Residential Cell Towers – The Science Behind the Concern?

By Ray Meyers
Monterey Vista Neighborhood Association Board Member

The Monterey Vista neighborhood recently withstood a barrage of 13 applications from Verizon Wireless to install so-called “small cell” antennas on utility poles and street lights in close proximity to their homes.  Thanks to a heroic effort by many of its residents, this beautifully forested area was spared a negative esthetic impact on the community.  But, what about health issues? Can science provide insight regarding the presence of possible health concerns?

Science is good at discovering patterns and phenomena (laws) in the natural world, and predicting outcomes using these laws of nature.  Science rarely produces the absolute certainty many of us seek.  Rather, scientific studies express their theories in degrees of probability, and the observed results are from a hypothesized mechanism, rather than random chance. Conclusions in scientific studies always leave some degree of uncertainty for a good reason - to allow new data, methods and interpretations to be factored in that may help better explain observations and increase the confidence in the explanations. Without doubt, science is currently our best method for explaining the natural world.   Put in perspective, Bertrand Russell, mathematician/philosopher said, “When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also add that some things are more nearly certain than others”.

Frequently, politicians or businesses are motivated by profit or power, and will state that the science is on their side, when under closer scrutiny, it is not.  History is replete with examples- tobacco, lead, asbestos, numerous pesticides, and global climate change, have all been said to be either safe or even portrayed as hoaxes from those who have a financial incentive to muddy the water of the established science and support their self-interests.

 In 1996, congress enacted the Telecommunications Act, which established a federal standard for electromagnetic frequency (EMF) radiation safety level exposure.  The basis for this standard was heavily adapted from Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) studies done in 1992. The Telecommunication industry is only restrained to keep its wireless facilities within these FCC standards, which were based upon studies done over twenty-five years ago.  There is no alternative current legal basis to challenge this FCC standard of safety, despite new data from recent studies calling into doubt these safety levels.  This is a shameful distortion of how science works. Science should always be written in pencil, not etched in stone.

Numerous arguments exist as to why the FCC standards should be modified and updated to reflect the changing use of cell phones. Is it that our institutions for public safety are not designed to handle the new pace of technology?   Or is it that special interests are guilty of putting their finger on the scale of the truth? 

Mass public usage of cell phones throughout the world is a relatively new phenomenon, and the technology continues to rapidly change.  The iPhone and other smart phones, which introduced 3G and now 4G/LTE technology have only been around for the last ten years, and the old flip-phones of the eighties were far different from the cell phones of today. 

The telecommunications industry today is ready to deploy a new and yet more powerful technology, referred to as 5G, or 5th generation cellular. This new technology, which is primarily intended to improve broadband Internet services, is quite different and it has many scientists and other health practitioners around the world very concerned.  In May 2015, 225 scientists from 41 countries signed an appeal to the United Nations and World Health Organization, “to exert strong leadership in fostering the development of more protective EMF guidelines, encouraging precautionary measures, and educating the public about health risks, particularly risk to children and fetal development.”  In June, 2017 the same group of scientists from International EMF Scientists Appeal submitted a letter to the FCC, calling for, “The FCC to critically consider the potential impact of the 5th generation wireless infrastructure on the health and safety of the U.S. population before proceeding to deploy this infrastructure.”

With each new technological advance, history has demonstrated that there is often justified concern that new studies will be needed to establish the risks before exposing the unsuspecting or unwilling public to potentially dangerous health concerns.  But, who do we trust for the unbiased truth and what studies should carry the most weight?  One review of 59 published studies on health risk exposure to radio frequency radiation found that reports primarily funded by industry were least likely to report significant results compared to studies funded by public agencies.


The American Cancer Society

The American Cancer Society points out that although most studies have not proven a direct link to cell phone usage and tumors, this should not put us at ease. The studies on the cell phone safety have a number of limitations that should have us hesitate to conclude cell phones are safe: “First, studies have not yet been able to follow people for very long periods of time. When tumors form after a known cancer-causing exposure, it often takes decades for them to develop. Because cell phones have been in widespread use for only about twenty years in most countries, it is not possible to rule out future health effects that have not yet appeared. Second, cell phone usage is constantly changing. People are using their cell phones much more than they were even ten years ago, and the phones themselves are very different from what was used in the past. This makes it hard to know if the results of studies looking at cell phone use in years past would still apply today.”

