Left In Lowell

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April 26, 2011

Cell Towers: Alarmism, and NIMBY

by at 9:58 pm.

Both were on show tonight with the rather strongly worded public comment of a citizen over an item on tonight’s agenda, “C. Caulfield-Req. Mgr. report on Health Effects (if any) from Cell Towers on City Structures.”

I don’t blame Caulfield for bringing up a citizen’s concerns, particularly when I suspect without some major research, he wouldn’t have had any idea how to evaluate her claims about the health effects (hint: she believes there definitely are some! no really!! think of the childrens!!)

But her speech really sounded familiar. It reminded me powerfully of the people who claim there’s evidence that vaccines given to children causes autism. Immediately, my science bullshit meter went off.

The woman (sorry, I didn’t catch her name) mentioned some study claiming “double the rates of leukemia near cell towers.” If that were true, I don’t think there’d be any Big Giant Conspiracy™ in the world that would stop scientists from further studying the effects of cell towers.

This site cites a couple of studies (including the leukemia claim) regarding rates of cancer and cell towers, but for instance, one thorough vetting of the most “alarming” of the studies, that “a study by Dr. Bruce Hocking in Australia found that children living near Cell Phone Towers in Sydney had more than twice the rate of childhood leukemia than children living more than seven miles away” - turns out, there’s some caveats, and also, it appears that this study is from 1996.

The first caveat is that the study does not refer to cell towers. It refers to TV towers, which, as pointed out by this paper, are 15,000 times more powerful.

TV towers have a much higher power rating-and thus give out more intense radiation- than mobile phone towers. For example, the TV transmitter on top of Black Mountain, Canberra, is rated at 300 kilowatts. A typical mobile phone tower is emitting only about 20 watts, i.e. 15 000 times weaker. …

[…]

In comparison with the Australian Standard(3) (200 microwatts/square cm), a power density level of 6 microwatt/square cm from a mobile phone tower (said to be a maximum value) represents only 3% of the value of the maximum allowable power density. A more typical figure of 0.1 microwatt/square cm is only 0.05% of the standard.

Turning to larger TV broadcast towers, a person standing one kilometre away would expect to be exposed to a power density of 5-10 microwatts/square cm of radiation. At two kilometres this reduces greatly to about 0.5 microwatt/square cm. These figures are still far less than the prescribed limit of 200 microwatts/square cm.

But you cannot talk about RF (cell phone) radiation with discussing the actual radiation itself. From the same paper:

A significant division within the EMR spectrum is the frequency at about 10 million gigahertz above which waves become ionising in nature, i.e. they are capable of knocking electrons out of atoms to form ions. Thus ultraviolet rays, X-rays and gamma radiation are ionising because they are of greater frequency than 10 million gigahertz. When directed at the body, such radiation is known to be capable of initiating cancer through damage to genetic material (DNA). Too much sunlight, too many X-rays or too much exposure to the gamma-radiating isotope cobalt-60 can cause cancer.

That part of the EMR spectrum of concern in this paper is non-ionising and is known as radiofrequency/microwave radiation (RF radiation for short). […] The radiofrequency spectrum includes, in increasing order of energy, waves from AM radio, FM radio, TV (very high and ultra high frequency), mobile phones, police radar, microwave ovens and satellite stations.

[…]

Intense waves in the radiofrequency spectrum are readily able to raise the temperature of, say, a culture of cells brought near the source of radiation (the principle of the microwave oven) as wave energy is converted to heat energy on contact with the cells. This is known as a thermal effect. However, because the radiation is non-ionising there is no electron stripping of cellular DNA and therefore no direct initiation of cancer. Radiofrequency standards to protect health are totally based on avoiding thermal effects (see below).

Your microwave works on this principle - it can heat molecules, but it can’t mess with your DNA.

Also, cell towers point their radiation out into the air - horizontal to the ground at the level they are at. This is so their signals can reach further. So most of the radiation, even at the low range for cell towers, doesn’t even hit the ground around the tower itself, except, perhaps, at its base (you know, where they put a fence up to keep you out).

It’s easy to see why someone doing research would get concerned - the number of alarmist websites out there appear to outnumber real outlets of science and health organizations in the top rankings of the world wide internets. However, reading through some of these to get to a kernel of understanding, what you discover is that with RF and other low-spectrum energy waves, the worst thing you can do is crawl into your microwave because it can cook you - not turn your DNA into spaghetti. The studies that claim big negative effects from RF due to cell phones or cell phone towers apparently are not reproducible (a must if you’re going to get scientific acceptance). But the studies showing no correlation seem to be piling up year after year.

