800 new cell towers expected. Are they safe?

By Mari Anne Gest of Portland, Oregon. Mari Anne describes herself as a "political activist that cares about labor, education and the environment." In 2006, she contributed "Moving a progressive agenda to the ballot".

Cell phones and cell towers are on the newer end of technology. Personally I use my cell phone as my home phone and work phone. I love my cell phone and blue tooth. I love new technology. I love wireless. How did we ever live without it? But as with any new technology or chemical that appears to make our lives easier (can you say plastic or pesticides?), it is put on the market without adequate study or with limited study, often paid for by the manufacturer. Health effects are unknown for many years.

Today, more and more scientific research is coming out which suggests there is a risk from cumulative exposure to the low level radio frequency waves which are emitted from cell phones and cell towers. Even the FCC which licenses cell phone towers cannot say that they are safe.

I’m not a purist but when I read that in 2004, The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) opposed locating cell towers on fire stations because of health and safety concerns over radio frequency and microwave radiation, I became concerned. According to the IAFF they will “oppose such sitings until such time it is proven that such sitings are not hazardous to the health of our members”. It has not been proven safe to date. In fact, there is credible evidence that the emissions from cell towers cause grave harm.

I’m not sure what the answer is to satisfy our want/need of new technology but I think we all will agree that new technology should be safe and not be a health risk. If only we had employed such insight prior to the pollution of the Portland Harbor which is now one of the most toxic “Super Fund” Sites in the nation.

In 2004, at the urging of the Oregon Center for Environmental Health, Multnomah County adopted the “Precautionary Principle” which states: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” This should be especially true in the case of our children who are growing and developing at a rapid rate and yet are bombarded by electromagnetic radiation emissions every day and everywhere. This being the case, surely we should be taking a precautionary approach!

Elected officials from school boards to Congress need to look at wireless technology and ask about the health effects. In Portland alone, 800 new cell antennas are expected in the next few years, many in residential neighborhoods and near schools. Clearly there is enough new information out there that we should pause and consider the long term effects of our decisions.

On February 21 at 4pm FULL SIGNAL, a new documentary about cellular technology and health, will be shown at the Hollywood Theater in Portland. The film's director, Talal Jabari, will be speaking after the screening. Tickets are available online at RespectPDX.org.

I recently met Talal (a former associate producer for CBS News and 60 minutes) and asked him why he made this documentary. Talal said it was out of concern for his young daughter – Zane - that he began his investigation on the science and health effects from the use of cell phones and exposure to cell towers. Talal took no outside money. He made this film to educate the public and provide us with the resources we need to make better decisions.

Before you dismiss me as kook or as an old hippie, come view the hour long film and then we will talk. As they say in the movies: “Be kind and courteous and turn off your cell phone.” Hope to see you there.

  • Bob Baldwin (unverified)

    Today, more and more scientific research is coming out which suggests there is a risk from cumulative exposure to the low level radio frequency waves which are emitted from cell phones and cell towers.

    Citations and links, please.

  • Mari Anne (unverified)

    Santini et al., 2002: 530 people living near to mobile phone masts reported more symptoms of headache, sleep disturbance, discomfort, irritability, depression, memory loss, and concentration problems the closer they lived to the mast.

    Eger et al., 2004: A three-fold increase in the incidence of malignant tumours was found after 5 years exposure in people living 400 metres from a mobile phone mast.

    Wolf & Wolf, 2004: A four-fold increase in the incidence of cancer among residents living near a mobile phone mast for between 3 and 7 years was detected.

    ECOLOG-Institut, 2000: Found evidence for increases in immune system damage, central nervous system damage, and reduced cognitive function. Recommends an exposure limit 1000 times lower than current guidelines.

  • (Show?)

    One interesting datapoint, is that back in the day when cellphones were just getting popular, the plan was for many more, smaller, towers.

    The radiation would have been reduced by multiple factors. The phone companies, however, didn't want the hassle of trying to purchase all of those footprints, and so decided on fewer, larger and (arguably) more dangerous towers.

  • PeteJacobsen (unverified)

    Please provide actual citations (or links). Without the exact name of the article and the publication, they cannot be found. I would like to read them, as I follow tech health issues closely and have not seen any studies showing meaningful problems.

