Transmit the facts to radiate reassurance

Written September 22, 2010.  Guest Opinion published in the Ashland Daily Tiding

[ Similar to many communities in the U.S. and abroad, conflict erupted when AT&T applied to install an antenna station on the roof of the cinema in my town, Ashland, Oregon. The owners of a neighboring non-conventional health center were devastated and sounded the alarm. All the practitioners who rent space from them said they would not work so close to a cell tower. The City Planning Commissioners, compelled by Federal law prohibiting cities from denying cell antenna station applications based on environmental/health concerns, reluctantly approved AT&T’s application. Yet, the drama continues to unfold as the wellness center owners rally public support while appealing the approval. Meanwhile, knowing very little about scary-sounding “radiation,“ I decided to explore credible information to find out the risks, sorting fact from fiction. This essay was published in the Ashland Daily Tidings.]

Some say AT&T’s insistence on placing their cell phone antennas on the roof of the cinema in the Ashland Shopping Center is corporate bullying and an affront to Ashland’s values, as many nearby (non-conventional) healthcare practitioners and their clients fear these antennas emit harmful radio frequency (RF) radiation.

I suspect that AT&T’s motives reflect the community’s values, as we increasingly value and demand tiny, richly-featured mobile phones with excellent reception. While spearheading public and legal opposition, the neighboring Hidden Springs Wellness Center owners reported: “I have a cell phone; almost everybody has a cell phone these days.” 

Opponents insist Ashland law mandates AT&T to co-locate with other antennas, e.g. at the less densely populated Holiday Inn location. There is no isolated tower there; the existing antenna site is situated on the building, populated with overnight guests and workers, near other hotels, restaurants, a brewery, a temple, homes, etc. When AT&T argued there’d be coverage deficits, an opponent claimed that AT&T can amplify the signal, which would raise RF emissions. Some opponents insist AT&T can co-locate with the broadcast radio antennas at SOU—adding more purportedly harmful RF radiation in the heart of the campus. Sounds like anything goes, just “not in my backyard.” 

Exploring this subject, I found that greater population density often necessitates more base antennas to satisfy reception demands and overcome physical obstacles (e.g. buildings). Some cities have hundreds of cell stations. It’s the nature of the beast. The beauty is that city-wide antenna stations are generally very low powered. And, they share the load, meaning lower RF emissions from each station. Moreover, cell phones emit less RF when the provider’s antennas are nearby, as phones power-up while searching for a signal.

Hidden Springs reported their opposition is not about health risks—not to declare antennas safe but “because federal law won’t let the city use health effects as a criteria.” It’s about perception of risk causing financial impacts. Thirteen practitioners renting space at Hidden Springs, and several patrons, said they’d leave.

Fostering or supporting unsubstantiated RF fears that threaten businesses and property values could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, the Hidden Springs owners could choose to use their perceived health authority to alleviate these fears with reassuring information from credible sources. I offer the following:

Radio frequency radiation

  • The maximum RF power radiated by antennas commonly used in cities is typically just 50 watts—equivalent to a dim light bulb.
  • You’d have to stand on the roof closer than three feet from the front of a station’s antennas, all transmitting at maximum permitted intensity (uncommon), to exceed the FCC’s safe exposure limit for the public.
  • RF exposure decreases exponentially with distance. E.g. within the transmitted beam, exposure 200 feet away would be a miniscule 1/40,000 of that at one foot.
  • The public’s RF exposure from numerous antenna stations in an area is typically trivial—thousands of times less than the FCC‘s safe limit.
  • Even some researchers who suggest cell phones pose health risks will suggest cell towers are safe; e.g. Dr. Peter French reported: “…the amount of power that one gets from mobile phone masts [towers] is very much less (than cell phones) and likely to be biologically inert.”
  • Today’s cell phones emit just 1 watt, or much less, of radiated power—equivalent to a pen light.

