MA-Toxicology experts with state DPH tapped to probe Pittsfield cell tower health complaints

Toxicology experts with state DPH tapped to probe Pittsfield cell tower health complaints

As cell tower rises, neighborhood challenge to Pittsfield project faces new legal test (copy)

PITTSFIELD — Health officials in Pittsfield are calling in the cavalry — state toxicology experts — to reckon with ongoing complaints that a new cellular telephone tower is making people sick.

The city’s Board of Health voted Monday night to engage help from the state Department of Public Health’s environmental toxicology program to evaluate the health impacts of a new tower near Alma Street.

“We’d like to encourage people … to please use those resources at Mass DPH,” said Gina Armstrong, the city’s public health director. “They will report back to the Board of Health … on how many people have in fact been impacted and what the possible association is.”

“We have always taken this seriously. It is the residents’ concerns about their health that is our number one priority.”

— Dr. Alan Kulberg, chair of the Pittsfield Board of Health, on complaints of health effects linked to a new cellular telephone tower off South Street

The board urged residents who believe that they have illnesses related to radio frequency radiation to contact the state DPH by calling 617-624-5757, identify themselves as Pittsfield residents and speak with an environmental analyst.

In addition to personal consultations, the DPH will provide experts for an online forum planned for early May.

Dr. Alan Kulberg, the board’s chairman, said the city needed to reach outside for expertise, noting that Pittsfield lacked the ability to evaluate a complicated epidemiological issue.

The board’s action came after two members of the City Council petitioned it to take action, saying residents complaining of health effects have felt ignored on the issue.

“We have always taken this seriously,” Kulberg said. “It is the residents’ concerns about their health that is our number one priority.”

He said that the Health Department could not simply send a representative to the neighborhood and ask about symptoms.

“I’m not saying there isn’t a causal relationship,” Kulberg said, but these things have to be done in a rigorous epidemiological way. … We feel this is the most scientifically valid way to do it.”

The board took criticism during both a public comment period, and then from Ward 4 City Councilor Christopher J. Connell, over the city’s response to complaints of perceived health effects from the tower.

Jean Bresnahan of Elm View Terrace joined the board’s session by telephone to say she believes residents of the area near the 877 South St. tower have been snubbed.

“As a taxpayer, I’m shocked that this matter has been ignored for so long,” she said. “Where does this buck stop? These neighbors are suffering.”

Early in its meeting, the board declined to hear, during public comments, from people outside the city, including representatives of groups that oppose cell towers.

Courtney Gilardi, an Alma Street resident, called in to object that health officials appeared to be unwilling to receive information on the topic.

“Please hear us and help us,” she said. “What have you been doing to address this public health issue? Our voices have been silenced. Neighbors have been ignored.”

Connell expressed a similar frustration. He said he has been trying to advance the neighborhood’s concerns for eight months. He and Ward 5 City Councilor Patrick Kavey asked the health board to act on the issue.

“Why has this process been delayed so much?” he asked. “I don’t understand why this has been dragged on so long. I apologize if I sound angry, but this has been going on too long.”

It was more than an hour into the meeting before Kulberg described the planned DPH involvement. “We are happy to continue to facilitate the investigation of the citizens’ complaints,” he said.

Armstrong, the health director, said in response to Connell’s criticism that people in her office have been researching the best steps to take, in the face of a “vast amount” of information received.

“We were researching the resources needed to address this concern,” Armstrong said. “Working on a plan took some time … to do this to the level that is necessary.”

Kulberg added: “To develop some better scientific understanding about what’s going on.”

Board member Kimberly Loring said the approach now taken with the DPH will help clarify what’s at stake for human health.

“So we can get some numbers on how many people feel they are affected,” she said.

Ahead of the May forum, residents can email comments and questions about the Verizon Wireless tower’s possible health impacts to Beatrice Rozon, the Health Department’s administrative assistant, at brozon@cityofpittsfield.org. Questions for the DPH team are especially useful, to help experts prepare for the May forum presentation.

The board also voted to write a letter in support of legislation drafted by state Sen. Julian Cyr to create a commission “to study the impact of electromagnetic (EMR) and radiofrequency (RFR) radiation on consumer protection, public health, and technology in the Commonwealth.”

Armstrong said last month that the city on its own lacked the expertise needed to confront the issue.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

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