International Municipal Lawyers Association - Local Government Blog

Local Governments, Cell Phones, and Health | October 13, 2009

Posted By: Joseph Van Eaton, Matthew Schettenhelm and James Hobson

Do cell phones cause brain tumors or other health risks? At a September 14, 2009 hearing before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, leading researchers testified that more research is needed before we definitively have an answer. This renewed attention to the health risks associated with cell phones and towers may mean that local governments, which regulate cell tower siting, may face an increasing number of questions from concerned citizens about the risks of radiofrequency emissions. Local government attorneys should be aware of both the limits upon their authority and the opportunities for local action in this area.

The Health Issues

The evidence of a link between cell phones and adverse health effects has been described as contradictory. Unlike x-rays or other forms of radiation that have been shown to cause harm, cell phones operate in frequencies that produce non-ionizing radiation, which does not independently mutate cells. As a result, many have argued that cell phones do not pose a health risk, and that the current evidence of a link between cellphones and cancer is weak or nonexistent. CTIA, the cell phone trade association, maintains that the “scientific evidence to date does not demonstrate any adverse health effects associated with the use of wireless phones.” This is consistent with the current views of the American Cancer Society, the FCC, and the FDA.

Others cite contrary findings, however, which do suggest reason for concern. For example, researchers have found that people who use cell phones for more than 10 years are more likely to get tumors on the side of the head on which they usually hold their phone; that exposure to such frequencies causes the blood brain barrier to be breached; and that DNA in rats is damaged by exposure to very low levels of cellular radiation. Some also contend that, just as early data failed to show a link between cancer and other harmful radiation, it may be too early to see a definitive link between cell phones and health risks. While these findings and views are now subject to vigorous debate, most do agree that additional research is needed with respect to long-term exposure and the effects on children, who appear to be more susceptible to potential harms. Thus, the placement of wireless antennas at or near schools, and the increasing use by young people of cell phones or other sources of non-ionizing radiation, has come under particular scrutiny by citizens and their elected officials. Several local government actions are noted below.

FCC Regulation

 Acting through the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the FCC currently regulates non-ionizing radiation from broadcast, cellphone, and other wireless transmitters, including cell phone towers, pursuant to 47 C.F.R. § 1.1310 and 47 C.F.R. § 1.1310. The FCC also regulates the Specific Absorption Rate (“SAR”) for individual cell phones. The SAR is a measure of the rate at which energy is absorbed by the body when exposed to a radio frequency electromagnetic field pursuant to 47 C.F.R. § 2.1093.

The FCC’s current rules for cell phones date from 1996, and are founded on scientific knowledge of the 1980s and 1990s. The rules are based on avoiding “thermal” harm – that is, overheating of the human body by direct exposure to radiation from antennas or from a wireless receiver itself, such as a cell phone. Under the current standard, before any cell phone is released on the market, it is tested to confirm that its maximum SAR level does not exceed 1.6 W/kg.

In 2003, the EMR Network urged the FCC to reconsider its antenna radiation and SAR standards, arguing that it is dated and fails to consider the potential health risks of non-thermal effects or long-term exposure. The FCC refused to revisit the issue. The FCC maintained that in adopting its regulation, the agency has relied on both standards produced by IEEE and ANSI, and on agencies such as the EPA and the FDA that have primary expertise and responsibility for ensuring health and safety. The FCC said it would reconsider its regulation in the event such agencies or other expert sources found reason for concern.

Local Government Role

With respect to cell tower siting, local governments can only consider the potential health effects of radiofrequency emissions within the limits of the Communications Act. Section 332(c)(7)(B)(iv) of the Communications Act provides that no local government may regulate siting based on the effects of radiofrequency emissions if the facility complies with the FCC’s regulations on the issue. Accordingly, local governments that deny a siting request based on health concerns beyond the FCC ‘s regulations may find their decisions overturned by the courts.

However, while local government’s role in regulating radiofrequency emissions is limited, local entities can bring pressure to bear on Congress and on the FCC to address the health concerns. Some local entities – including Los Angeles County, California; the Los Angeles City School District; Glendale, California; Sebastopol, California; and Pima County, Arizona – have responded to local concerns by calling on Congress to revise Section 332(c)(7)(B)(iv) to allow local jurisdictions to more broadly consider the health effects of cell tower placement in their community. In May 2009, the City of Portland adopted a resolution calling for the FCC to work with the FDA and other relevant federal agencies to revisit and update studies on potential health concerns arising from RF wireless emissions.

Local governments can also educate citizens in this area. Those concerned about the potential adverse effects of cell phones often cite the precautionary principle. They maintain that even if we lack scientific proof of a link between cell phones and adverse health effects, we should take low-cost measures in order to avoid even the possibility of very costly future outcomes. Local governments officials can encourage such low-cost measures. They can urge cell phone users to take very basic steps, such as using a head-set or speaker, that will greatly reduce any potential risk. Local governments can also encourage users to check the SAR level of their cell phone at a site provided by the Environmental Working Group, or by inserting their cellphone’s FCC ID # at the FCC’s webpage.


Local counsel for communities should recognize:

  • This is a hot issue, and it may become hotter.
  • Citizens may want to raise the issue in hearings on particular applications to site cell phone towers. But beyond ensuring compliance with FCC rules, local governments should not allow radio frequency and health issues to become, or even to appear to become, the driving force behind zoning decisions. There are often legitimate reasons for denying a request for permission to construct a cell tower, and decision-makers must focus on those grounds, or risk having a decision overturned.
  • A local government can respond to community concerns without putting its zoning decisions at risk. Local governments can both urge Congress to grant it further authority in this area, and call upon the FCC and other agencies to revisit regulations with respect to cell phones radiation.

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This blog is made possible by the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), but may include guest bloggers (who are attorneys with experience in local government matters) who might or might not work for IMLA. Their views (and those expressed on this site) do not necessarily express the views of IMLA.







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