The World Health Organization has a great factsheet.

Finally, if you are so concerned about RF radiation, I suggest that you and your kids should stop watching the TV, using the computer, the microwave, or anything with wireless communication like your network or baby monitors. They all emit low-spectrum radiation including RF. Do you kids like to sit within feet of the TV? Do you have your wifi box near your home desk where you sit at the computer? Yup. All non-ionizing radiation, my friend.

It seems like being alarmist about health effects is itself a disease these days. It’s also good for selling snake oil protection charms as well. My google searches landed me at the same alarmist site I started with - trying to sell me a cheap-looking ceramic doodad to supposedly stop the big bad radiation.

Hey, health alarmism sells! Who wants to leave science to the scientists??

Don’t forget to vaccinate your kids.

18 Responses to “Cell Towers: Alarmism, and NIMBY”

  1. Kim Says:

    Lynne, please compare your view on cell phone tower safety to your view on gas fired power plants. Both do not allow health risks to be used for a reason to deny them and I believe you did not want one of them in your back yard. I have learned to dislike the word Nimby!

  2. Lynne Says:

    The problem I have, is that there doesn’t seem to BE any health risks! All the credible outlets - cancer institutes, science institutes, the WHO, do NOT say there are health risks - unless you climb the tower and sit right next to the transmitter, which will cook you because of the short-distance thermal ability of non-ionizing rays.

    But there is NO proof at all there’s a cancer risk. In fact, there’s a lot of studies that say there doesn’t seem to be any correlation, and the scattered studies that do (which get cited over, and over, and OVER again so you THINK there’s tons) have problems being reproduced by other scientists - a death knell for those studies, really, since science needs to be reproducible and results predictable in order to state unequivocally something IS.

    RF waves just can’t mess with your body’s cells. The waves are too long. It’s not like standing next to an xray or out in the sun soaking up UVs. THOSE are dangerous. But if you think RF waves are bad, then move out of your house, stop using electricity and go to the country with no cell phone, and no electronic devices, because you are exposed to low level non-ionizing radiation EVERY day in your own house.

  3. Lynne Says:

    (And low level non-ionizing radiation is all you get with cell towers, BTW.)

  4. Lynne Says:

    Here’s the problem with people misunderstanding science; I don’t think I was very clear on this point.

    You aren’t going to be able to prove a 100% negative: “There is no risk whatsoever from cell towers.” Instead, studies are just going to find no correlation, no definitive correlation, between risks for health issues and a cell tower. But after tons of studies that find no correlation between a risk for health issues and cell towers, you can feel pretty good about that.

    There’s also direct studies (”we put these mice near a cell tower simulation using the equivalent amount of radiation and nothing happened even in several generations compared to this mouse control group”) which are often easier to understand and more definitive, but still not completely - you can’t stick a human or a human child in such an experiment as that’d be unethical, what are the differences between (this animal) and humans, etc etc. You till can’t prove a 100% negative of “there is no risk.”

    But one guy in Australia does a survey in six suburbs of one city (three with cell towers, three without) finds that in the three communities there’s DOUBLE THE LEUKEMIA, suddenly that’s all over the news, and a million websites run with that. Never mind the giant number of factors that could be involved - cancer risks go up in so many circumstances, like being near to many highways, or power plants, or certain types of factories, or radon (an IONIZING radiation!) from granite for god’s sake.

    The fact is, that DOUBLE THE LEUKEMIA number has not been found anywhere else with any other study. They did a big one in England and they found nothing. They can’t reproduce the results. That means one of two things: the original results were statistically flawed (ie the data collected wasn’t enough, thereby not getting rid of statistical outliers) or else there were other factors contributing to DOUBLE THE LEUKEMIA RATE that have nothing to do with cell towers but other environmental or genetic or other factors that can cause cancer.

  5. migey Says:

    Lynne, as you stated there are mixed reports regarding the safety of cell phone towers and I agree. I look at it as my property values are dropping faster than a stone in water and this certainly does not help. The idea that the City Manager puts out an RFP without regard to how this would effect the neighborhood is bad business, unless you feel you are untouchable.

  6. Lynne Says:

    There’s a water tower right there! It’s not like that’s a gorgeous piece of real estate with a beautiful park and a unicorn.