  • (Show?)

    Pete and Bob,

    I'm not the one alleging anything either way about cell towers, but I am able to use The Google.

    I agree that providing links is better, but I was taken right to a gummint site by highlighting the words "Santini et al., 2002" in Mari Anne's response comment.

    Give it a try.........

  • Greg D. (unverified)

    Lining my hat and my underwear with Aluminium foil is working great so far.

  • (Show?)

    Here's another point. Preliminary studies show that cell phone radiation retards the formation of plaque in the brains of potential Alzheimer's patients.....

  • Zarathustra is my real pseudonym (unverified)

    If the flux of microwave radiation characteristic to cell phone towers is a threat to health, there are numerous situations where the flux is much higher, and the effects should be well documented. One good example would be navy personnel that work on ships with active phased array radar. Residents of Plano, TX, that commute up Coit Rd., should demonstrate a high incidence of pathology, owing to Texas Instruments' engineers zapping cars with concentrated microwaves for years.

    Also, the mechanism isn't coherently described. It can't be ionization, because visible light has far more energy and ionizing potential than longer wavelengths. I'm not prepared to entertain theories that invoke "homeopathic electromagnetism", either, that somehow the lower flux has greater potential for morbidity.

    They're unsightly, support a useless, fraud rife industry, and are probably bad for nature, if you want to object on more substantive grounds. Cell phones aren't, they don't work right, and 99% of the time they're only used to relieve boredom or mooch.

    You remember the sibling/friend that wanted to build a tin can phone? Always ended up having to run the "wire" through your bedroom, or some such business? You weren't surprised because they were always acting a nuisance? Same difference. Only now you're anti-social if you're not down with the crappy game.

  • alcatross (unverified)

    I'm not against being vigilant about possible health affects of wireless technology - but before we promote hysteria, let's first acknowledge that not all cell phones and cell towers (and the technologies associated with them) are created equal.

    Each of the studies referenced above by Mari Anne were based on groups in areas where GSM/TDMA '2G' technologies were in use. The majority of cell phone networks now are based on the various '3G' technologies - which radiate considerably less average power than 2G (~3W vs 10W for the old GSM common in Europe) So hopefully the movie is based on more recent studies of the cellular technologies in most common widespread use today - not the technologies of 10 to 20 years ago. There really is a difference...

  • Benjaminn (unverified)

    With the growth of the cell phone industry, and widespread use of cellular telephones, have come numerous complaints and even epidemiological studies claiming the low-level microwave radiation emitted by these devices are harmful to human health. wrinkle cream

  • Paul Johnson (unverified)

    Since when did BlueOregon give guest columns to idiots without common sense? If you think cellphone towers are bad, you probably shouldn't stand near microwave ovens. And don't forget KUFO and KEX, which are both 100,000 watt stations. Or Z100, which is licensed at 100 kilowatts, but given it's broad-spectrum splatter over more than ±10MHz, is probably transmitting even higher power than that.

  • Anne T (unverified)

    Here are some sources for studies: RespectPDX has links for the studies Marianne cited.

    The Bioinitiative Report is another good source.

    The research that cell phones are harmful is more conclusive than the research on cell towers, and director Talal Jabari readily admits this.

    But here's the deal--the old studies were based on cell phones that had few functions. Now people are using wireless phones to do everything from watch movies to checking Facebook. In the last 2 years more than 1/2 billion new people are using cell phones, up from the 2.5 billion when the filming started. Cell towers are now more common in residential areas. Children are owning and using cell phones at very young ages and more and more are growing up in the shadow of towers. This level of irradiation is unprecedented.

    Marianne asks us to look at this through the lens of the Precautionary Principle. I hope the studies that link wireless technology to cancer, neurological and behavioral effect are wrong, but until there is more proof we need to err on the side of caution. The consequences are too great.

    It's a good thing to ask challenging questions about scientific studies, but at least some of your questions should be directed at the industry that claims this is safe and funds studies to back that up.

