· Published in Cities versus multinationals

“Stop 5G”. Residents, doctors and judges going against the grain of Italy’s infatuation with smartphones

European institutions, telecom corporations and national governments are rushing to roll out 5G on the continent. The technology is promoted as a driver of growth and employment, but questions remain unanswered about its real economic benefits for people. On the ground, some are getting worried about the health and environmental impacts of installing dozens of new antennas. Does local resistance to 5G stand a chance?

“The workers came in mid August when we were on holiday. It took them three days to put up the 35-metre tall antenna that is now the bane of our lives.” Paolo [1] lives at the top of a hill in the village of Pagliare di Sassa, a suburb of L’Aquila, in central Italy. “Since the antenna went up we all get headaches when we’re at home, our eyesight has deteriorated and, inexplicably, our household appliances don’t work anymore.”

Paulo’s house is located uphill from apartment blocks that were rapidly put up after the earthquake that devastated the region in 2009, killing 309 people and leaving 65,000 people homeless. Built with cheap, low-quality materials, some of the blocks have become unsafe, and have already been abandoned by its residents. Other families with less resources have had no choice but to stay in the dilapidated apartments. In addition to the tragedy of the earthquake which left locals to fend for themselves, they now have to deal with the side effects of the 5G antenna: the area was chosen to experiment with new 5G technology, which the Italian government happens to be very excited about. But the people who call this area home have not given up the fight.

“We don’t want to be free-range guinea pigs!”

On 2 December 2018, several of those who signed a petition demanding the council to remove the 5G antenna met up at L’Aquila’s church square. The petition has been signed by almost 1,900 people - local engineers, doctors and residents. “We have already had the tragedy of the earthquake, we don’t want to be be free-range guinea pigs as well!” stated Gianmaria Umberto, a doctor who signed the petition. Giulio Pace, chairman of the organisation Creonlus and coordinator of the local campaign against the antenna, points out that a first antenna was installed as an emergency measure in 2009 to get the phone lines working again after the earthquake. “It was only supposed to be here for six months. Then six months turned into twelve months, then twelve months turned into eighteen...” The antenna tower ended up staying for nine years. Two years ago, the mayor at the time, Massimo Cialente, passed a resolution confirming that the antenna would be staying for good. “And now we’ve got this new atrocity that turns up, in the name of the 5G future,” says Pace. Now the people of L’Aquila have two antennas blocking their view, with only two metres be- tween them.

Investigate Europe talked to the current far-right mayor, Pierluigi Biondi, (Brothers of Italy), who maintains that “all those involved have consented” to the 5G antenna. The mayor refers to the consultation between the “Super-intendance” (department in charge of protecting the heritage site where the antenna is located) and both the local health agency and Arta, which measure exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

None of these three players was initially against the antenna. And there was a reason for this: “Arta came to measure the emission levels at 10 a.m.,” explains the chairman of the local resistance campaign, “when everyone’s at work and electromagnetic radiation is weakest. They were not measured over a 24-hour period as required by law.” The “Super-intendance” explained that it was told the antenna was the only way the local residents could have a phone network after the earthquake. It has since sent a letter to the council suggesting that the antenna be moved to another location.

Antenna still there

And the local health agency eventually veered on the side of caution, issuing a definitive legal notice: “No one should be in close proximity to the antenna for a period longer than four hours, and it should preferably be moved, as a precautionary measure.”

Pressure on the city council eventually ended with a vote, on 28 February 2019, to move the antenna within thirty days to an “alternative site.” The local resistance campaign had found an argument that no one could get around: in the haste to get the antenna installed, the council had forgotten to include the antenna in the local development plan, which just happens to be illegal.
And yet, since the council’s decision in February, nothing has happened. There have been European elections, then regional elections and Italy’s government has changed, but the 35-metre high antenna still stands disgracefully between the houses on the pretty hill of Pagliare di Sassa.

Italy rushes to roll out 5G

The war against 5G is far from being won in this region. “Seven antennas are due to be installed in L’Aquila by the end of the year,” says Lucio Fedele, chief operator of the Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer ZTE, which opened its European research centre on 5G in the city, capital of the Abruzzo region and home to about 72,000 people. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. It would seem that Italian telecommunications operator heavyweights such as Vodafone, Wind Tre and Tim (Telecom Italia) are planning on installing new antennas... every hundred metres. These are not the same antennas as those in L’Aquila, but smaller 5G relay antennas that will form the bulk of the network.

“For this second phase, we’ll respond to the demand, and proceed gradually,” promises Stefano Takacs, director of operations at Wind Tre, the telecom operator responsible for 5G tests in L’Aquila. 5G technology is viewed in Italy, as it is all over Europe, as a fantastic opportunity to revive the economy and create employment [2]. And the stakes are big with Italian operators splashing 6.5 billion euros to get the largest share of 5G spectrum, beating European records (1.36 billion spent by UK operators and 1.41 billion by Spanish operators). An astronomical amount that will help reduce Italy’s public debt. But the telecoms industry obviously expects a return on its investment...

The government didn’t hesitate much to test out 5G. In 2017, Rome designated five test cities: L’Aquila, Bari, Milan, Prato and Matera. Telecommunication companies invested in developing the networks, teaming up with local SMEs and universities, while city councils were generally enthusiastic about these new antennas. The International Society of Doctors for the Environment did try to request a study on the environmental and human impacts of 5G technology from the Ministry of the Environment, but it remained unheeded.

The Italian Chamber of Deputies eventually undertook an investigation in 2018, within the Transport and Telecoms Commission. But the main guests at the hearings were Vodafone, Tim and Fastweb. Few and far between are those Italian decision-makers willing to put the brakes on 5G.

