Clearing the air

Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to poke fun at people who take a position against all factual evidence to the contrary because their gut tells them they're right.

Colbert, whose "Colbert Report" is modeled after Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," parodies conservatives. But susceptibility to "truthiness" is not confined to the right. Take the uproar in Ashland over AT&T's attempts to install cell antennas atop a movie theater.

Opposition to the plan began with concerns about potential health effects from radio frequency emissions from the antennas. A wellness center occupies space in the shopping center where the antennas would be installed, and owners and patrons vehemently argued the business would be damaged if the project went ahead.

The Ashland City Council last week overturned a Planning Commission decision to approve the antennas, but not one word was uttered during the meeting about health risks. There was a good reason for that. Federal regulations prohibit cities from using health concerns as justification for denying cell installations, because there is no conclusive evidence that antenna emissions are harmful.

Instead, the council used a city ordinance requiring cell companies to group their antennas with existing installations unless they can show co-location would not be feasible or effective in improving cell service. It's nice for the opponents that an ordinance exists giving them a legal justification to block new antennas, but it doesn't change the real reason for their opposition.

The science is clear. Researchers have found no evidence that emissions from cell towers or antennas are harmful to human health. What they have found is that radiation exposure from holding a cell phone to one's ear is much higher than from being in the neighborhood of a cell antenna, because exposure decreases with distance from the source.

We suspect more than one patron of the wellness center, the movie theater and other businesses in the shopping center has used a cell phone there, thus absorbing more radiation than they would have had the antenna been operating.

If the city ordinance requiring co-location is based on fears of health effects from radiation, it could be illegal for the city to apply it. If not, it must have another purpose.

Cell towers — free-standing structures built to support cell antennas — can be unsightly. It's appropriate for a city to require co-location in order to limit the number of such towers for esthetic reasons.

But the AT&T antennas are not a tower. They would be mounted on the roof of the theater and hidden from view by the building facade. So there is no rationale for requiring co-location in this case.

Hidden antennas, it seems to us, are preferable to hidden reasons for rejecting them.

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