The science

  • “No recent national or international reviews have concluded that exposure to the RF fields from mobile phones or their base stations causes any adverse health consequence.” (WHO, 2005)
  • RF is “non-ionizing” radiation, thus regarded as unable to alter DNA molecules to cause cancer directly. Implausibility should raise the evidence-bar for proving otherwise.
  • So far, alarming RF studies have tended to be weak —too small, too biased, etc.. (Two Viennese lab studies showing DNA damage from RF radiation stand accused by their ethics board of falsification.)
  • Radiation isn’t synonymous with radioactivity and emissions doesn’t mean pollution. In scientific parlance, even the colors of the rainbow emit radiation (visible light).
  • The recently summarized “Interphone” study conducted by 13 countries found no overall association of cell phones with brain tumors. Moreover, brain tumor rates haven’t risen even as cell phones and RF antenna stations proliferate.
  • A huge Danish study, using records rather than memory of past phone use (eliminating recall-bias afflicting many other studies), found no association with brain or various other cancers after 10+ years use.
  • Some sources cherry-pick alarming studies while peddling dubious RF “shields” or RF absorbing jewelry (or related: “dirty electricity filters”). If a product substantially blocks a cell phone’s RF radiation, the user’s exposure would increase as phones power-up to find a signal.
  • Meta-analysis of RF-provoked hyper-electromagnetic sensitivity studies overwhelmingly found misattribution of symptoms to RF radiation or the nocebo effect (adverse reaction due to expectancy of harm).
  • RF radiation is ubiquitous, both natural—mostly from lightning and the sun—and human-generated with the proliferation of products and their associated antennas, e.g. cell and cordless phones, handheld devices, wireless computers, baby monitors, automatic doors, remote controls, radio and TV broadcasts, amateur radio, medical devices, CBs, pagers, 2-way radios (often used by cities, education systems, emergency services), etc.. You’d be hard-pressed to find an RF-free zone most anywhere.
  • Relocating from a cell antenna station installed on a neighboring building would trivially reduce your overall RF exposure (and again, could increase it if you use cell phones). Sunlight is a vastly more energetic and higher-powered source of EMF exposure, and carries ionization risks (from ultraviolet frequencies) not seen with RF radiation. You’d be better off taking in a movie at a cinema topped with cell antennas operating at full capacity than standing out in the bright sun worrying about the antennas (not to minimize the health benefits of some sun exposure).


A CONVERSATION WITH: ELEANOR R. ADAIR; Tuning In to the Microwave Frequency,” by Gina Kolata. Published: January 16, 2001 [Ending quote: “All the emphasis that we need more research on power line fields, cell phones, police radar — this involves billions of dollars that could be much better spent on other health problems. Because there is really nothing there.”]

A Disconnect between cell phone fears and science,” book review of Devra Davis’ book, Disconnect, Dec. 31, 2010. And, “Critique of “Risk of Brain Tumors from Wireless Phone Use,” February 18, 2011. Articles by Lorne Trottier on the blog. [This entire blog is OUTSTANDING for sorting fact from fiction.]

“Making Sense of Radiation,” published 2008 by Sense about Science, a registered charity, London, UK. (Note: This excellent pamphlet can be printed and shared; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.)

“Mobile Telephony and Health Exposures from Base Stations”, Health Protection Agency (UK); as of September, 2009. Accessed September, 2010.

“Mobile Telecoms Health and Safety – Update 2009,” Mobile Operators Association.

“Cell Phones and Towers,” and “The Interphone Study,” EMF and Health blog.

“No link found between mobile phones and cancer — Claims that mobile-phone use causes cancer are shown to be overblown,”; May 17, 2010.

“Radio Frequency Safety,” FCC.

“Cellular Telephone Use and Cancer Risk: Update of a Nationwide Danish Cohort,” JNCI J Natl Cancer InstVolume98, Issue23, Pp.1707-1713; December 6, 2006.

“Electrosensitivity: A Case for Caution with Precaution,” G. James Rubin, Kings College London, Institute of Psychiatry.

“Epidemiology of Health Effects of Radiofrequency Exposure,” ICNIRP, Environmental Medicine – Review, 2004.

“Dialling up an old panic. What’s behind the claims that it’s riskier to use a mobile in the country than it is in the city?” by Adam Burgess; Spiked, May 27, 2005. (Includes a critique of Lennart Hardell’s studies.)

“electro-sensitives & electrohypersensitivity,” article published by Skeptic’s Dictionary.

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