Cell Towers, Cellphones: Too Close for Comfort?

Understanding the risks, the dangers -- and the frightening hype

Are you lost without a cell signal? Can’t function without Wi-Fi?

Millions of others agree with you.

It’s why, with the proliferation of smartphones over the past seven years, there has been tremendous growth around the globe in cellphone towers. To boost wireless service, even the most remote state, one that prides itself on the ability to allow people to get away from it all, is seeking a stronger signal. Anchorage, Alaska, has recently drafted new regulations to promote the construction of cellphone towers and small cell technologies to keep up with the extensive use of wireless.

But as more cell towers go up, so do concerns about the safety of living near them or working under them. The future of a Verizon cell tower to be placed on Valley Elementary/Middle School in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for example, recently came under scrutiny. The cell tower was approved during a regular school board meeting in November, but it was hidden in a bundle of other items and was never discussed, according to the local paper, the Standard Speaker.

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After realizing what had happened, a local resident asked for a reversal of the decision. William Gaydos of Sugarloaf Township cited international research and trends on cellphone radiation exposure, showing that the United States allows exponentially higher levels of exposure than most other countries. The proposed tower would only be 440 feet from the school, versus the minimum 1,500 feet, which is the industry standard.

In the Bay area of San Fransisco, some residents are battling plans for mini-cell towers in their neighborhood. Among the youngest who is hoping his concerns will be heard is 10-year old Eoghan Gormley.

“The proposed site for the antenna that Verizon seeks to install is right outside my front window,” the young Gormley told KPIX, a CBS affiliate. “In addition, there is an antenna less than 150 feet from my classroom. This means I will be exposed to radio frequency emissions 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Eoghan said, speaking before the San Francisco Appeals Board.

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Science continues to tell us there is no need to fret, that cell towers are basically harmless — despite the fact that the industry is using research that is 20 years old.

“The Federal Communication Act says you can’t consider health concerns as long as wireless companies follow FCC radiation guidelines that haven’t been updated since 1996,” Channel 5 reported.

“The radiation emitted is just too weak to be harmful,” Dr. Anil Agawal, president of the Delhi Medical Association, said of cell tower radiation in an official statement to the Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association (GSMA), which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide. In fact, Agawal said, radio frequency waves transmitted from base towers are significantly lower than the amount beaming from radio and television broadcast stations.

How it all allegedly works is this way: Cellphone base stations send and receive radio frequency signals to external cell towers, which typically stand between 50 to 200 feet high. When cellphones are in use, radio frequency waves should only move from the base station into the environment on a horizontal plane; yet some waves may broadcast downward, causing people to be exposed to them.

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The American Cancer Society maintains that radio frequency waves from cell towers are minimal, the signals are sporadic, and the antennas are so far removed from the ground that human exposure is marginal.

The maximum level of exposure allowed by the Federal Communications Commission is exceedingly higher than the levels of radio frequency waves near the base of cell towers.

There is no global consensus on radio frequency wave exposure limits. In the U. S., every community has its own set of regulations for tower height and distance from homes and schools, as long as they comply with FCC standards.

Cancer seems to be the hot-button word associated with radiation. But radio frequency is a form of non-ionizing radiation, which scientists studying the issue say is not strong enough to damage the DNA, and therefore can’t cause cancer.

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It is the disassembly of DNA that leads to cancer development; only ionizing radiation, like UV light and X-rays, are reportedly capable of breaking those bonds. Because of this fact, the three agencies that classify carcinogens — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer nd the National Toxicology Program — have not cataloged cellphone towers as carcinogenic. 

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a nonprofit international organization that represents the wireless industry, said that it, too, defers to the science.

“The World Health Organization states that ‘from all evidence accumulated so far, no adverse short- or long-term health effects have been shown to occur from the RF signals produced by base stations,’” a CTIA spokesperson told LifeZette.

The spokesperson also said that radio frequency waves generated directly from cellphones pose more of a health threat than does living near a cell tower: The radio frequency is stronger, more consistent, and in close contact with the body.

Because cellphone use is still relatively new, it is hard to know the long-term health risks of prolonged radio frequency waves. Even the WHO recognizes the lack of data on long-term use and recommends using hands-free devices and limiting call times.