say in the 5G deployment process. Congress also can require that the FCC reassess and modernize its current RF exposure limit.
U.S. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) has been uniquely situated to make a difference on these issues, but she has failed to do so.
Other Representatives, including U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), have demanded that the FCC address the safety of 5G infrastructure. Rice, however, has kept silent. She has never pushed for the FCC to conduct the safety reassessment urged by the GAO, and she has never introduced or co-sponsored any legislation to amend the Communications Act’s preemption provision.
Although Rice signed on to a bill to nullify the shot clock rule, this had nothing to do with 5G’s potential health hazards.
While 5G technology presents great opportunities, we must ensure that it’s safe. Rice’s absence on this issue is troubling. When it comes to 5G, we must ask of Rice, “Can she hear us now?”
Ameer Benno is an attorney who ran against Kathleen Rice in 2018.
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