We cannot ignore the dangers of radiation in our national parks

August 20, 2023

In authorizing millions of dollars to states and tribes to expand internet access, the Biden administration has set a vital economic goal. But it’s imperative that this expansion is built in the safest, fastest and most secure way to achieve this result while also protecting public health and the environment. Pending legislation assumes that wireless systems provide a reliable and safe network. Unfortunately, these systems are neither reliable nor safe.

The recently proposed Connect Our Parks Act calls for increased cell service in parks but does not weigh the damaging impacts of wireless radio frequency (RF) radiation — emitted by cellular installations — on all living creatures. Introduced by Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Angus King (I-Maine), this new bill does not consider the many ways that cell tower radiating equipment can impair ecologically sensitive areas and every living thing in its wake, ranging from insects to mammals to the plants and trees on which their survival depends.  

Since its founding a century ago, the national park system has afforded unspoiled wilderness experiences to millions. While there is a need for emergency and centralized communications, there is no need for gaming and streaming capabilities — now accounting for well over half of internet traffic — throughout the wilderness. 

Furthermore, increasingly common heavy rainstorms, windstorms, hail, dense trees and other forces of nature can block and even shut down wireless networks, making them worthless in an emergency. 

The Parks Act is one of several congressional proposals that unwittingly set the stage for dramatically increasing ambient exposures to wireless radiation, an agent that the government’s own studies have found causes cancer and DNA damage in animals. Unsurprisingly, the natural environment is also vulnerable. Studies have documented adverse impacts on birds, bees and trees, including impairment of massive seasonal migrations and the exquisitely sensitive processes of reproduction on which their continuity rests. 

A shocking regulatory gap exists. Not one federal agency has a mandate to assess the harmful effects of wireless radiation from cell towers, nor is any monitoring regularly conducted of the levels of wireless radiation in our environment from the several hundred thousand operating towers in the U.S.

In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted wireless “safety” limits solely to avoid overheating from intense short-term exposures. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior declared these limits “inapplicable today” in a letter detailing studies on wireless frequencies and birds sent to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. These limits do not protect against biological effects from long-term exposures. Importantly, the heat-avoiding FCC rules were designed only for humans, not for animals or our natural environment.

The public generally assumes cell tower radiation has been thoroughly tested for safety. Nothing could be further from the truth. With no pre-market testing and no health or environmental surveillance, we are flying blind, as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) once declaredOne year in, the Inflation Reduction Act shows great promise for ethanolApple’s anti-competitive tactics must be stopped

The public faces a Catch-22. On the one hand, the 1996 Telecom Act prohibits state and local governments from regulating placement “on the basis of the environmental effects” so long as the tower complies with FCC’s outdated exposure limits. On the other hand, in 2021, the U.S. Appeals Court DC Circuit found that the FCC’s refusal to update these limits was “arbitrary and capricious,” specifically because it ignored children’s vulnerabilities and long-term health effects. Further, the court wrote that the FCC had “completely failed” to address the new science regarding “substantive evidence of potential environmental harms” on its record. Although the FCC was mandated two years ago to explain how its exposure limits were adequately protective, it has not responded.

The science is telling. Our national parks preserve our natural world and our capacity to experience the wilderness. A robust review of the research and proper oversight is needed before erecting cell towers in our parks. Expanding cell towers in parks without adequate safeguards will irrevocably harm wildlife, the environment and our encounters with the wild.  

Devra Davis is the founder and president of Environmental Health Trust. Formerly senior adviser to the assistant secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services and appointed to the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board by former President Clinton, she also served on the Board of Scientific Counselors of the U.S. National Toxicology Program and various advisory committees to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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