Fears radio emissions may be endangering her health
By Ann McCreary
After moving into her remodeled cabin on Davelaar Drive near Mazama last fall, Carolyn Burkhardt said she began experiencing some disturbing physical sensations.
Burkhardt didn’t live at the cabin full-time, but during extended visits to her new cabin last fall and winter, she experienced a racing heart, tinnitus (ringing in her ears) and a tingly feeling overall.
Burkhardt believes her symptoms are caused by radio frequency (RF) emissions from a Verizon cell tower located about 150 yards across a field from her cabin. Because of her concerns, she has appealed a decision by Okanogan County to allow Verizon to upgrade the tower with additional antennae.
The appeal will be heard June 25 by the county hearing examiner. Burkhardt said her hope is that ultimately the tower, located next to the Mazama fire station, will be relocated further away from her cabin and any other homes.
When Burkhardt bought the property off Highway 20 in 2013, she hardly noticed the cell tower nearby. She purchased the land with the intent of providing a place to stay for hikers completing the northern section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). She created “Ravensong’s Roost,” offering a hut and camping for hikers on her property as part of her work as a volunteer “trail angel,” giving support to PCT hikers. Burkhardt hiked the entire trail herself in 1976 when she was 20.
Burkhardt, now 60, describes herself as a “strong, athletic woman” who still loves hiking. She was puzzled and alarmed by bouts of rapid heart rate — tachycardia — that occurred episodically while she was at the cabin and even when she was resting in bed.
She described her symptoms to her doctor in Tacoma, who ordered cardiology tests that showed normal results.
“I did not realize at the time that the tachycardia and chest discomfort correlated with my location at my home in Mazama,” Burkhardt wrote earlier this year in a letter to the Okanogan County planning director.
She also found her temperature was about one degree higher during and after her stays in Mazama, and she experienced a “buzzy feeling — imagine a lightning volt not too far away” — when she was at the cabin.
After a few visits to her new cabin last year and the reoccurrence of her symptoms during each stay, Burkhardt, a retired nurse practitioner, began to wonder about a possible connection to the cell tower and the radio frequency radiation it emits.
“I decided to observe what my physiological changes might correlate with. I had already seen my physicians about the tachycardia and tinnitus, with no result,” Burkhardt said in her letter to the county.
“Then I considered the cell tower, which I had been told was harmless. I recalled how X-rays were considered harmless for many years,” Burkhardt said.
She began researching radio frequency emissions and discovered that considerable research has been conducted on the potential health effects of exposure to radio frequency radiation, but there are still many questions about possible short-term and long-term impacts.
“Scientists in the medical field see a broad parameter of health issues related to RF exposure and are researching the implication for children, adults, the elderly and generations to come,” Burkhardt said.
Current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations on acceptable levels of RF exposure were adopted in 1996. Burkhardt said her research indicates that the FCC levels are less stringent than those adopted in some other countries.
Cell phones communicate with cell towers through RF waves, a form of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum between FM radio waves and microwaves. RF waves are a form of non-ionizing radiation, which is different than stronger types of radiation such as x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet (UV) light, which can break the chemical bonds in DNA and cause cancer, according to an explanation from the American Cancer Society.
Public concerns about health effects from RF exposure include potential links to increased body temperature, cancer, cognition and behavior. According to a statement from the World Health Organization (WHO), research has not found convincing scientific evidence that “the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.”
The American Cancer Society on its website cites a WHO cancer research center that found a possible link between RF exposure and cancer in at least one study of cell phone use and a specific type of brain tumor.
At ground level near typical cellular base stations, the amount of RF energy is thousands of times less than the limits for safe exposure set by the FCC and other regulatory authorities, according to the American Cancer Society.
Burkhardt said she had previous health issues before purchasing her cabin in Mazama. She had a stroke in her 20s from a brain injury, and a second stroke in her 30s following childbirth. As a result, she developed a seizure disorder and had brain surgery, and takes medication to control seizures.
In February, Burkhardt said, she began having partial seizures while staying at her Mazama cabin. Her doctor provided an ambulatory electroencephalopathy device, which she wore for about 30 hours to monitor her brain’s electrical activity while she was there. The results showed “abnormal neurological activity,” she said.
Seeking SEPA check
The 120-foot-tall Verizon cell tower was installed in 2010 to improve cell service to the Mazama area. It is located next to the Okanogan County Fire District 6 station, and Verizon pays the district a monthly rent of $750. The tower received a conditional use permit in 2009, and was granted a zoning variance allowing it to be installed on a parcel smaller than would be allowed under county ordinances.
Verizon applied to the county in February for permission to upgrade the cellular facility, adding three more antennae to the tower, bringing the total to nine, along with surge protectors and related equipment.
A State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) checklist conducted in 2009 did not include evaluation of RF emissions from the tower. In her appeal of the county’s approval of the tower upgrade, Burkhardt asked that a revised SEPA checklist be conducted that includes an assessment of radio frequency radiation within a half-mile radius of the tower.
“A thorough SEPA investigation is necessary for determining health, safety and welfare risk factors and how to effectively support the well-being of our community,” Burkhardt said in her letter appealing the county’s approval of the tower upgrade.
Perry Huston, Okanogan County planning director, said the type of “maintenance and upgrade activity” proposed by Verizon in its site analysis request is exempt from an additional SEPA.
“We relied on the SEPA from 2009 because it [the tower] is not going outside the footprint or going any higher,” Huston said.
“She [Burkhardt] disagrees. She believes we should have conducted an environmental review on the site analysis,” Huston said.
The question of RF emissions “hasn’t come up with any of the tower permits I’ve processed before,” Huston said.
In fact, Huston said, it appears that the county is not allowed to address those questions if a cellular tower is operating in compliance with its FCC license.
“In U.S. code there’s a specific pre-emption, that in essence says if a wireless station of this nature is operating within the boundaries of its FCC license, we can’t consider the environmental effect of their radio frequency emissions,” Huston said.
The law, in Section 47 of the federal code, states: “Municipalities cannot deny or regulate cellular antennas due to environmental concerns about their radio emissions if the antennas comply with FCC rules on radio emissions.”
“She asked for additional environmental review. My response is I don’t believe we can,” Huston said.
The appeal hearing before the county hearing examiner will be held June 25 at 10 a.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan.
“It’s not that I want to get rid of Verizon or the tower, just put it up on the hillside away from people,” Burkhardt said.