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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.