The Chou Study, 1992

A five-year and five-million-dollar study of long-term exposure to non-ionizing radiation and cancer was published all the way back in 1992. The study used 200 rats and exposed them to either no radiation or to a range of low levels of RF radiation for twenty-six months until the rat’s natural death. They found a statistically significant increase of primary malignancies in exposed rats versus controls. The study found these results to be “a provocative finding”.  Most notable of this study was that it used pulsed frequencies now used by our current 4G standard (2450 MHz) and at low levels (.4 to .15 watts/kilogram), which is lower than the current FCC limits (1.5 watts/kilogram).

Chou C-K, Guy AW, Kunz LI, et al. Long-term, low-level microwave irradiation of rats. Bioelectromagnetics1992;13:469–96.   First long-term animal study of weak high frequency EMFs ever conducted. About three times more malignancies found in exposed as compared to control animals


Danish Cohort Study, 2007

This study followed a group of people who had cellular phone service up until 2007.  They concluded the evidence did not suggest any increased risk between cell phone use and cancer.  Many critics have accused this as a flawed study funded in part by industry.

The World Health Organization, 2011

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2011 determined, upon review of the current worldwide evidence from numerous epidemiological studies of the relationship between radio-frequency-modulated electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) and cancer. Experts at the IARC decided to classify RF-EMF waves emitted by cell phones, cell towers, and Wi-Fi networks as category 2B, indicating a “possible human carcinogen.”

Interphone Study, 2012

The largest epidemiological study (investigation of risks of diseases in large populations of people) was the Interphone Study in 2012.  It involved thirteen countries and questioned 7,000 people who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and a control group of 14,000 healthy people about their cell phone usage. The study concluded that there was no association between cell phone use and brain tumors, except from that reporting cell phone use of at least 1640 hours in their lifetimes without a headset. However, a very alarming 40 percent with heavy cell phone use were more likely to develop brain tumors than those with no cell phone usage.


Million Women Study, 2016

The British 2016 Million Women Study sampled 800,000 women over seven years and analyzed their cell phone usage. They found no health connections but mentioned a possible link to a rare brain tumor, acoustic neuromas with increased usage and suggested more studies be done.

National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) -
National Toxicology Program (NTP) Study, 2016

This extremely large five-year study is the largest health study ever attempted by the NTP.  In 2016 the study reported two types of cancers in lab rats exposed to radio frequency (RF) radiation and modulations used by 2G and 3G cell phone operations.  Malignant gliomas (brain cancers) and heart schwannomas were observed from rats exposed to RF radiation for two years (typical life-time for rats).  The RF exposures of 900 to 1900 MHz began in the womb for rats, and 5-6 weeks of age for mice.  Exposures were intermittent, ten minutes on and ten minutes off for nine hours per day for two years and included whole body exposures. The RF power levels ranged from 1.5 to 6 watts/kilogram of body weight for rats and 2.5 to 10 watts/kilogram for mice, the lowest levels ranging from at or above (exposure to the brain) to lower than the maximum allowable levels for human occupational exposure in our current FCC standard.

In May 2018 their findings were again reviewed by a 14-member peer-reviewed panel of engineer professors, toxicologists and pathologists chosen by the NTP and NIH. They concluded that exposures to frequencies and modulations typically used in 2G and 3G cell phones were associated with “Clear evidence” of tumors in male rats (malignant schwannomas); “Some evidence” of tumors in the brains of male rats (malignant gliomas); “Some evidence” of tumors in the adrenal glands of male rats (psuedochromocytomas).  For female rats, and male and female mice, there was “Equivocal evidence” for the other cancers observed.  The conclusions were based upon NTP standards: Clear evidence (highest), Some evidence, Equivocal evidence, and No evidence (lowest).