  • jon b (unverified)

    Can someone send me links to independently funded, peer reviewed studies showing that towers and phones are safe? It is important to look at why we as a country assume this is harmless. I don't understand why people asking for a responsible approach to this issue are being ridiculed. Consider that 50 million was spent in lobbying and 'contributions' during the drafting of the '96 telecommunications act which includes a unique pre-emption to challenges based on health concerns.

    I think the author is talking about taking reasonable precautions until the science is definitive. Makes sense to me since the FCC who licenses the towers admits that studies on the possible connections to cancer are inconclusive.

    This recent article is interesting: http://www.gq.com/cars-gear/gear-and-gadgets/201002/warning-cell-phone-radiation

  • Zarathustra is my real pseudonym (unverified)

    This level of irradiation is unprecedented.

    No, it's not. That was my point about the mechanism not being ionizing radiation. The Electromagnetic Spectrum- photons, light, energy, whatever you want to call it- only varies by energy. Wavelength, amplitude, ionizing potential- all descriptive measures of electromagnetic radiation- are all based on the same thing; they vary only by energy. An x-ray is not a different kind of thing than a microwave. It's the same thing with vastly more and less energy, respectively. You see this every time you leave the car windows up. You are producing microwave radiation by removing energy from visible light, via its passing through the glass. It's not a different thing from visible light, it just has less energy. I'll be charitable and not accuse anyone of using the word "radiation" for some kind of negative halo effect, confusing it with nuclear radiation. The point, though, is that we are bathed in a much greater flux, intensity and energy of electromagnetic radiation every time we walk into the sunlight. You get the exact same misunderstandings on the other end of the visible spectrum, with people not appreciating the difference between violet, uva, uvb, and uvc. Through all those debates too many people act like they're talking about distinct species of energy, with individual peculiarities. It's all the same stuff, and it doesn't have the same energy for long. For those that insist on thinking of arbitrarily segregated sections of the electromagnetic spectrum as entities, like genera or species, maybe think of it as bombarding people from 25,000 ft up, with cats. It makes little sense to study the properties of cats, like that makes much of a difference, because it isn't "cat" in any sense when it hits you from 25,000 ft.

    There's always a better way to conceptualize it, and popular politics isn't exactly pushing the envelope with its artificial reifications. When you think you've got a solid model of the physics, ask yourself where the "photons" went when you turned off the light.

    Looking at the studies where I could get the analysis sections, they are, as stated, studies. There was an attempt in one to use a randomized blocks approach, but none covaried variables that could explain the increased morbidity near towers. Obviously, it's not possible to do a true experiment, where folks are randomly assigned to live a certain proximity from the towers, and results collected. The big covariate that I would worry about has to do with how cell towers are located. Areas where they are located are likely to be locations where other industrial eyesores are as well. Those other industrial factors could more than account for the observed morbidity.

    As far as features go, unless I really missed something, the logic seems specious. Microwave flux and the output of the cell is proportional to the power used. "Those old cells" used to have much greater power requirements. It's like saying that a well-honed drip irrigation system must be using a lot more water than simply dumping a bucket into the tomato plant, because it is so much more sophisticated and watering so many more plants.

    I can well appreciate the "Precautionary Principle", but, personally, like to approach such things with a modicum of logic. Basically, there are things that are more likely than others to be risks to life and limb. It makes no sense to me to concentrate on #146 on the list, while tolerating numbers 1-5 without a whimper. I understand that human attention is drawn more to what you can do something about that what you can't, but I just lose patience when folks say that we must get involved with our community to eliminate a 1:1,000,000 risk, but tell me I'm too idealistic wanting to address that 1:10 factor at #3 on the list. It's like watching someone walking around full of hope, because they "know" they will win the lottery this week. Fine, if they want to believe that, but why aren't they looking around for lightening strikes as well? They're more likely to happen.

