Cell Tower Safety

Since I published the article regarding cellular site safety issues, I’ve received much e-mail and comments on the subject, most of which is highly paranoid. People here the word radiation and think “nuclear”, but not all radiation is bad radiation, sunlight and all radio and television signals are radiation. These are quite distinct from nuclear radiation in that they are non-ionizing.

Radiation that is harmful has to have some physical effect on the body such as ionizing atoms in our body, which makes them reactive, or damaging DNA, or interfering with the ability of ions to transverse ion channels in our cells walls, or by causing thermal or electrical effects that disrupt normal metabolic activity.

At low power levels, cell phone radiation does none of these things, but at higher levels, thermal effects and effects on the electrical activity within the central nervous system can manifest and cause a variety of problems up to cancer and central nervous system problems. These power levels are normally only possible if you are in the same plain as the antenna and within 35 feet, and the effects can be cumulative, the longer the exposure the greater the risk. Cell sites are supposed to be designed and sited to avoid these conditions.

I received e-mail that described a situation which involved a telephone pole mounted cell site with the antenna at the same height as the bedroom window of a nearby house and the distance from the antenna was less than 35 feet from the bedroom.

This is a situation where there is a legitimate concern. The antennas used for cellular sites are highly directional in the vertical plain.

The energy they radiate is focused in a plain at their height. This means you are safe if you are significantly higher or lower than the antenna or more than about 35 feet away.

But if you are at the same high as the antenna and less than 35 feet away, and particularly if you are going to be in that location for long periods of time, as in the case of a bedroom, this is not a safe situation.

In this case I would file a complaint with the FCC and the company involved making it clear that this creates an unsafe condition and asking that they either relocate the cell site or raise the antenna above the height of the bedrooms to resolve the issue.

If you can not stop the installation at the bedroom height that close to your house, then I would look into adding some RF shielding in the walls. You can buy brass or copper screening that would be effective, or copper foil, but these things are expensive.

This is a situation where the home owner really has a legitimate complaint but proving it might be expensive. That is to say, the FCC may not send out a field engineer to take measurements, instead they may require that you hire an engineer to do so. But then if you are forced into this, I would make it clear to the telephone company up front that you intend to do whatever is necessary and take legal action to recover your costs from them in hopes it might persuade them that it would be more cost effective to take action voluntarily. Alternately, they could pay the costs of installing the necessary shielding to assure the safety of the individual(s) sleeping in that bedroom.

8 thoughts on Cell Tower Safety

  1. Unfortunately it’s a non-article. It’s calling for studies to be done (there have been, many) and suggesting that brain tumors might be on the rise and if so cell phones must be implicated.

    First, I wouldn’t dismiss that possibility outright. The RF field strength of a cell phone held up next to your head is many many times higher than exposure from a cell tower would normally be owing to the close proximity.

    However, that said there are several comments I want to make about this article.

    The author confuses ELF with cell phone radiation (microwave).

    ELF is extremely low frequency, radiation from power lines would be considered ELF.

    ELF definitely has a cancer link, and the mechanism by which it causes cancer is known. ELF causes ions to spiral as they cross the cells membrane through an ion channel. This spiraling reduces the ability of the ion to cross the membrane and thus interferes with the cellular chemistry.

    There are some high blood pressure medications that also work by reducing the ion channels ability to transport ions across the cell membrane.

    ELF and these medications both increase the risk for leukemia and bone cancers and there is a very weak link to some other cancers.

    But this has nothing to do with cell phones, cell phones do not radiate ELF, they radiate frequencies approximately 30 million times power line frequencies that do not cause this kind of spiraling and by extension would not cause cancer by this mechanism.

    Now as I stated, there have been a number of studies done. The results have indicated that there does seem to be an increase in brain tumors among people who used cellular phones twenty years ago although it’s a relatively weak increase.

    Some people have drawn the conclusion that there is a long latency between cellular exposure and the onset of brain tumors, but knowing some details about the old sets I believe that is probably the wrong conclusion.

    The telephone sets in use during that era had 3-5 watt transmitters. Having used one of those I can tell you that there were definitely thermal effects at that power level (it would heat up my ear, the side of my head, and if the call lasted any duration, give me headaches).

    Over time as technology has improved, power levels have decreased, and modern sets operate at a maximum power of around 100mw (1/10th of a watt), and typically at lower power levels of as little as a milliwatt if close to a cell site. This is not enough power to cause thermal effects.

    I do not know however that it can be safely concluded that there is no danger.

    I am aware that it has been recently discovered that a new type of very tenuous hydrogen bond was discovered and is part of biological chemistry. Given that cell phones operate close to resonances of hydrogen or OH radicals, it is possible they might induce enough vibration to break a bond creating free radicals that in turn could do cellular damage.

    What I am saying here is that I don’t know that this is the case, but I can at least see where a mechanism exists.

    However, given that the risks associated with the high power units appeared to be only marginal, I don’t worry about it too much, but that’s not to say I don’t worry about it at all.

    Personally, I prefer a wired land-line for any long duration calls, try to keep cell to a minimum.

    The other thing that I want to mention is even if the rates of these cancers are increasing, it isn’t necessarily because of cell phones. We all know cancer rates increase with age, people are living longer, and the population is getting older in general.

    Then there is all the other crap in our environment that we know isn’t good for us.

    But it’s one thing you do have control over, so why not minimize the risk?

    Incidentally, the closer you are to a cell tower, the lower the power your phone transmits with, so for cell phone users, being close to a tower is actually a risk reduction (the radiation from the phone at your head far exceeds that from a tower at 30 feet or more).