Reactions around the world to this study were quick and heated.  Industry sources mostly stated that the NTP study was flawed and “…just hype, pure and simple”.  However, the American Cancer Society, among other groups consider the NTP report to be a possible land mark study and a shift of our basic understanding of the relationship of RF radiation and cancer, which is a reverse of its previous position.  This change is due in part to the fact that this study now disproves the basis for justification of 1996 FCC guidelines, which stated that frequencies used by cell phones are in the “non-ionizing” range and therefore cannot cause any biological cell damage to humans other than a small thermal effect.

Ronald L Melnick, PhD, and senior scientist for 28 years with National Institutes of Health states, “This assumption of safety from non-thermal RF radiation levels is frankly wrong. The non-thermal effects of cell phone RFR include tumor development, heart damage, DNA damage to brain, tumor promotion and oxidative stress.” Oxidative DNA damage is shown to be an effect of RF radiation in numerous research studies and can lead to genomic changes in animals and humans that can result in cancer development. Many human carcinogens, including asbestos and arsenic, are now understood to induce oxidative stress even though they do not directly cause DNA damage. “Thus, without causing direct DNA damage, RF radiation may induce oxidative stress and thereby initiate or promote tumor development”, Melnick explains.


Ramazzini Study, 2018

This the world’s largest peer-reviewed study on cell tower radiation.  The study was similar to the NTP study, but focused in on the far-field vs. near-field effects, and the higher frequencies used by current 4G cell transmissions (1800 MHz), with lower power levels than the FCC maximum exposure rates.  As with the NTP study, rats were exposed daily (12 hours per day) for their life-times, and the results from the RF exposure produced similar heart and brain tumors that were observed in the NTP study.

The Ramazzini study focused on three RF radiation doses expressed in volts/meter (5, 25 or 50 volts per meter). The Ramazzini study authors converted their numbers to the same expressions used in the NTP study for comparison standards, which ranged down to 1,000 times lower. 

The Ramazzini study, as the NTP study, reported elevated rates of heart schwannomas in male rats at the highest dose. They also had lower evidence standards linking RF exposure to tumor cells in the brain.  This relationship and consistency between the two studies is important, because reproducibility in science is an important concept that increases credibility and validation.

Fiorella Belpoggi PhD, study author and RI Director of Research said, “Together, the NTP and Ramazzini studies provide sufficient evidence to call for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to re-evaluate and re-classify their conclusions regarding the carcinogenic potential of RFR in humans. The IARC should consider changing the RF radiation designation to a “probable” human carcinogen. Even if the hazard is low, billions of people are exposed, she says, alluding to the estimated number of wireless subscriptions worldwide.”


Where do we go from here?

In the absence of certainty, what should we do to minimize our exposure? Like all electromagnetic radiation, from radio waves all the way up to visible light and beyond, RF radiation intensity falls off inversely with the square of distance. For example, if you step twice as far away from a light or radio transmitter, it will appear 2 to the second power, or four, times weaker. It is a powerful natural law that acts like a double-edged sword.  Yes, a cell tower is much less powerful and safer to you the further you move away; however, the closer you get, the more dangerous it becomes! There are required warning signs very near a cell antenna to RF exposure, and it makes common sense to locate a cell tower as far away from residences as necessary to minimize the dangers.

Similarly, if instead of holding your cell phone tightly against the side of your head, a mere inch from your brain, put it on speakerphone or use a headset so that the phone and its antenna are now at least twelve inches from your brain.  You will have reduced your brain’s incoming RF radiation intensity by 12 to the second power, or a factor of 144. And, you could always just text and further minimize your exposure.

Lastly, consider that on the near horizon are 5G cellular technologies, which will utilize much higher frequencies and energy.  These high frequencies have very small waves (mm size), that are unable to transmit large distances and do not penetrate objects easily.  Therefore, they require a dense concentration of cell towers (only 300 feet apart) to compensate for these transmission inadequacies.  We must not allow outdated federal FCC standards and industry-driven authority to usurp our common sense and ability to use reason to protect ourselves from this new high-tech threat.  It is foolish to just wait thirty years and hope cancers will not develop.  We can act now to let our elected officials know we do not want cell towers operating in close proximity to our homes or businesses. 

There are alternatives to the new 5G technology for broadband Internet services that do not expose us to health risks.  Fiber optic cable is safe, secure and much faster than 5G and does not involve microwave transmissions and the need for cell towers.