It looks ordinary – a shoebox-sized piece of equipment affixed to a light pole in the parking lot by Einstein Bros. Bagels off Ritchie Highway. But what exactly is it?
Severna Park resident Peggy Williams drove near the device with her Acousticom 2 in hand. The radiofrequency radiation readings mirrored the ones she saw when observing small cells in Annapolis.
Small cell emitters, or small cells, transmit 5G microwaves that need to be placed within 500 feet of each other, about every three to five homes, for maximum efficiency. These operate just above street level as opposed to the sky-high antennas currently used to transmit mobile data signals.
Small cells are part of the rollout for fifth-generation (5G) technology, which will lead to increased internet speeds for cellphones and other wireless devices. Experts say it might lead to scientific breakthroughs with artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.
The 5G technology could also be harmful. While the American Cancer Society has found little evidence that cell towers increase the risk of cancer, other studies have. The National Toxicology Program spent $30 million over 10 years to conduct studies. In 2018, NTP announced its findings: exposure to high levels of radiofrequency radiation, like that used with 2G and 3G cellphones, is associated with tumors in male rats.
The scientific community is divided on the potential side effects of 5G, and that’s enough for Williams to worry about small cells cropping up around Severna Park.
“People think 5G is a little more powerful than 4G, but 5G is going to be exponentially more powerful than 4G,” Williams said. “…We’re sending data through the air basically. These frequencies are jagged, choppy, erratic and destructive to body tissue. It’s a whole storm of [electromagnetic field] stuff that affects us. We can’t see it, feel it, hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not doing some damage.”
A Verizon spokesperson declined to say whether the equipment in Severna Park is a small cell. Either way, it’s a matter of time before they are everywhere, said Theodora Scarato, executive director of Environmental Health Trust, a think tank that promotes a healthier environment through research, education and policy. The organization noted that industry leaders plan to deploy as many as 800,000 towers in neighborhoods and historic districts around the country by 2026. Scarato talked about the science behind 5G and about current policy initiatives during a talk on September 25 in Silver Spring.
“People are waking up to these poles and electrical boxes in their backyards,” Scarato said. “Antennas are being mounted all over street lights and utility poles. The antenna from a cell tower is on all the time. You can’t turn it off.”
Local jurisdictions have almost no control over the placement of the small cells. According to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, municipalities can’t use environmental concerns to prevent telecommunications companies from installing equipment. While technology has advanced leaps and bounds in 23 years, those guidelines set forth by the Federal Communications Commission haven’t altered with the times.
“I have compared this to a tractor trailer coming down the road,” said District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler. “It’s not going to stop, but we can try to direct it as much as possible.”
That redirection may start with a bill introduced by Councilwoman Sarah Lacey and passed by the county council on September 3. The legislation permits telecommunication antennas to be attached to structures in mixed-use zones. Lacey said this allows cellular service providers to expand coverage in a given area without having to construct a freestanding cell tower on separate land.
Lacey said her bill was not related to small cells. Jolie Diane, lead researcher and director at Zero5G, sees the bill as a stepping stone to more power for wireless providers.
“It is my understanding that no one in this county nor in all of Maryland is monitoring the operations of antennas or keeping track of how much [radiofrequency] microwave radiation each person absorbs from the current, constant, hazardous emissions,” she said.
Representing AT&T, Brian Harrison explained that the focus is on macro sites, not small-cell sites.
“Typically when you’re looking at a macro site, something in the neighborhood of this 130-, 150-foot, really anything above 100 feet; these are generally in place to cover large areas — large population, high-capacity cell sites really meant to serve a lot of people in a given area,” Harrison said. “When we start looking into small cells and small-cell networks, what we’re looking at is things that are on light posts, 20 feet up in the air, very small density covering very small areas. These are very good when you’re talking about an area where you get a large population gathering. So they’re really two uniquely different solutions.”
On October 21, the council will hear public testimony on two bills designed to establish additional requirements for small-cell systems located in county rights-of-way, and to modify when permits for work in county rights-of-way are not needed.
Is 5G the next public health crisis akin to tobacco? The small sample of evidence is inconclusive. As telecom companies are competing in the race to 5G, Williams and others are asking that they stop until the risks can be fully studied.
“As people become aware of 5G and what it is, they are protesting it,” Scarato said, citing citizen backlash in Italy, Australia, and closer to home in Montgomery County. “These people had meetings, they packed meeting rooms, and they just brought it.”