As if avalanches of debris, citywide infernos, and thousands of injured and dying residents weren't bad enough, residents of one San Francisco neighborhood have identified another type of earthquake danger. Vibrations might shake loose broadband antennae, they say, and smite residents with beams of concentrated radio waves. least, this is the theory that has caused San Francisco's route to really fast handheld Internet access to slow to a crawl.
On Sept. 28, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hear an appeal of the Planning Commission's decision not to require an environmental review for the installation of five small dish antennae on the radio tower at Bernal Hill. The dishes are supposed to transmit broadband data for Sprint's 4G network.
San Franciscans may be willing to blithely tolerate 100-horsepower missiles known as cars, collapse-prone earthquake-zone houses, an unfenced suicide-magnet Golden Gate Bridge, and potentially explosive high-pressure gas pipelines under our streets. But the near-undetectable levels of radio waves that might emanate from a tower that has been radiating since the 1960s is apparently too much for some locals to countenance.
The Bernal scenario has no basis in science. But it's consistent with current psychological understanding of how people deal with the perception of risk.
Ambiguous or confusing risk information, such as that surrounding cellphone radiation, strikes many of us as scarier than risks we know and understand, such as fires, earthquakes, or automobile accidents.
That our sense of dread hasn't adapted to the modern science of statistics is particularly relevant now that the news is filled with headlines about the San Bruno gas-line explosion. Terrifying images and stories raise the question: Shouldn't we stop living atop latent fire bombs?
However, redoing our gas-delivery system so it becomes more like the electricity grid — where high-tension, high-voltage electricity transmission lines are strung over desolate no-man's lands — would be horribly inefficient in terms of spending resources in hopes of reducing danger. America is crisscrossed with 321,000 miles of gas transmission lines and more than 2 million miles of natural gas distribution mains and service pipes. Yet during the past 20 years, only 33 people have died from accidents like the San Bruno fire.
San Francisco, of course, is notorious for spotty cellphone and WiFi reception. In June, the city passed a law requiring all retailers to display the amount of radiation a cellphone emits — a measure the industry's trade group said fueled consumer hysteria.
But the city's endless anti-wireless-antenna protests are the main factor behind local spotty service. Modesto and Stockton have been able to join Sprint's nationwide network of so-called 4G ultrafast mobile Internet service. But thanks to administrative delays, San Francisco waits.
In the case of the five dishes atop Bernal Hill — which would be installed by ClearWire, a company largely owned by Sprint — the health department evaluated emissions data and determined that radio emissions would be at a level of 0.0012 percent of the public exposure limit established by the Federal Communications Commission.
San Francisco residents' success in delaying or blocking the installation of wireless communication antennae is so notorious that Steve Jobs himself felt compelled to comment on the phenomenon in a July press conference.
"When AT&T wants to add a cell tower in, oh, Texas or somewhere, it takes three weeks to get approval in a typical community. To get a cellphone tower in San Francisco, it takes something like three years," he said at the press event to discuss the iPhone 4's antenna issues. CNET later quoted a University of Colorado telecommunications policy professor who said described San Francisco as having "one of the most complicated, burdensome, arcane processes in the country, without question."
What passes without comment, however, is another aspect to our out-of-whack fear-o-meter. While scared of public-health trivialities such as wireless-device radiation, we're blithe to dangers we might be wise to fear.
Paul Slovic, author of the new book The Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception, recalls visiting San Francisco as an academic researcher in the 1970s and conducting surveys about how worried locals were about the possibility of an earthquake.
"I found people were quite unconcerned. And not much seems to have changed today," says Slovic, president of Decision Research, a consultancy that studies human judgment, decision-making, and risk analysis. "Regarding insurance, they would look to see what their neighbors were doing. If the neighbor did, they might. Otherwise, they really didn't want to get insurance. People are relatively more concerned about radiation."
In 2009, Risk Management Solutions, a consulting firm based across the bay in Newark, estimated that a likely earthquake centered on the San Andreas Fault and measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale — only somewhat stronger than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake — would result in $119 billion in economic loss, with only $19 billion of the loss covered by insurance.
The insurance giant Munich Re suffered an 11-million-mark loss — when adjusted for inflation, the greatest in its corporate history — when it paid for damages in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Today, the mammoth reinsurer still keeps a wary eye on San Francisco. Taking into account the risks for earthquakes, tsunamis, and terrorist attacks, this is the most dangerous city in the world, Munich Re's Anselm Smolka told me in an interview a few years ago.
Yet many of us, from Mayor Gavin Newsom on down to the members of the Lower 24th Street Merchants Association who submitted a formal appeal against the Bernal antennae, fret instead about a risk-analysis-industry cipher known as wireless radiation.
When it comes to deaths from WiFi radiation, "there is no biological known way those waves can cause the damage people fear," says David Ropeik, author of the new book How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts. He teaches an environmental studies class about public health issues at Harvard Extension.
According to experts, this dichotomy is a sign that we have perfectly healthy brains. Mankind's capacity for gut-wrenching terror is a finely tuned survival mechanism that has only recently been shown by statistical science to be a little buggy. And it turns out that the concept of wireless radiation seems designed to excite certain brain cells.
Current research says we tend to be warier of risks we don't quite understand — and how many of us really understand how biology responds to radio waves?
"The less sure we are, the more afraid we're likely to be," Ropeik says. "And with anything that's complicated scientifically — and radiation of various forms certainly qualifies as complicated for most of us — we react to not having our head wrapped around the facts with emotionally protective precaution."
We tend to dread risks that are imposed upon us and look kindly upon ones we take on ourselves, making those bizarre-looking cellphone antennas that now crop up everywhere all the more awful. We tend to overestimate risks that seem to have no benefits attached — a reason the cellphone tower atop a neighborhood building isn't viewed kindly by neighbors. We view natural dangers as more benign than manmade ones.
"I think it's safe to say a good number of people who worry about WiFi radiation spend more than 15 minutes in the sun without protecting themselves from radiation from the sun," Ropeik says. "And that is a far, far, far greater cancer risk."
What's more, humans tend to dread peril that is especially gruesome or painful. And since the dawn of the nuclear age in the 1940s, we've associated the word "radiation" with cancer and other hideous fates.
"One of the types of hazards that does evoke dread has to do with radiation," Slovic says. "And people don't necessarily distinguish radiation from a cellphone tower, which is non-ionizing, or radiation from a nuclear source."
Could underground gas trunk lines invade the mindspace now occupied by WiFi towers? If they did, Slovic says, that wouldn't necessarily be unhealthy. Though he's an expert on risk statistics, he says it's misguided to ignore mass intuition. "It's important to listen to concerns of the public," he says. "You should have a process for evaluating that is open, and inclusive of different points of view, and discuss it, and debate it, look at the science, and blend it together in a more intuitive decision process to come up with a policy."
In hyperdemocratic San Francisco, these evaluations, discussions, and processes will surely arise. When they do, we can expect gas service as sporadic as San Francisco's cellphone reception.