Residents display signs opposing the construction of small cell towers at the Montgomery County Council hearing on Tuesday Credit: Dan Schere

Montgomery County residents worried about the possibility of exposure to radiation from small cell antennas in their neighborhood packed the chambers of the County Council’s Rockville office building Tuesday night during a public hearing.

The council is considering a proposed zoning text amendment that would allow the antennas in residential areas in order to allow wireless service providers to install faster 5G service. The towers housing the antennas would replace existing utility poles, or be attached to existing ones in some cases, and would need to be at least 22 feet tall, and 30 feet from any existing building, according to the latest version of the bill.

Many of the 44 people who signed up to testify at Tuesday’s hearing said they were concerned about what they perceived as the potentially hazardous health consequences from microwave radiation coming from the towers.

Anita Prince said she had read studies that brain cancer, depression and suicide were among the negative health effects linked to microwave radiation.

“These technologies are causing a lot of emergency calls,” she said.

“This gives someone else the right to endanger our health,” resident Laura Simon noted. “Is anyone here going to buy gallons of lead paint because it is cheap and easy?”


Simon and others pointed to the example of a group of firefighters in Northern California that has fought the construction of the 5G towers, alleging that they can cause cancer, as well as scientific studies that showed the link. Loud applause erupted after each person opposed the proposed zoning change spoke. Many attendees wore stickers saying “Work with us,” and one brought a sign that said “Protect our health.”

The American Cancer Society notes on its website that the level of radiation exposure from such cell towers is thousands of times less than the limits set by the Federal Communications Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies.

Edward Donohue, a representative from T-Mobile, was among those who spoke in favor of adding the towers to neighborhoods, noting that most emergency calls come from cell phones rather than landlines.


“The small cells are necessary in order to keep up with the 911 requirements,” he said.

Lee Gochman and Amelia Sirianni were also among the proponents, noting that the availability of 5G service would be important for accommodating the county’s young professional population.

“This isn’t about politics. This is about common sense,” Gochman said.


Federal courts have determined that localities can’t make telecommunications decisions based on health concerns, council member Tom Hucker said in an interview. But the council is likely to revisit other practical issues with the towers, such as the required distance from homes at a committee meeting early next month.

Council President Hans Riemer said in an interview that he is sensitive to the health concerns of the residents, despite the fact that the council’s hands are tied.

“I understand why people feel uncertain about this technology. I certainly understand if you lost a child to cancer or a relative, why you might think this is a part of the problem. I have empathy for how people come to the conclusion that RF radiation is causing those problems. I don’t think the science is clear on that, but I have empathy,” he said.


Riemer acknowledged that the cell towers are a controversial issue in the county, but ultimately thinks they’re necessary to keep up with 21st century technological developments.

“The reason why we’re at the cutting edge of crafting an ordinance is that companies are moving their networks here,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at