    One last note, the most deadly and unfortunately common brain cancer, gliaobastoma’s, have recently been associated with a virus, cytomegalovirus to be specific.

    It should be noted that the rate of glioblastomas is only 2-3 per 100,000 individuals. Virtually all have been found to be infected with this virus, but by the time you are 90, 90% of individuals are infected but obviously very few people develop this cancer so it’s not clear if something fails to control the virus in some individuals and they develop cancer, or if the cancerous cells for some reason lend themselves to the efficient replication of the virus.

    At any rate; modern studies have found no link to electromagnetic radiation except in cases of people using cell phones back in the high powered days, and even if it doubled the rate you’d be talking 4 in 100,000 instead of 2 in 100,000, that is, your odds of dying from this particular cancer would still be low.

  2. In the last post I erroneously wrote 30 million times power, I meant to say, 30 million times higher, i.e., 1.8 Ghz or 2.4 Ghz (and older analog at 800-900 Mhz) are frequencies used for cellular, verses 60 Hz power line frequencies.

  3. hi nanook, thank you so much for the information. unfortunately, my city is in the process of approving a cellular tower directly in across the street from my home – 40′ distance. because of the outcry about aesthetics from the surrounding neighbors, verizon has decided to shorten the tower from 30′ to 25′ so as to blend in with a tree. as a result, the plane of the rf is level to all living areas of my home. verizon has also classified me and the surrounding residents as general public. i’m requesting they move the site at least 150 yards further down the road where there are no homes. from what i can gather they say this is the best location based on their studies. can you explain how cellular tower locations are selected? and can you point me where i can read about who regulates verizon that they are in fact keeping the rf fields within fcc guidelines. any other information you could arm me with for my fight with the city this tuesday would be much appreciated. thank you! ~ veronica

  4. At 40 feet from the tower you are at a distance that is reasonably safe. Less than 30 feet in the plane of the antenna would generally not be good. Of coarse it would be better if it were 150 feet down or it was raised to where you were out of the plane of radiation. You might really want to talk to your neighbors about safety vs aesthetics, that additional height will actually result in lower ground radiation and make it safer.

    The FCC would be the agency that regulates it but your description makes it sound like that would not violate regulations. The FCC also seems to make it next to impossible to enforce.

    I can’t explain how cell towers sites are selected in detail because I don’t know the details; I’ve never worked for a cellular company, I’ve worked for a regular telephone company and I’ve held a first class radio telephone operators license, and I’ve run an ISP for a decade and a half, and I’ve read up a lot on cellular so I’m familiar with various technical aspects.

    But site selection I’m sure involves many things, height above average terrain, location relative to other cell sites, economics (I suspect this one is a BIG factor), i.e, if they can get right-of-way or lease space for less money that might override some technical considerations.

    Another possibility that might be considered is rather than lowering the high, disguise or decorate it somehow. Here where I am there is a site on church grounds in which they’ve disguised the antenna to appear to be part of the church structure. To me that’s going a bit too far as it is deceptive and really goes beyond merely making it aesthetically less objectionable.

    The amount of power involved is low compared to other services such as UHF TV stations and radar. At that distance the levels are much lower than you’d get from using a cell phone and most data that shows any connection with problems involve older cell phones when transmit power was multiple watts instead of the 100mw max it is on most sets to day and as little as 1mw if signal is good, and those studies only showed very weak correlations.

    It may be that relocation 150 yards will mess things up in relation to other cell sites if it’s in a heavily populated area with small cell sites. I’d talk to your neighbors and see if you can’t convince them that safety is more important than aesthetics.

    One other question I would ask is what part of the house is within 40 feet? If it’s a bedroom, where you’re going to spend 8 hours bathed in that radiation every night, verses a less frequently used room, you might look at orienting your bed so that your head is as far away as possible. But I really think the biological effects at that signal level are going to be minimal.

  5. Hi Nanook,

    My husband and I are looking at a home that is located near an old police radio tower (I am currently looking into whether or not it is still being used). We would be living about 400-500 metres from the tower and I am wondering whether this is a safe distance. We have a baby and I am very torn as to whether or not this is a SAFE and wise investment. The tower is quite tall and has a few satelite dish looking gadgets on it (don’t you love my techy lingo). =) There will also be several other houses between us and the tower. I would feel better if they were skyscrapers and not two storey houses though. =) We currently live opposite a tv station with about 10 huge satelite dishes on top so I feel like I’m in a mess either way.

    Any insight you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

  6. I just moved into an apartment that on the 3rd and 4th floors. A cell tower is diagonally across the street from me (I believe that the tower also has WiMax antennas as well). My rough estimate of the distance from the antenna to the window of my living room (3rd flr) and bedrooms (4th flr) is ~30 feet and the first set of antennas are about 15 feet above the 4th flr. Based on my interpretation of the article, I’m pretty much in the danger zone, considering that I’m within the 35′ of the plane vertically as well as being within 40 feet in distance. I am willing to invest some money to find out how bad the RF is as well as any RF shields to mitigate the problem. Can you point me in the right direction in terms of the type of meter I should get, or at least what type of readings I should get on the meter. Also you had mentioned using copper/brass as RF shields. I found this site http://www.lessemf.com/fabric.html that sells different fabrics/mesh to block RF. I’m considering purchasing some fabrics/mesh and using them as curtains on the wall to mitigate. Not sure what would be the most effective.

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