    Yes, there are mixed studies - the ones stating some claim of health effects are NOT REPRODUCIBLE. This is how science works, kids. Reproducible = proven. Not reproducible = unstable science. The studies being cited appear to be old, and no one has reproduced the results. Instead, bigger studies trying to reproduce the results have found…nothing.

    I feel like a broken record. I prefer to let the scientists do their thing instead of second-guessing them. I will also repeat, that the reputable outfits have all looked at the science that some people have produced saying there are health effects and THEY evaluate cell towers as safe.

    I can guarantee you that if studies reproduced the “double the leukemia” result that they’d all be screaming bloody hell and so would the cancer institutes. There is no conspiracy here.

    The CM puts out RFPs all the time, for heaven’s sake. If he had to check with every citizen in every neighborhood being affected every time something was going to change, he’d never get any work done. I’m all for caring about your neighborhood and keeping people safe, and having a process, but please don’t spread lies to the public about things. It irks me.

  7. migey Says:

    Sounds like your a very level headed individual without an ax to grind, but I’m not sure that all the studies to date are conclusive.

    Your right there is a water tower there and for years now the people who live in the neighborhood have grown accustomed to first the green tank and now the golf ball blue tank. There is no reason to add to this burden with first, a cell phone transmission point for T-Mobile and then Verizon, Virgin etc…. What we want is for T-Mobile to use either CrossPoint or the old land fill off of Westford St. At the last meeting with T-Mobile they admitted that the old land fill was a higher point than the Wedge St water tower. The City can get more revenue by leasing the old landfill to various providers and keep distance from residential neighborhoods.

  8. joe from Lowell Says:

    Thank you, Lynne, for demonstrating sense here. You have a good scientific BS detector.

    I live feet from this site, with my kids. Cell phone antennas are harmless.

    City of Lowell, Take the Money.

  9. Tim Little Says:

    Heck, there are even 2 cellphone antennae in the steeple of First Parish UU in Chelmsford center; it’s been an important source of revenue for the church and provides a valuable service to the surrounding community. Not a big deal at all.

  10. joe from Lowell Says:

    BTW, I haven’t “grown accustomed to” seeing the water tower. I like it. I think they should paint “Lowell Highlands” on it in big letters facing the highway.

  11. Terry Says:

    I think you are missing the bigger point here. She was the only person from our neighborhood to speak up. That telecommunications law passed in 1996 was a complete sell job. It states that cell phone towers are safe and you are not allowed to question this……EVER!!! What a joke. Unfortunately the citizens of the highlands cannot afford their lobbyists. Ms or Mrs Rourke’s concern over radiation is not going to overturn any decisions but she deserves credit for making an issue of this. I would never be typing this if she hadnt spoken up so good job by her.I signed her petition and do not want a cell tower in that park.Just my opinion

  12. Terry Says:

    Joe’s last words “take the money”. I wonder how many things have gone horribly wrong throughout time with this simple and selfish logic?

  13. Mr. Lynne Says:

    Agree that the 1996 act was a complete sellout (Bob Dole and John McCain voted against), but not for reasons of safety.

  14. Right in Lowell Says:

    Be ready for another dramatic NIMBY performance Monday night regarding a tower on Boston Rd.

  15. joe from Lowell Says:

    I’ve been using the word “selfish” all my life, Terry, and never before have I seen it used to express a desire for more resources to be made available to one’s neighbors.

    Go ahead, explain how wanting the City of Lowell to be on stronger financial footing, through putting a cell antenna on a structure on my street, “selfish” of me.

  16. joe from Lowell Says:

    Selfish: this won’t affect me one way or the other, but it will be good for Lowell, so I say go for it.

    Unselfish: Not in my back yard! My cell phone should work because of an antenna in somebody else’s neighborhood!

  17. Terry Says:

    I was at the park yesterday. It’s such a great place for my daughter to play in. I know a cell tower will not change that experience but why on earth would you WANT it there when the dump is the perfect alternative. Nobody brings their kids to the dump.Nobody lives at the dump.It’s the perfect win -win situation. I am shocked that this is even a debate

  18. joe from Lowell Says:

    Given the effective range of cell phone antennas, I doubt that the landfill would be a perfect alternative.

    It’s a good question for the proponents - Why here and not at the landfill? - but 10:1 there’s a coverage issue that makes the landfill inadequate.

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