The Electromagnetic Menace 

It was the year of the EMF backlash. SmartMeters. Cell phones. Towers and antennas. None of it safe, all of it under the watchful eye of riled-up activists.

In 2010, electromagnetic radiation took huge strides toward becoming the environmental-health cause célèbre of concerned citizens from Maine to Marin. Here in the East Bay, neighborhood groups fought fiercely against cell-tower propositions and SmartMeter installations, as awareness of the potential health impacts of wireless signals spread at least as fast as the technologies themselves.

Concerns over electromagnetic radiation are nothing new, and neither are the counter-arguments that insist there's nothing to worry about. But 2010 provided the debate a critical spark in the form of PG&E's new wireless meters, 1.8 million of which have already been installed on homes and businesses throughout the East Bay. Rather than requiring monthly visits from a reader, SmartMeters transmit up-to-the-moment usage data to PG&E wirelessly.

These transmissions put residents at risk of radiation, argue opponents like El Cerrito's Marti Kheel, who created a Facebook group called Stop Smart Meters Now in September. It claims 145 members from the Bay Area and beyond. "PG&E sprung this on people and started putting it on their homes before they had any idea what it was," said Kheel, a visiting scholar in UC Berkeley's Department of Science, Policy, and Management. "As soon as people started learning about it, they started getting outraged."

Driven by health concerns, Kheel also launched a group called El Cerrito Residents Against Smart Meters. She's formally requested that the El Cerrito City Council adopt a moratorium on SmartMeter installations, as the Marin County town of Fairfax did in August. She's worked at the national level on the Prove-It Campaign, which calls for "an immediate moratorium on all new public wireless technologies" until they're proven safe.

The majority of her efforts over the last nine months, however, have centered on demanding a statewide ban, she said. PG&E has already installed 7.3 million of nearly 10 million new meters in California. "PG&E is just trying to put these in as fast as they can, and it's a lot harder to take them out once they're in," Kheel said. "If you cannot show that something is not going to cause irreparable harm, you don't do it. You don't take that kind of risk."

The utility has long denied any health risks posed by its meters, but recently hinted that it may consider allowing customers to opt out for medical reasons. In November, a division of the California Public Utilities Commission called for an investigation into the health effects of SmartMeters. Meanwhile, first-hand accounts of physiological reactions to SmartMeters, including ringing ears, fatigue, and muscle pain, have piled up as deployment has progressed.

SmartMeters are a hot-button topic, but they're not the only target for activists like Kheel. The last year has seen a number organized campaigns against proposed cell phone towers and antennas in East Bay cities including Albany, Berkeley, Richmond, and Walnut Creek. Kheel herself, in fact, became involved when she learned that T-Mobile planned to install a new tower at Camp Herms, a year-round Boy Scout camp located in the hills above El Cerrito. Kheel said local opposition to the tower eventually convinced the city to hold off on approval and begin developing a new set of siting regulations.

Elsewhere in the East Bay, however, cell-tower activists haven't been so successful. One proposed by Verizon for a working-class North Oakland neighborhood received approval from the city this fall – despite the fact that it will be located directly across a narrow residential street from the North Oakland Community Charter School and its two hundred students. Jen Schradie, who has a daughter and a son in the school, has been fighting the new antennas since February. She's attended city council meetings, gathered signatures and funds for an appeal, and staged protests, she said, but thanks to the neighborhood's permissive mixed-use zoning was unable to overturn the city's approval.

"There's no regulation," Schradie said. "There are no restrictions near vulnerable populations. Given the fact that we don't yet know what the health effects are, we feel that they should regulated. ... I don't want my kids to be lab rats."

Cell phones themselves have also been under fire in 2010. San Francisco earned the ire of the industry when it passed an ordinance requiring manufacturers to report the Specific Absorption Rate, a measure of radiation emission, of each new cell phone at the point of sale. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association responded by suing the city and withdrawing all future conventions.

Berkeley may be next. Just last week, its city council directed City Manager Phil Kamlarz to draft legislation that would emulate San Francisco's, then do it one better by requiring that radiation-related educational materials also be provided with every new phone.

Ellen Marks of Lafayette has campaigned to raise awareness about cell phone radiation since her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2008. The tumor is located on the same side of his head where he held a cell phone over twenty years of use, Marks said. She calls her husband "the poster boy for the cell phone/brain tumor connection," and has discussed his case on-air with Larry King, Wolf Blitzer, and others, as well as attended conferences and consulted with experts around the world.

As big as the electromagnetic radiation issue grew this year, more controversy is due for 2011. PG&E will wrap up the majority of its SmartMeter installations, San Francisco will begin converting its analog water meters to wireless meters, and cell phone antennas will continue to proliferate across the urban environment. Activists like Kheel, Schradie, and Marks will be watching all the way.

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