Tuned Out

Wi-Fi group now fears digital TV

A "puzzling" health problem recently struck Denise Williams, a 49-year-old artist, as she reached for a pillow in her Santa Fe home.

"My hip just gave out. From my chest muscles to my knee, that whole left side just went limp. I went down on the floor and couldn't move that side of my body," Williams says. In the
following days, she felt "electrical impulses—so intense it was almost visual for me—shooting up my calf and then later into my thigh."

Williams was worried. So were her friends. "Everybody said, 'Go to the doctor,' because I probably had a stroke. But I could still stick my tongue out, so I thought, 'Probably not,'" Williams says. "I thought, 'Gee, do I really need to ask for several thousand dollars of tests to not find anything?'"

Lack of money kept Williams away from the hospital. She has no health insurance.

Williams did, however, reply to an ad she saw in SFR, suggesting "a new source of microwave radiation" in Santa Fe was causing agitation, nausea, palpitations and "other alarming health problems."

After responding to the ad, Williams became convinced her seizure resulted from a federal mandate requiring that broadcasters around the country switch from analog to digital television by June 12. In short, she thinks DTV made her sick.

"Most people think I'm sorta fruity," Williams says. "Even my son, in Hawaii—he thinks I'm nuts about the digital."

Williams may not be nuts, but she was misinformed.

The man who placed the ad, anti-wireless activist Arthur Firstenberg, says he got a "few dozen" calls in response. In a mass email, Firstenberg claimed he'd been inundated with calls about mysterious health problems—from sleeplessness and sore throats to "lethargic" dogs, cats and birds—in the days around the digital transition.

Since the transition, "the quality of life here has been permanently diminished," he wrote. "I would not be surprised if mortality temporarily rose in Santa Fe or nationwide during the past two weeks."

On the phone with SFR, Firstenberg backpedaled. Why did he tell people DTV might cause their illnesses? "I made a leap," Firstenberg says. "I don't have enough facts to back up what I'm saying."

Did it occur to him that Williams might have suffered a stroke?

"Of course that occurred to me, but I didn't say that. It wouldn't answer the question of what triggered the stroke," Firstenberg says. "And I had people call me who said it felt like they were having a heart attack. That's exactly how I felt on the night of May 31," when he believes the problems started.

Couldn't all the health problems Firstenberg heard about be coincidental? "You could go there," he says.

Let's go there.

Firstenberg's claims, spread chiefly online, are not supported by scientific research, although the specter of deadly DTV has drawn mockery even in conspiracy forums such as alien-ufos.com, as well as the website of British writer David Icke, who is famous for spreading the notion that the world is governed by a cabal of space lizards disguised as humans.

A letter by "German doctors," cited by Firstenberg, lists 20 symptoms, from headaches to drowsiness to "total apathy," supposedly caused by DTV. But those symptoms may have psychological as well as physical causes, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, narcotic abuse and "dementia in head injury," according to WebMD.

Not only do Firstenberg's claims lack scientific backing, they don't make logical sense. People complaining of DTV-related health problems "don't understand the difference between digital and analog," Dave Thomas, founder of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, says.

Just like analog television, DTV travels over radio waves, although the picture and sound are now compressed into binary, the language of computers.

Furthermore, DTV is not a "new" source of radiation, as Firstenberg maintains. Most New Mexico broadcasters began digital broadcasts beginning in 2001 from their towers atop Sandia Crest.

"Everybody up there's been broadcasting for several years already in digital. The only thing we did [June 12] was turn off the analog, which reduced the emissions," KNME Chief Engineer Daniel Zillich says. "The digital transmissions run less power than the analog did, by about two-thirds."

Indeed, there are many more dangerous radiation sources in New Mexico, beginning with Los Alamos National Laboratory (see SFR Talk). Those worried about harmful rays should forget the lead suits and buy some SPF-30.

"The sun's going to give more radiation than you're getting from the transmitters," Zillich says.

Overexposure to the sun is proven to cause skin cancer. High-voltage power lines likely increase risk. And concerns remain, even within the US government, about the possible dangers of daily cell phone use. But radio towers are considered safe, unless one happens to be climbing them.

"This is why the bases of some transmitters are fenced—to keep people out of the only places close to an antenna where the signal levels may be higher than currently deemed acceptable," Thomas writes. "Even this exposure is nothing like what you would get by putting an animal inside a microwave oven."

The DTV transfer did change the frequency of many stations—but in a way that should comfort anyone worried about getting cooked.

"At the high frequencies of digital television, the heating effect is negligible," Thomas writes. "And new digital television signals are, if anything, at a higher frequency than the old analog counterparts."

Most complaints to the Federal Communications Commission about the digital transition concern reception problems, not real or imagined health effects.

In an email, FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield writes, "We are unaware of any health issues surrounding DTV, but any determination regarding that issue would be made by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency." (Actually, the FCC does publish "maximum permissible exposure" limits for radio frequency emissions. Santa Fe is in the clear.)

This isn't the first time Firstenberg sounded an alarm before proof of harm. Last year, he and a group of followers lobbied the Santa Fe City Council to drop plans for wireless internet in public buildings. Councilors took the group's health concerns seriously enough to hold meetings on the issue and delay the implementation of Wi-Fi in the new convention center on Marcy Street.

Reports at the time missed a key detail: At one point, when the group complained of feeling ill effects from City Hall's Wi-Fi, "it was indeed off," city spokeswoman Laura Banish says.

On the bright side, Williams says Firstenberg did not ask her for money.

Ironically, though, misplaced radiation fears ignore a real environmental disaster resulting from the DTV transition: toxic waste.

Most televisions contain several pounds of lead, plus mercury, cadmium and a potentially harmful chemical flame retardant that infiltrates the dust on TV sets. The transition means that millions of old American TV sets will wind up in the trash, where they pose an ecological threat.

As the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group, pointed out last week, most US electronics recyclers ship their waste overseas, where villagers pick it apart to salvage usable metals and burn the rest. The group estimates the digital transition means "56,000 tons of toxic lead alone would be transferred and dumped on some of the world's poorest communities."

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