    Unfortunately, concentrating on that #146 distracts from tackling the big issues. They become litmus test issues for testing in-group membership. Ultimately the only real victory is that a group that usually feels powerless got someone else to do what they want. Both the corporate camp AND community advocates tend to see the opposition as pawns to be manipulated. Want an issue that's about the same difficulty level, but more consequential? Take a look at a cross section of one of your neighborhood sewer pipes. "Hardening of the arteries" doesn't begin to touch it... Have to wonder how many that would ban the towers were against banning them while driving. 'Fess up. A number would give a dirtier look to a surveyor laying out a new tower installation than they would a driver talking on one. That's just illogical. The mom in the SUV is far easier for those folks to identify with than the corporate despoiler. That's fine. Tell me you want the towers banned because their corporate owners are scum. I'll go for that. But don't tell me that it's just good safety, and then have a conversation with someone on a cell, when you can tell that they're driving around while talking. Meanwhile the "community organizer" adds a notch to the belt. I am speaking purely in general terms, here, I have no knowledge of, nor wish to insult the author, if, in fact, that's how she perceives herself.

    I hate cell phones. If I were a good Dem or a "community organizer" I would jump all over this as an opportunity to bash that ugly beast over the head. Unfortunately, real progressives are data driven to a fault, and the data I've seen doesn't make this the issue that many, many others definitely are.

  • ricb (unverified)

    The GQ article mentioned above is well researched (follows the science back several decades), and is sobering reading on both cell phones and cell towers.

    The antiquated FCC safety regulations for cell tower emissions are 10,000 times more lenient than those found in some other countries (1,000 µW/cm2 vs. 0.1 µW/cm2). This graph does a great job of presenting the cell-tower emission limits in various countries against the health effects documented in peer-reviewed studies. (For a larger version, click the link for the PDF at the bottom of the page and go to page 5.)

    Last spring the European Parliament passed a sweeping resolution on EMFs (559-22). They called for keeping cell towers and cell antennas ("mobile phone masts" and "GSM antennas" in EU English) a certain distance from schools, day-care centers, retirement homes, and health-care facilities. Several cities and counties in the U.S., and the Los Angeles Unified School District, have also recently passed resolutions on cell tower siting regulations due to health concerns.

    So with 4 billion cell phone users on the planet, why aren't we seeing overwhelming evidence of a relationship between cell phones/towers and cancer? Because we wouldn't yet. Cell phone usage was just hitting its stride around the turn of the millennium, so scientists today (in 2010) have little more than 10-year cell phone users to study. People who have only smoked cigarettes for 10 years, or who have only been exposed to asbestos for 10 years, do not have an increased incidence of cancer over the general population -- it takes longer than that to develop.

    By 2020 we should have a pretty clear picture of the health risks from cell phones/towers. The thing is, if we keep rolling out the wireless infrastructure with reckless abandon (800 new cell towers in Portland alone over the next few years?), we may not like what we see.

  • Abby Geroge (unverified)

    Cell tower is our need without them we can not communicate with our friends and relatives.but i don't more cell tower is safe for us.


  • Henrik Eiriksson (unverified)

    @Paul Johnson: how many of the mentioned radiotowers are sited smack in the middle of residential areas? Celltowers are lower power, yes, but are situated close to people living quarters. Please note that transmission power is not the only parameter of concern; modulation is important, ie. whether the signal is "pulsed" (like cellphone signals) or continuous-wave (like FM-radio). Pulsed signals have been shown to be able to create far greater adverse biological effects at low power than continuous-wave, because of their ability to remove calcium from body cells. See also section 14 of the BioInitiative report for more.

    There is a summary of celltower studies, compiled from the WHO database, here. It shows that 80% of celltower studies document increased risk from living near cell towers. Celltowers radiate in downward tilted "lighthouse" type beams that hit the ground, typically 200-400m from the tower. Also, celltowers radiate downward side-lobe beams that hit the ground close to the tower. Celltower studies showing risk have a very telling pattern that reveals how people living within the areas of greatest beam intensity (like side-lobe and main beam) experience worst symptoms.

  • co (unverified)

    "The big covariate that I would worry about has to do with how cell towers are located. Areas where they are located are likely to be locations where other industrial eyesores are as well. Those other industrial factors could more than account for the observed morbidity."

    I think the issue the author is referring to is more towers on residential streets, in much closer proximity to homes and schools etc. This will likely yield the results that the FCC, EPA etc. currently refuse to explore. We are the subjects of this test.

