Dear EarthTalk: Is there any scientific evidence of links between exposure to cell phone tower radiation and cancer?
—Jaqueline L., Woburn, MA
No one doubts that cell phone towers give off low-level radio-frequency radiation (similar to the microwave oven in your home), but scientists are still debating the health effects of long-term exposure. Some people are genetically predisposed to certain types of cancers, while others are not (for example, some lifelong smokers get lung cancer while others don”t). And with so many different chemicals, pollutants and other substances around us in our air, food and water, it is very difficult to determine with certainty if a particular environmental influence (such as a cell phone tower) is the culprit when health problems, such as cancer, arise in a particular locale or among certain populations.
But that hasn’t stopped many communities from worrying about this issue and taking cautionary measures. In San Francisco, for instance, concerned individuals and neighborhood groups have formed the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (SNAFU) for the purpose of preventing “the placement of wireless antennas on or near residences, schools, health care centers, day care centers, senior centers, playgrounds, places of worship, and other inappropriate locations.
SNAFU is worried that San Francisco is “already immersed in a sea of electromagnetic radiation” from, among other sources, some 2,500 licensed cell phone antennas at 530 locations around the city. The group is distributing petitions calling on local public officials to increase “restrictions on the number and location of cellular phone antennas and other wireless transmitters.” Other controversies have erupted in communities in Connecticut and elsewhere over churches renting their rooftops and steeples to cell phone companies for placement of antennas. And parents in Ossining, New York waged an unsuccessful battle in 2000 to ban revenue-generating cell towers from school grounds.
Still, the American Cancer Society (ACS) does not seem concerned, stating that limited epidemiological evidence suggests no link between cancers and living or working near a cell phone tower. ACS says that the energy level of radio waves coming off cell towers is too low to cause any noticeable human health impacts, and that a person would have to stand right in front of an antenna to pick up even trace amounts of radiation. And unlike X-rays or gamma rays, radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation is “non-ionizing,” meaning it lacks the gusto to break the bonds that hold molecules (like DNA) in cells together.
Still, cell phones and their towers are a fairly new technology, and very few studies of their health effects have yet been conducted. And the bulk of the research cited by the American Cancer Society has focused on direct and prolonged exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation in general, not on cell towers and their effects specifically. SNAFU reports that “no systematic attempt has been made to determine what current cumulative exposures to this radiation are.” Lingering public concerns about the issue surely means that more research on the topic is to come.