This story was originally published by ProPublica.
The health complaints started rolling in within weeks of the activation of a new cellphone tower in August 2020 in Pittsfield, an old factory town in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. Seventeen residents reported headaches, dizziness, insomnia or confusion. A few children had to sleep with “vomit buckets” by their beds.
Like many people, Bobbie Orsi had never paid close attention to questions about the health effects of cellphone technology. She mostly viewed it as an issue that had long ago been put to rest. But after becoming the chair of Pittsfield’s Board of Health as the complaints emerged, Orsi, a 66-year-old registered nurse who had spent much of her career in public health, decided to educate herself. She combed through a stack of research studies. She watched webinars. She grilled a dozen scientists and doctors.
Over several months, Orsi went from curious, to concerned, to convinced, first, that radio-frequency emissions from Verizon’s 115-foot 4G tower were to blame for the problems in Pittsfield, and second, that growing evidence of harm from cellphones — everything from effects on fertility and fetal development to associations with cancer — has been downplayed in the United States.
Orsi and the Pittsfield board decided to try to do something about Verizon’s tower. They quickly discovered that they would get no help from federal regulators. The Federal Communications Commission, which has responsibility for protecting Americans from potential radiation hazards generated by wireless transmitters and cellphones, has repeatedly sided with the telecom industry in denying the possibility of virtually any human harm.
Worse, from Orsi’s perspective, federal law and FCC rules are so aligned with the industry that state and local governments are barred from taking action to block cell towers to protect the health of their citizens, even as companies are explicitly empowered to sue any government that tries to take such an action. It turned out that Verizon, in such matters, has more legal rights than the people of Pittsfield.
Still, the lawyers for Orsi and her colleagues thought they saw a long-shot legal opening: They would argue that the FCC’s exclusive oversight role applied only to approving cell tower sites, not to health problems triggered after one was built and its transmitters switched on. In April 2022, the Pittsfield Health Board issued an emergency cease-and-desist order
directing Verizon to shut down the tower as a “public nuisance” and “cause of sickness” that “renders dwellings unfit for human habitation.” (Several families had abandoned their homes.) The order was the first of its kind in the country. It was, Orsi said, “a gutsy move — maybe naively gutsy.”
Almost as quickly as the battle began, it ended. On May 10, Verizon sued the city in federal court. The company contended that the Pittsfield residents’ medical complaints were bogus. And, in any case, Verizon argued, the cease-and-desist order was barred because federal law gave the FCC the sole power to regulate wireless-radiation risks. Fearing a hopeless and costly David-and-Goliath battle, Pittsfield’s City Council refused to fund the fight. A month later, the Board of Health withdrew its cease-and-desist order.
But it was a signal of a growing fear — other cities have fought cell sites only to be forced to back down — and evidence of a striking shoulder-to-shoulder partnership between a federal agency and the industry it is supposed to regulate. The build-out of a new generation of wireless networks, known as 5G, is amping up the stakes of this conflict for localities across America. It will require an estimated 800,000 new base stations, including both towers and densely spaced “small cell” transmitters mounted on rooftops and street poles. That means nearly tripling the current number of transmitters, and many of them will be placed close to houses and apartments.
The FCC has held firm to its position that there’s no reason for concern. In a statement for this article, a spokesperson said the agency “takes safety issues very seriously” but declined to make officials available for on-the-record interviews.
The FCC is an improbable organization to serve the role of protecting humans. It specializes in technical issues that make the communications system function, not in health and safety. “At the FCC, they feel like this is really not their problem,” said Edwin Mantiply, who dealt with cellphone-radiation issues before retiring from the agency four years ago. “It’s not their job to do this kind of thing. They might have a token biologist or two, but that’s not their job.” The result, Mantiply said, was that in situations where the science isn’t black and white — and it isn’t when it comes to cellphones — the agency tended to listen to the telecom industry, which vehemently insists that cellphones are safe. “They don’t really want to deal with uncertainty,”