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What are the Dangers of Living Near Cell Phone Towers?

Over 190 million cell phones are in use in the United States, with users often scrambling to another room, building or street to get better reception. As consumers, it is frustrating when your cell phone reception gets dropped or is too garbled to hear. But beyond "Can you hear me now?" is another considerably more important question:

Are the cell towers and antennas popping up all over the country - -the very ones that we depend on for clear reception and a wide coverage area -- safe?

Health, not aesthetics, is the primary reason why residents oppose cell phone towers in their towns.

This may have been a moot issue in the past when the towers were sparse and limited to obscure cornfields and hilltops. But the number of these cell "sites," as they're called, has increased tenfold since 1994. Among the more than 175,000 cell sites in the United States are antennas on schools, churches, firehouses, cemeteries and national parks. There's even a cell tower near Old Faithful in Yellowstone.

"Don't Put That Tower Here"

"Our companies are always running into this conundrum, which is, 'We want cell phone service, but don't put that tower here.' When you're dealing with communications through the air, you have to have antennas and towers," said Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, the industry's trade group.

Aesthetics aside, the primary reason most people don't want cell sites near their homes and communities is because they're afraid of the potential health effects.

Already, more than 500 cases have sprung up across the country in which people have tried to stop cell phone sites from being constructed, according to Washington attorney Ed Donohue, who represents several cell phone companies.

Most of the time, the cell phone companies win because, as it stands, federal law does not allow rejection of a tower based on health risks.

Cell Phone Towers: Risky or Not?

If you ask the government, no studies have shown conclusive evidence that radio-frequency emissions, a form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), from cell towers are harmful.

According to the Food and Drug Administration:

"RF [Radio frequency] exposure on the ground is much less than exposure very close to the antenna and in the path of the transmitted radio signal. In fact, ground-level exposure from such antennas is typically thousands of times less than the exposure levels recommended as safe by expert organizations. So exposure to nearby residents would be well within safety margins."

Cell phone companies also maintain that no risks exist from the towers. "There are no health risks posed by the towers. Independent scientific panels around the world have reached this conclusion," said Russ Stromberg, senior manager of development at T-Mobile.

The government and cell phone companies maintain cell towers (and phones) are safe.

But other studies seem to tell a different story, with findings such as:

  • A study by Dr. Bruce Hocking in Australia found that children living near three TV and FM broadcast towers (similar to cell towers) in Sydney had more than twice the rate of leukemia than children living more than seven miles away.

  • Says Dr. Neil Cherry, a biophysicist at Lincoln University in New Zealand:

    • "Public health surveys of people living in the vicinity of cell site base stations should be being carried out now, and continue progressively over the next two decades. This is because prompt effects such as miscarriage, cardiac disruption, sleep disturbance and chronic fatigue could well be early indicators of the adverse health effects. Symptoms of reduced immune system competence, cardiac problems, especially of the arrhythmic type, and cancers, especially brain tumor and leukemia, are probable."

  • Biomedical engineer Mariana Alves-Pereira says exposure to cell phone towers can lead to vibroacoustic disease. "From what I understand, some of the complaints are similar in what is seen in vibroacoustic disease patients, which are people who develop a disease caused by low frequency noise exposure," she said. Symptoms can include mood swings, indigestion, ulcers and joint pain.

  • Dr. Gerard Hyland, a physicist who was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in medicine, says, "Existing safety guidelines for cell phone towers are completely inadequate ... Quite justifiably, the public remains skeptical of attempts by governments and industry to reassure them that all is well, particularly given the unethical way in which they often operate symbiotically so as to promote their own vested interests."

  • According to the Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center, "Studies have shown that even at low levels of this radiation, there is evidence of damage to cell tissue and DNA, and it has been linked to brain tumors, cancer, suppressed immune function, depression, miscarriage, Alzheimer's disease, and numerous other serious illnesses."

  • According to Dr. W. Löscher of the Institute of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmacy of the Veterinary School of Hannover in Germany, dairy cows that were kept in close proximity to a TV and cell phone tower for two years had a reduction in milk production along with increased health problems and behavioral abnormalities. In an experiment, one cow with abnormal behavior was taken away from the antenna and the behavior subsided within five days. When the cow was brought back near the antenna, the symptoms returned.

Incentives for Cell Phone Towers

Why would a church, school or other private property allow a cell phone antenna to be placed on the grounds? Cell phone companies pay "rent" for their placement that can range anywhere from $800 to $2,000 a month. This can mean all the difference for an under-funded school district or church.

Still, many people are wary that the incentives do not come close to matching the potential risk involved. This includes the International Association of Fire Fighters who, in 2004, came out against the use of firehouses for cell antennas "until a study with the highest scientific merit" can prove they are safe.

These sentiments are echoed by residents of St. Louis where T-Mobile plans to put a cell site on an 89-year-old church. "That revenue is in exchange for our potential well-being, our peace of mind and our property values," said resident David O'Brien. "None of us are willing to take that risk."

Recommended Reading

Noise Pollution: How Bad is it, How Bad Could it Get, What are the Effects?

Bottled Water: Which City's Tap Water System is Making a Flood of Cash off of You?


Food and Drug Administration: Cell Phone Facts

Health Effects Associated With Mobile Base Stations in Communities

Are Cell Phone Towers Making You Sick?

Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center

Wired News: Cell Phone Tower Debate Grows

Extraordinary Behaviors in Cows in Proximity to Transmission Towers

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