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Cell Phone Towers – Should We Fear Them?

By Raymond Barglow
Tuesday April 20, 2010 - 06:41:00 PM

Is your new iphone dangerous? California State Senator Mark Leno has proposed legislation requiring all cell phones sold in the state to carry information about their radiation levels on sales boxes, usage instructions, and advertising displays in stores. San Francisco is considering similar legislation for cell phones sold in the city. 

In Berkeley, controversy about the safety of cell phones has been going on for years, centered not on the phones themselves but on the towers that broadcast to them. A year ago, Berkeley adopted an ordinance governing the installation of cell phone towers, and now the Planning Commission is about to modify zoning district regulations to conform to the ordinance’s provisions.  

But Berkeley’s ordinance does not prevent installation of the towers, and so the issue has not gone away. In a recent Planet article, “Cell Phones and the Politics of Cancer,” Harry Brill warns anew of the dangers. 

When Berkeley citizens request that cell phone towers not be installed in their neighborhoods, two different kinds of issues are raised. One is scientific: is radiation from the towers dangerous? The other is political: in what degree and manner should citizens be granted democratic control of their living environment? 

In South Berkeley, the Le Conte Neighborhood Association, including my brother and sister-in-law, fought hard to prevent real estate mogul Patrick Kennedy from installing cell phone towers at UC Storage on Shattuck Ave. Whether or not their conjectures about the towers are correct, I believe they have the right not to be exposed to radiation that they deem possibly dangerous. 

However, the evidence for the danger is weak. And I’m a little worried that someone reading about the alleged risk of living near a cell phone tower might feel frightened enough to move away from a neighborhood where one is located. The probability that someone will be harmed by exposure to radiation from one of these towers is, in my opinion, almost zero, and I’ll explain why below. 

To be sure, as Harry Brill points out, we cannot rely upon government authority to protect the public from such a potential danger. After all, as he points out, exposures to asbestos and cigarettes were very belatedly judged to be harmful. I made a similar point in an article ““Cell Phones: Hazardous to Your Health?”published in the Berkeley Daily Planet back in January: I noted as well, however, that the mainstream view among researchers in the physical and biological sciences is that cell phone radiation is too weak, by a factor of at least a million, to do any damage to a human body. My own knowledge of radiation science is not strong – it’s been decades since my undergraduate studies in physics. But I’ve discussed this matter in the past year with four scientists: physicist Richard Muller at UC Berkeley, physicist Robert Cahn at LBL, physicist Michael Vollmer from Brandenburg Germany; and biophysics graduate student Jeff Moffitt at UC Berkeley. They disbelieve the statistical "evidence" showing cell phone use to be dangerous, partly because they can think of no scientifically plausible chain of events whereby radiation from a cell phone might disrupt a biological process. In my Daily Planet piece on this subject, I outlined some of the scientific reasoning that leads them to dismiss this worry. 

Moreover, even those expert critics who warn us about the risks of cell phone technology concentrate their attention on the use of the phones themselves, not on the towers that broadcast to them. Louis Slesin, for example, a scientist who is perhaps the most well-known American doubter of cell phone safety, told me that he’s not very concerned about the towers, since even a small distance between a tower and a user greatly attenuates the signal strength. And ironically, if cell phone towers are more widely distributed in a community, then users of this technology will need phones emitting less powerful radiation to communicate with those towers, thereby reducing their risk. 

Most of the scientific research over the past decade on the hazards of this technology use has studied the safety of cell phone receivers held to the ear. But there have also been a very few studies about the dangers of living near cell phone broadcasting installations. Several of these studies seem to have been written by reputable investigators and I’ve read them fairly carefully. In each case the research appears to be fundamentally flawed.  

For instance, a scientific study that has received wide distribution via the Internet, and is often cited on websites warning us about cell phone tower radiation, was conducted by Israeli medical researchers Ronni Wolf MD and Danny Wolf MD. Their team compared cancer rates among 622 people living near a cell phone transmitter station in the town of Netanya to 1277 individuals, “with very closely matched, environment, workplace and occupational characteristics,” but not living in the vicinity of a transmitter station. In the period of one year, 8 cancer cases were diagnosed in the group of 622 experimental subjects. Only 2 cases of cancer were diagnosed in the control group of 1277. The researches concluded that “The study indicates an association between increased incidence of cancer and living in proximity to a cell-phone transmitter station.”  

Although the numbers of cases here is small, the result is a disturbing one. I wondered, though, about cell phone use among the reported 10 cancer cases. If cell phone antennas are dangerous, then the actual use of cell phones is much more so, since the receiver is held so much closer to the brain, whereas, in the Israeli study, the experimental subjects lived on average about 200 feet away from the antennas. So I assumed that the researchers would have inquired whether the experimental subjects – especially those who came down with cancer – were themselves cell phone users. Surprisingly, no information about this was presented in this study. When I spoke with one of the principal investigators on the phone, he said that he did not know whether or how much the subjects of their study used cell phones -- that cell phone use was simply not a variable in the study! I asked Dr. Wolf whether he was planning to follow up on his study, taking additional, seemingly crucial variables into account. He replied that No, he and his partner were done with this subject and were moving on. 

This major design flaw casts doubt upon the Wolf & Wolf research findings. Taking an example from a related field, it’s as if a study inquiring into the effects of environmental pollution on the incidence of lung cancer neglected to ask experimental subjects whether or not they themselves smoked. That would not be an acceptable research design. 

Harry Brill cites another study, done in the Southern German town of Naila, that found a correlation between incidence of cancer and proximity to cell phone towers. The study is of about the same size as the Israeli study discussed above, but once again, the investigators failed to ascertain cell phone use among the individuals who got cancer. 

Such studies aren’t fraudulent, I don’t think – they’re just not done in a scientifically thoughtful, careful manner. And as I mentioned in the Daily Planet article, “even when scientific research is done conscientiously, the results may reflect the prior convictions of the investigators and may turn out to be invalid. It is possible to gather ‘empirical evidence’ for many mistaken conclusions. A quick search on the Internet reveals, for example, dozens of ‘scientific’ studies that ‘disprove’ the hypothesis that global warming exists and is due largely to human activities.” 

Although epidemiology is certainly a valid enterprise that has helped us locate the causes of many illnesses, it’s also true that statistics often serve to foster illusions rather than dispel them. Consider the following study indicating that cell phone radiation is actually beneficial! A University of South Florida press release at the beginning of 2010 reported that “A surprising new study in mice provides the first evidence that long-term exposure to electromagnetic waves associated with cell phone use may actually protect against, and even reverse, Alzheimer’s disease. The study, led by University of South Florida researchers at the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), was published today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.” 

This study is probably no more valid than the ones discussed above.  

There is a wider lesson here: Internet dissemination of risk information is by no means a reliable process. In the age of TV prior to the Web, a public health expert might get on the tube to warn or reassure Americans regarding an environmental hazard. With the Internet, information is no longer broadcast in the same way. Someone can post the result of a “scientific” study to the Web, and it can quickly go viral, reaching a worldwide audience with few or no validity checks. 

My sense is that, overall, the public benefits from this information free-for-all. Some NGO websites, for example, are far more trustworthy than are official government sources. But Internet misinformation flourishes as well. It’s as easy these days for an invalid research finding as for a mistaken rumor to become a wildfire. 

Raymond Barglow is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network