No one would be surprised to find residents of a progressive city like West Hollywood sneering at the ignorance of climate-change denialists and anti-evolutionists, those relatively uneducated right-wingers for whom passion always trumps fact.
But it turns out West Hollywood has its own upper-middle class denialists. They turned out in force at the city Planning Commission hearing last night to oppose Verizon Wireless’ request for permission to install cell phone transmission antennas in the tower of St. Ambrose Church. Their arguments varied from a contention that the antennas would hurt the appearance of the church (not true, because the antennas will be inside the tower), that the antennas will hurt the historic status of the church (which was built in the 1950s and has no historic standing), to the possibility that the antennas will collapse (city staffers said the antennas would have to be built to city standards). In fact, the antennas would have benefitted St. Ambrose, with Verizon offering to pay the church $25,000 a year in rent.
But what the opposition really was about was the irrational fear that radio emissions from the cell phone antennas would pose a danger to students at the adjacent Larchmont Charter School and to nearby residents. Think of it as a digital version of the vaccine denial movement.
That was made clear in many of the dozens of letters and email messages sent to city staffers and the Planning Commission. And it was made clear in the absence of any legitimate other argument against the antennas. There is no real scientific evidence to support that health fear. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that radio signals that comply with government standards, as Verizon’s do, pose no danger.
“Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields,” says a WHO report. “In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. ”
Verizon had to bring its plan for the antennas before the Planning Commission because it needed an exception to city rules that require such towers to be on rooftops and not in towers and to be at least 80 feet above the ground (the proposed antennas would be 62.5 feet above the ground). A federal law designed to encourage the availability of wireless services makes it impossible for the city to deny Verizon’s request if the wireless carrier can prove that it has no other options.
After hearing impassioned pleas from parents of the Larchmont school and the chairman of its board, the Planning Commission used that loophole to deny Verizon’s request, with Commission members arguing that Verizon didn’t present convincing evidence. But to some of those in the audience, the evidence was very clear in the maps of coverage areas that Verizon displayed. What also was clear was that Commission Chairman John Altschul’s vocal opposition to the Verizon request was not about its substance but about the fact that parents and residents in the audience opposed it. Altschul asked Verizon representatives if they weren’t worried that they would lose customers if they installed the antennas (not a legitimate concern of the Planning Commission). He asked a representative of St. Ambrose Church, from whom Larchmont Charter School leases its building, if it wasn’t worried that it would lose the school as a tenant (also not the Planning Commission’s business). And Altschul praised the opponents for the quality of their letters and petitions, not noting that they were all based on fear of something that simply doesn’t exist.
So residents in the area centered by the intersection of Fountain and Fairfax avenues won’t see an improvement in their cellular service. St. Ambrose Church, whose representative said it really needs the rent Verizon would have paid, will have to continue to scrimp along. And the students at Larchmont Charter School will have to deal with the fact that they attend a school that now has a reputation for denying science and fact.