A proposed bill to allow 5G antennas in residential neighborhoods has reignited a debate over the safety of the emerging technology.
At issue is a revised zoning amendment to allow the towers in residential zones as long they replace existing street lights or utility poles.
Montgomery County Council Member Hans Riemer, the bill’s sponsor, has said it strikes a fair balance between resident concerns and the need to regulate and adopt 5G technology as it spreads across the country.
5G antennas — also known as small cell towers — are touted as the gateway to next-generation cellular technology, allowing faster internet speeds and greater connectivity. Wireless companies also say the technology is necessary to accommodate rapidly growing traffic on existing data networks.
They mark a significant shift from older cell towers — large-scale installations that often stretch 100 feet or higher. 5G networks require smaller equipment installed closer together and lower to the ground to build efficient coverage areas.
To build those networks, companies are seeking to install 5G antennas on public utilities across the country. Often, the infrastructure falls in residential areas, Riemer said, where there are a high number of existing utility poles.
The zoning amendment would require 5G antennas to be at least 60 feet from a home unless a hearing examiner grants a special exception. In those cases, antennas would be permitted within 30 feet of a residence.
The bill also expedites the hearing process for those exceptions to comply with a recent Federal Communications Commission ruling. Under the new legislation, the county would need to confirm or reject a permit application for a new cell tower within 90 days.
A similar bill was withdrawn last year after Riemer failed to secure support from at least five council members. But it drew an emotional response from residents who worried the new technology could have harmful health effects.
Many of the same activists filled the council’s meeting room on Tuesday night at a public hearing for the revised bill. More than three dozen opponents drowned out the supporters who came to endorse the amendment. Opponents filled the council’s chambers with boos and hisses during all positive testimony.
Critics spoke emotionally as they made their arguments. Resident Anna Pritchard said 5G antennas emit radio-frequency waves that could cause cancer, autism, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Donna Baron, who opposed the legislation last year, said the revised allowances would “spew 5G millimeter-wave radiation into our environment, our homes, and our bodies.”
“We’ll be living in a smog of radiation,” she told council members on Tuesday. “Your job is to protect the citizens of Montgomery County, not to cater to the FCC or wireless companies.”
Current scientific evidence disputes the health claims that 5G opponents raised.
Many residents at Tuesday’s hearing cited a recent study from the National Toxicology Program — an interagency research group run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — that’s considered one of the most comprehensive studies on radio frequency radiation (RFR).
RFR is the transfer of energy by radio waves. It comes from a multitude of sources, including the sun. Artificial RFR is commonly used for telecommunications purposes, including radio and TV broadcasting, WiFi, cellphones, and police radios.
The National Toxicology Program spent more than 10 years studying the health effects of RFR on rats. Researchers found that extremely high dosages were linked to cancerous heart tumors in male rats, but did not see the same effect in female rats or mice.
The test animals were exposed to nine hours of direct RFR every day for two years, starting in the womb. Researchers used the same frequencies used in 2G and 3G cellphones. The study’s authors specifically noted they did not use the same types of RFR used in 5G or WiFi networks, which “likely differs dramatically from what we studied,” according to Michael Wyde, the lead toxicologist.
The American Cancer Society notes 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.
Radio waves are considered non-ionizing, which means they don’t have the energy to break apart DNA and cause cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. The World Health Organization lists RFR as “possibly carcinogenic” — largely due to animal studies like the National Toxicology Program’s — but the same category applies to talcum powder and ginkgo extract.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that a few carefully regulated cell boxes on pre-existing street poles are safe,” said Roopesh Ojha, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who testified in favor of the bill. “I honestly don’t know how to say this any more politely: The science they’re citing is at the same level as people who think the moon landing was fake.”
He and several other proponents, including Ellen Corren with the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, argued that common-sense legislation was needed to facilitate 5G and keep Montgomery County competitive with other areas of the country.
“I believe those making the choice of where to live in the future will look for 5G availability the same way I looked for the availability of broadband in 2004,” resident Dallas Lipp said.
The future of the bill is still largely uncertain. An initial committee hearing on the amendment is scheduled for the end of January. Council Members Gabe Albornoz and Craig Rice are the only other sponsors.
Debbie Spielberg, a special assistant to County Executive Marc Elrich, said he “recommends a pause” on the legislation until current lawsuits against the FCC have been decided. Montgomery County was one of several jurisdictions to sue the agency over a ruling that rolled back local authority on 5G implementation.