Are the towers a health hazard?

Experts cannot agree if there has been adequate research on the effects of radio-frequency emissions

One of the greatest reasons for opposing cell-phone towers is the perception that radio-frequency (RF) emissions cause health effects, particularly cancers. But several experts said there is no consensus on whether there is sufficient research on the effects of cell-tower emissions or what the research proves.

Most studies have been done on radiation from cell phones themselves and not on the towers. Some experts and the federal government take the position that conclusions about cell phones can be extrapolated to towers. Others aren't so sure.

"Few studies have investigated general health effects in individuals exposed to RF fields from (tower) base stations. This is because of the difficulty in distinguishing possible health effects from the very low signals emitted by base stations from other higher strength RF signals in the environment. Most studies have focused on the RF exposures of mobile-phone users," a World Health Organization (WHO) investigation noted.

Base stations operate at higher power than cell phones, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates cell towers with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But the radio-frequency exposure from a base station is typically much lower than from individual cell phones because base-station antennas are mounted on towers or other building structures and are therefore substantially farther away from the public. Both cell phones and base stations are required to comply with FCC radio-frequency exposure guidelines.

Dr. Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at University of California, Berkeley, in 2009 did an analysis of a 2004 multinational study on whether mobile-phone use increases the risk of cancer.

"There is no conclusive research either way," he said.

"The problem is the government takes the stance of 'What you don't know won't hurt you.' But no consensus was ever reached. Some said it was inconclusive. A minority said that cell phones were harmful, and more studies said that cell phones are safe. I don't want to contribute to problem inflation, but we don't want to double or triple the rate of brain tumors. We need a lot more research," he said.

Dr. Paul Fisher, Stanford School of Medicine professor of neurology and pediatrics, believes sufficient research on cell phones has been done, although he has not heard of any research done specifically on cell-phone towers.

"The bottom line is there's no known association between cell phones or towers and health effects," said Fisher, who is researching what causes brain cancers in children. "Cell phones are not on our radar."

Fisher dismissed the scare about cell-phone radiation as the predictable technology scare of this generation.

"This is the high-tension wires of our time," he said, comparing a similar debate about the health risks of high-tension wires 30 years ago.

"I'm a pediatrician. I'm a cautious person. But there's a downside of doing studies over and over, and spending colossal amounts of money," he said.

But Dr. Michael Wyde, a toxicologist for the National Institute on Health, National Toxicology Program, said current studies are conflicting because they are not related specifically to cell-phone use. "A lot of studies have been done with RF, but not at the same frequency as cell phones used in the U.S.," he said.

Wyde is currently leading studies on rats to see if there are any health effects, acute or chronic, on any part of the body, of cell-phone radiation. The study is one of the largest the agency has undertaken in 30 years and is aimed at addressing the flaws of previous studies, including incorrect frequencies of RF, he said.

"Our studies will be definitive on health effects of RF. They don't just look at exposure from the cell phone itself but towers," he said.

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