  • ricb (unverified)

    The City of Portland says that most of the 800 cell towers coming in the next four years will be in residential neighborhoods. These are utility-pole cell towers, where an existing telephone pole is removed and replaced by a taller utility pole that doubles as a cell tower. These can go in right on the corner of a residential lot. For an example, visit NE 26th Avenue, 1/2 block south of NE Fremont, where Fremont United Methodist Church leases space to house the equipment for a cell tower.)

  • John Bartley K7AAY (unverified)

    None of the studies cited address the CDMA modulation system which predominates in North America; one study doesn't even specify the system involved, and another studied cordless phones, which use entirely different frequencies.

    Let's do the math: Please ask a biologist or biochemist to tell you how much energy in the 0.8-2.0 GHz band is required to break a carbon bond. (Ans: 500,000 times more than is found when standing next to a cell tower emitter or a cellphone seeking a new connection, the worst cases for cellphone emission).

    However, it has been demonstrated in South Africa that people complain and litigate over cellphone towers which are not turned on.

    We've been using gigahertz microwave since World War II, and there'd be a lot more evidence of harm were they dangerous at low levels. Why not commission a study of low-radio valley areas, such as in W Va and near Yakima, where the background radiation level is naturally low (so low that the NSA put listening systems there), and see if the alleged maladies are less frequent there?

  • bill (unverified)

    I've seen the film, and it is compelling. Same with the GQ article. And I have a Ph.D. in physics.

    The difference between microwaves and ionizing radiation is that we evolved enzymes to fix the damage caused by UV light and cosmic rays. Microwaves also penetrate much deeper into the brain than UV light can get. Microwaves don't break chemical bonds but they seem to increase the amount of free radical formation (not surprising in a living cell that is trying to do difficult chemistry efficiently). They also may affect protein folding, according to a paper by Bohr & Bohr, Phys Rev. E, 2000.

  • Gordon Morehouse (unverified)

    I don't buy this, but how much energy to break a disulfide bond? That (and other lower-energy effects) would probably be more important when considering any potential effect of microwaves on biological systems. Other than heating, that is. :P

  • Zarathustra is my real pseudonym (unverified)

    Microwaves don't break chemical bonds but they seem to increase the amount of free radical formation (not surprising in a living cell that is trying to do difficult chemistry efficiently). They also may affect protein folding, according to a paper by Bohr & Bohr, Phys Rev. E, 2000.

    That's me told; refuted with "seem" and "may". Guess that requires a Ph.D in physics.

    Thank you, Gordon and John, for the voice of reason.

  • jj (unverified)

    Next let's ban flouride in water. Wait a second ...

  • Zarathustra is my real pseudonym (unverified)

    Posted by: jj | Feb 19, 2010 9:06:23 PM

    Next let's ban flouride in water. Wait a second ...

    I would add that I think that's a very good analogy. Back in the day you would hear, "yeah, well I know that fluorine is a volatile, dangerous chemical", completely confusing molecular Fl with the fluoride compounds being added. That's exactly the level a lot of the "radiation" talk is working at.

    It would be nice if the concerned folks would have the intellectual integrity and personal awareness/honesty to admit that 50 years ago they would have been against fluoridation, but aren't today, because they've adopted attitudes based on the differential probabilities involved. As we all seem to agree, there's little hard research. The GQ article suffered from precisely the lack of covariants that I mentioned, thanks for bothering to read/understand that, btw.

  • Mari Anne (unverified)

    My point is: “Precautionary Principle” which states: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” This should be especially true in the case of our children who are growing and developing at a rapid rate and yet are bombarded by electromagnetic radiation emissions every day and everywhere. This being the case, surely we should be taking a precautionary approach!

    We love what is new and seemingly makes our lives easier. And we want it now! But what if we paused. Took a breath and thought about the long term consequenses?

    Again, I hope to see you at the movies!

  • (Show?)

    Back in the day? We still don't have flouride in the water and as a result has some of the worst children's (and adult) dental health in the country.

  • Joshua Welch (unverified)

    scary stuff


  • Rob (unverified)

    Your phone has a radio transmitter in it, the same as the tower. The field strength at your body from your phone is orders of magnitude greater than that from the tower, unless you are climbing the tower.

