The health complaints started rolling in within weeks of the activation of a new cellphone tower in August 2020 in Pittsfield, an old factory town in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. Seventeen residents reported headaches, dizziness, insomnia or confusion. A few children had to sleep with “vomit buckets” by their beds.
Like many people, Bobbie Orsi had never paid close attention to questions about the health effects of cellphone technology. She mostly viewed it as an issue that had long ago been put to rest. But after becoming the chair of Pittsfield’s Board of Health as the complaints emerged, Orsi, a 66-year-old registered nurse who had spent much of her career in public health, decided to educate herself. She combed through a stack of research studies. She watched webinars. She grilled a dozen scientists and doctors.
Over several months, Orsi went from curious, to concerned, to convinced, first, that radio-frequency emissions from Verizon’s 115-foot 4G tower were to blame for the problems in Pittsfield, and second, that growing evidence of harm from cellphones — everything from effects on fertility and fetal development to associations with cancer — has been downplayed in the United States.
Orsi and the Pittsfield board decided to try to do something about Verizon’s tower. They quickly discovered that they would get no help from federal regulators. The Federal Communications Commission, which has responsibility for protecting Americans from potential radiation hazards generated by wireless transmitters and cellphones, has repeatedly sided with the telecom industry in denying the possibility of virtually any human harm.
Worse, from Orsi’s perspective, federal law and FCC rules are so aligned with the industry that state and local governments are barred from taking action to block cell towers to protect the health of their citizens, even as companies are explicitly empowered to sue any government that tries to take such an action. It turned out that Verizon, in such matters, has more legal rights than the people of Pittsfield.
Still, the lawyers for Orsi and her colleagues thought they saw a long-shot legal opening: They would argue that the FCC’s exclusive oversight role applied only to approving cell tower sites, not to health problems triggered after one was built and its transmitters switched on. In April 2022, the Pittsfield Health Board issued an emergency cease-and-desist order directing Verizon to shut down the tower as a “public nuisance” and “cause of sickness” that “renders dwellings unfit for human habitation.” (Several families had abandoned their homes.) The order was the first of its kind in the country. It was, Orsi said, “a gutsy move — maybe naively gutsy.