Small towns fight back

The only ones fighting against the 5G invasion are small towns (10,000 to 50,000 residents). Marsaglia, which is 100 km from Turin, was the first small town to vote against all 5G experimentation “as a precautionary measure,” explains the town’s mayor, Franca Biglio, who is also chairman for Italy’s Association of Small Councils. “We didn’t even know that our towns had been selected for 5G tests, so don’t talk to us about it being an opportunity, it’s ridiculous.” Now no 5G antennas can be installed in Marsaglia. After the step was taken in Piedmont, other small towns all over Italy joined the revolt. These include San Gregorio Matese and Scanzano Jonico in Campania, Cogne near Aosta, Cervia close to Ravenna, Caorle in Veneto as well as towns in Emilia, Calabria and Sardinia. The councils have stated that 5G experiments constitute a health and safety risk for residents and request that the government ends these experiments. To date, thirteen Italian towns selected as 5G test cities by the Italian government have refused. Seventy other towns have voted motions alerting to the risks of 5G.

An appeal submitted by 60 local government representatives was presented to the Italian parliament at a conference against 5G held in June 2019. Ironically, the political base of the Five Star Movement is asking a government whose majority party is this same Five Star Movement to put an end to 5G! Even a district of Rome, Zone XII, recently voted against 5G experimentation, putting Rome’s Five-Star mayor, Virginia Raggi, in a very awkward position.

For now, though, this seems like a drop in the ocean of Italian consumers mad about their smartphones. Italy has the third biggest cellphone penetration rate in the world (83%) after South Korea and Hong Kong. The average Italian spends two hours a day on social networks and another two hours on their phone. This is great news for telecommunications companies, all of which are privatised in Italy, and are fiercely fighting to get a share of this very lucrative market.

There are only a few voices out there raising the issue of the potential dangers of electro- magnetic radiation. Amica (Association for chronic diseases and environmental contamination), in Turin, is one such organisation and is working to remove the antenna installed right in the city centre by the operator Tim, with the city council’s consent. “Carrying out experiments on human beings is unethical and is considered a crime against humanity,” says Amica’s Francesca Orlando. Alongside the may- ors of small towns working from the bottom up, several magistrates have also taken legal action so that the dangers of electromagnetic radiation are recognised higher up the ladder.

Courts set legal precedents

Italy is already the first country in Europe with three judicial decisions establishing causal links between cellphone use and brain tumours. “Although its seems that, on the one hand, decision-makers are doing away with precautionary principles, on the other hand judges are increasingly calling attention to it. They are setting an example for politicians, showing them the approach that should be taken in regard to electromagnetic radiation,” states Italian biologist Angelo Levis, Chairman of the Association for the Prevention and Control of Electromagnetic Radiation (or APPLE, its Italian acronym).

In 2012, in Brescia, near Milan, a former executive won a case, with the court recognising that his tumour was due to an occupational disease which left him 80% handicapped. The court ruled that the tumour was caused by excessive use of his cell phone, which he was glued to for several hours a day.

The last court ruling dates back to 2017. The court of Ivrea ordered Telecom Italia to pay lifelong damages to a former employee who spent three to four hours a day on his cellphone. “The idea is to do the same thing that was done to fight big tobacco companies: sue cellphone manufacturers and distributers,” explains lawyer Stefano Bertone who won the Ivrea case. “But we have to take it one step at a time: the public is still far too in love with smartphones and apps.”

Riding the wave of this victory, the lawyer decided, in 2018, to team up with APPLE and take Italy’s Ministries of Health, Environment, Education and Economic Development to court, accusing them of not adequately informing the Italian people of the risks associated with electromagnetic fields, as had been intended with Italy’s 2001 law “Protection against electromagnetic fields.”

They ended up winning the case in early 2019 in a landmark decision in Europe, with the administrative court sentencing three of the four ministries. The judges also ordered the ministries to conduct a public information campaign within six months, outlining the risks associated with cellphone and WI-FI use. And the lawyer isn’t about to stop there. “It won’t be long before we take the whole cellphone industry to court.”

By Maria Maggiore

Maria Maggiore (@maggiorebrux) has been reporting on European issues from Brussels for twenty years, amongst others for the daily newspaper La Stampa, for Italian Radio Popolare and for the TV-channel Euronews. She is part of the Investigate Europe team.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti.

Photo: © Maria Maggiore

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]


Other examples of 5G resistance in Europe

Although not many, there are several local movements in Europe, with residents fighting the installation of 5G antennas.
 In the city of Patras, in Greece, a citizens’ committee has put a stop to the Ministry of Digital Governance’s plans to make the city, which is the third biggest in the country, a 5G experimentation area. The local resistance campaign denounced the project which would require installing “50,000 additional antennas in the city.” After several months of heated discussion, the mayor finally shelved the project in July 2018, due to potential health risks.
 In Gliwice (Poland), selected by Orange, Telekom et Huawei as the backdrop for the first 5G experiments, thirty or forty residents took to the streets on 29 September 2018. The protest, which received much media attention, forced the council to take action. City council spokesperson Marek Jarzębowski, was quick to shirk any involvement, stating that they had received no official notification of the experiments and therefore, “could not be held accountable.” After the protest, 5G demonstrations became few and far between before dying out completely.
 In September 2017, scientists started a European petition calling for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G. 263 scientists and doctors had signed the petition as of 27 November 2019.
 An international appeal to stop 5G on earth and in space was launched in November 2018. As of 27 November 2019, the appeal had been signed by 183,000 citizens, organisations and scientists from at least 208 countries.


[1His name has been changed.

[2See Investigate Europe’s publication on 5G.

Article published as part of our investigation: «Cities versus multinationals»
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