Public Comment

Commentary: Cell Phone Towers Pose Health Risks for Dense Areas

By Joanne Kowalski
Tuesday May 01, 2007

Like others, I, too, was concerned about the health effects of cell phone towers and went to the Internet to do some research. From it, I learned that while the FDA maintains that the link between RF energy emitted by cell phone antennas and health problems like cancer is “inconclusive” or “has not been demonstrated,” they also say “there is no proof that they are absolutely safe.” Even on industry friendly sites, the “prevailing wisdom among researchers” in the field is that it is “too early to draw any strong conclusions.” The research has not been expansive enough, there have been too few properly controlled studies, exposure times have been too short (sometimes as little as one hour) and the technology is too new to really know about possible long term effects. There does, however, seem to be a definite effect at the cellular level (e.g. DNA changes) which may well pose a risk to developing organisms (e.g. children). 

I also discovered there is at least one agreed upon danger from RF antennas. Exposure to high levels of RF radiation can heat the body (like “microwave ovens cook food”) and cause “thermal effects” like eye damage (e.g. cataracts), skin burns and heat strokes. Because of this there are “safety guidelines” that prevent public access to “areas within 9 meters/25 feet” of the radiating surface as well as guidelines for workers who have to go within that area (e.g. roofers). The greatest danger occurs where multiple base stations are mounted on the same building, where towers are placed lower than nearby buildings and where structures require access by workers for maintenance and repairs. 

There are also guidelines to safeguard against “improperly designed” or “inadequately secured” mobile phone base station sites. The latter, I would think, would be particularly important in areas with high winds or active earthquake faults. There was little information on how these guidelines are monitored or enforced.  

My research has led me to conclude that, in this case at least, discretion would be a better part of valor. Given the potential health and safety risks, why put base stations near schools (e.g. 2721 Shattuck), on top of buildings where people live (e.g. 1040 University) or in densely populated areas (e.g. Downtown) when other locations are possible? We should also make sure safety standards are strictly enforced and show particular caution when mounting multiple base stations on the same building and/or placing towers on roofs lower than those nearby.  

From my reading, I also learned that the total number of towers could be substantially reduced if wireless companies shared antennas rather than each having their own. If we could municipalize shared towers, place them on public property (e.g. courthouses and city hall) and charge cell phone companies a users’ fee, we could not only ensure their safety but also raise municpal funds. 

On the other hand, I saw that a property owner can get $2,000 a month to host just one of these contraptions. If they truly are as benign as some folks claim, I suggest they be totally deregulated in order to create a kind of cottage industry that would give us little people a chance at a slice of the pie. I figure I could get two, maybe three on my roof. I’d even promise to dress them up like trees so property values won’t decline.  



Joanne Kowalski is a Berkeley resident.