    If it concerns you, it might be better for you to take personal responsibility, and discard your phone, or use a wired earpiece. An external car antenna reduces the fields in your vehicle.

    The more towers, and the taller, the less power needed, because each covers a smaller area with less obstruction by trees and buildings. We are moving towards even smaller areas covered, with in-home "femtocells", which would be placed there by individual choice.

    If you are very concerned, I would look at things like electric blankets first, much stronger fields, and entirely an individual choice.

    Quieter base stations are desirable, and attainable, but frogs, my refrigerator and my neighbor's air conditioner, are not silent at night.

  • William Tare Fox (unverified)

    I love my cell phone and blue tooth.

    Is that an uber lame attempt to say, "I'm not a cell tower fanatic", are you a hypocrite, or just talking about something you don't understand? A wi-fi router puts out more radiation than a cell tower, unless it's on your property. What about the cross country "routes" where very focused beams can come to bear on places no where near towers?

    even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

    "some cause and effect relationships" is how you label having no hypothesized mechanism? Yet another group of torch wielding villagers that "know" things the scientists don't understand. And it's for the children. Want to recognize a grass roots charlatan every time? They're doing it for the kiddies. Do you really not realize that by putting them #1, unconditionally, you give all kinds of powerless, pitiful types an entry to social power? How many times have you thought how sick pedastery is? Well, it is! It's attractive because you have let sorry outcasts know that it will get them attention and instant status.

    How about the fact that your children will die pointless, violent deaths, fighining over water, because we can't get real about climate change and foreign intervention? This is just a target of convenience, giving an illusion of power to the powerless, and personal ego points for their leaders.

    Talk about life in the crapper! Your choice of left wing demagogues, right wing demagogues and don't cares. Maybe you concerned citizens can understand this. Global climate change strategies are being delayed or totally derailed by right wingers that have leanred to use your airy-fair, we really beleive it, so some must be true pseudo-science. YOu actually are leveraging thier work. Keep the environment screwed up enough, and you can make a case for anything being a health risk. Most here would responde to the point about cross country routes with, "They probably do suffer; we just don't know about it". Actually I was too charitable. American politics is nothing but egos and idiots, sometimes both.

    Prove me wrong, right here, right now. Would the people behind this article care to tell me one thing they've changed their ideas about, after this discussion? As a true liberal, Al Franken, recently said, "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts". You all want your own universe, complete with different physics. Watch Buffy, and leave social policy alone!

  • Zarathustra is my real pseudonym (unverified)

    Posted by: paul g. | Feb 20, 2010 6:03:33 AM

    Back in the day? We still don't have flouride in the water and as a result has some of the worst children's (and adult) dental health in the country.

    Point taken. I've mentally shut out that fact because I'll suffer a fatal fit, cringing, if I hear one more person say that Portland's drinking water is unchlorinated, when they mean unfluorinated. What's a different halogen between friends?!

  • Zarathustra is my real pseudonym (unverified)

    Actually, if you want to apply the "precautionary principle", one should avoid all chlorine. There is alternative science, much better than cited here, that it is the chlorine, not the sodium that causes high blood pressure in table salt. If true, avoiding sodium only compounds, like MSG, does no good, and drinking tap water is as bad as salting food. It could be totally wrong, but the hypothesis- there is one- is much better supported. There's a better than nil chance...human life is involved...better tell hypertension sufferers to stop drinking the water!

    As far as taking extra precautions with children goes, I would definitely never let a guy with a goatee have contact with them. They are 10-50 times more likely (depending on the measure) to be involved in harming them in some way. Also I would stop eating Mexican food. Mexicans are involved disproportionally in auto accidents, the number one cause of death among males 16-26! Patronizing Mexican restaurants obviously puts more Mexican drivers on the road. Don't your children deserve every consideration?

    Of course you know this is all silly. You want to ban the towers for the same reason that some police want to keep weed illegal. It's a lot easier than doing the hard work, but your peers regard it as an accomplishment. Solving crimes...making the environment healthier...those are a lot harder to pull off!

  • Mari Anne (unverified)

    Grow up!

  • Mari Anne (unverified)

    For the record, the best place for scientific information can be found at the bioinitiative.org

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