The Board of Health says it doesn't have the expertise to investigate on its own. It voted to support a legislative bill that would create a commission to look into cell radiation and to partner with a state program on a public forum.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local health officials are supporting the investigation of concerns related to a 115-foot Verizon cell tower at 877 South St. in a two-part plan.
On Monday, the Board of Health unanimously voted to support a bill filed by state Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro — Senate Docket 2418 — that calls for a special commission to research the impact of electromagnetic (EMR) and radio frequency (RFR) radiation's health effects and voted to communicate with the Berkshire delegation, the Massachusetts Department of Health, and the governor's office on the importance of moving it forward.
The board also voted unanimously to have a panel presentation "as soon as possible" with the Mass DPH's Environmental Toxicology Program for the purpose of public education on the issue of electromagnetic radiation.
"We've now developed an action plan, we're here tonight to move this forward to give clear instructions on what residents can do," Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong said. "I think if we, if I, had received communications from specific individuals prior to this, those referrals probably would have been made sooner. We haven't received specific communications from other residents in that area, but what we'd like to do tonight is really encourage people with those specific health conditions that they believe are related to EMF exposure to please use those resources at Mass DPH."
This is the first time the board has taken up the issue and some who had planned to speak were upset that the board only allowed Pittsfield residents to speak during the open portion of the meting.
In February, the City Council voted to have the Health Department investigate health concerns related to the tower. This petition was brought forward by Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell and Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey, whose wards are in proximity to the tower.
The council had been hearing of these symptoms primarily from Alma Street resident Courtney Gilardi every two weeks during public comment since the tower was turned on in August. Gilardi said she and her family will move if the tower is not turned off.
Gilardi also has had her 12-year-old daughter Amelia call into the meetings to speak about the symptoms she is experiencing such as nausea and sleep disturbances.
"I submitted this petition over two months ago requesting the Health Department to investigate the symptoms that were being reported by the residents that surrounded this cell tower. We did not hear anything back until last month, which was a full four meetings or two months after the fact of that petition," Connell said, upset that he had not heard back from Armstrong when the concerns arose.
"The response was from Director Armstrong was 'we do not have the expertise.' I understand that. Why was that not given to myself or the residents back last August when I originally submitted the email back to director Armstrong, or not at the following meeting in which we presented the petition?"
Chairman Dr. Alan Kulberg reiterated that the Health Department does not have the expertise to investigate cell tower sickness, as the task involves interviewing residents, which has to be done epidemiological and in a scientifically sound manner.
"You just don't ask people what their symptoms are," he said. "Even in the form of an interview can create its own bias, so the issue about gathering information from the local residents about their symptoms has to be done in a way that is familiar to epidemiologists, but not familiar to those on the Board of Health."
Kulberg added that hiring an expert to investigate these claims would be out of taxpayer money and that would be something that the City Council ultimately decides on.
He mentioned that the Environmental Toxicology Program at the Mass DPH offered its assistance in listening to residents' concerns and responding with a local forum, which the board voted to hold.
"We have never at any point in time, had taken the attitude that we would want to dismiss the complaints of the residents," Kulberg said. "We have always taken this seriously and it is the residents' concerns about their health, which are is our number one priority."
Armstrong said that over the past two months there has been a "reviewing of a vast amount of material that has been sent from numerous people expressing concern about EMF" and also considering the different options of where to go with these reports.
Kulberg and Armstrong both expressed that the health department has been preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and then vaccination rollout, insisting that the delay was not out of lack of interest.
"Bottom line is, we're here to get today, eight months later and now we're developing a response. I'm sorry, it's not acceptable to me as a counselor," Connell asserted. "And if it's acceptable to my other council members, that's up to them, but certainly not to me."
Board member Kimberly Loring hopes that residents will utilize the public forum and contact the state health department directly with concerns for more effective problem-solving.
"I just am hoping that we all availed ourselves of the public comment through the Department of Public Health when we have this public forum," She said. "I can understand that possibly some residents didn't want to contact the city Health Department for privacy reasons and that, going forward, they may feel more comfortable contacting the State Department of Public Health directly so that we can get some good numbers of knowing how many people are feeling like them are being affected from on the EMFs."
Public comment was limited to Pittsfield residents for this meeting, as a previous meeting included testimonies from individuals in other states and communities that the board didn't see fit for this discussion.
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