Health Effects of Cell Phones and Cell Phone Towers:
Ongoing Debate and Common Sense Precautions
In the last decade, cell phone usage has increased dramatically around the world and the United States. According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, as of 2010, there were about 303 million subscribers to cell phone services in the U.S. (1) Not only is this number increasing among adults but also among children and teenagers. Roughly 75% of 12-17 year-olds now own cell phones, a 30% increase since 2004. (2) Due to the dramatic increase in cell phone usage, the demand for cell phone towers has increased accordingly.
With so many cell phone users, especially children and teenagers, and a rise in cell phone towers, Green Schools Initiative has been contacted by many parents and school staff with questions and concerns regarding potential health hazards. So, Green Schools Initiative reviewed recent articles and reports on this topic and is sharing this overview and summary on the current state of knowledge.
One of the main reasons why there are concerns regarding cell phones and health issues is because cell phones emit radio frequency energy (or radio waves), a form of electromagnetic radiation, which is known to produce heat. (3) Exposure to high levels of radio frequency radiation is harmful as radio frequency energy can heat biological tissue rapidly and thus have serious repercussions in humans. Such health impacts include increased risks of brain, salivary gland, glioma, and acoustic neuroma tumors, sperm abnormalities, and increased blood pressure. (4)
Scientists and public health experts are extensively engaged in determining the cancer potential of cell phone radiation. After examining several studies (American Cancer Society 2008; FDA 2003; Hardell 2009; IARC 2008, 2009b; Kundi 2009), the Environmental Working Group concluded that short-term studies did not reveal an increased danger of brain cancer, while long-term studies, however, revealed an increased possibility of developing brain tumors on the side of the brain on which the cell phone is mainly held among cell phone users of more than ten years. (1) In one particular study conducted by INTERPHONE, research suggests an "increased risk of glioma associated with long-term cell phone use, especially on the ipsilateral (the side of the brain on which the cell phone is primarily held) side." (1) Moreover, the Environmental Working Group, cites French and German scientists who have found an increased risk of glioma for long-term cell phone users (Hours 2007; Schuz, Bohler, Berg 2006).
On the other hand, the National Cancer Institute examined several studies and concluded that low levels of radio frequency energy, such as energy emitted by cell phones, produce little heat. (3) Although radio frequency exposure due to cell phone use produces heat, the dose is too low to be able to measure an increase in body temperature. The Environmental Working Group suggests that one possible explanation for the discrepant results is that cell phones have only been used in the last decade, and cancer generally takes 15 to 20 years to develop. (1)
There are two types of cell phones: GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), which is older and accounts for most of the world's 2G networks, and DCMA (Code Division Multiple Access), which is newer and accounts for most of the world's 3G networks. Joel Moskowitz, PhD, Director, Center for Family and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, states that the most dramatic difference between these two types of cell phones is “GSM phones emit about 28 times more radiation on average compared to CDMA phones." (5) This is because GSM phones, in general, function at half of their maximum radiation outputs, while CDMA phones operate at a fraction of their maximum outputs. (6) In the United States, GSM phones are more common. So Joel Moskowitz, highly recommends the switch from GSM phones to CDMA phones in order to reduce radiation from cell phones. (7)
The cancer potential of cell phone towers is also of growing concern. Cell phone towers are made of electronic equipment and antennas that send and receive radio frequency signals. (8) When cell phones are used to make calls, signals are sent to and from the base station of the cell phone tower. These signals are given off into the surrounding environment, which can travel extremely long distances, where people may come in contact with them. In addition, unlike intermittent and concentrated cell phone radiation, radiation from cell phone towers exposes the entire body for extended periods of time. (1) This has caused people to question the dangers of these signals. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission, a U.S. government agency which regulates interstate and international communications, asserts that radio frequency emissions from cellular towers are generally "thousands of times below safety limits" and they do not pose a threat to nearby residents or students. (9) The Environmental Working Group claims that the necessary and extensive studies on this topic have not yet been conducted to determine the effects of long-term exposure to cell phone tower radiation. Although studies are inconclusive, like the case with cell phones, it takes several years for cancer to develop and the symptoms have perhaps not yet been detected.
In 2010, the parents at North Oakland Community Charter School, an elementary school in California, opposed a proposal to install nine cellular antennas across the street from the school as well as a nearby park. (10) These cellular antennae would not only pose a possible health threat to the 150 students who attend the school but also single family homes. The parents were primarily concerned with the close distance between the children, whose bodies and brains are still developing, and the towers. Parents of NOCCS students are not the only ones worried about cellular antennas near schools. Parents and school districts nation-wide are raising awareness about cell phone towers near schools. In the end, the city of Oakland claimed that there was not enough evidence to prove that cell phone towers have the potential to harm human health and approved the permits for the antennas. Earlier, in 2006, Healthy Schools Network, a U.S. based advocate for the protection of children's environmental health in schools, submitted an Amicus Brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, which caused much controversy and debate with the cell phone industry. Healthy Schools Network fought in support of requiring the FCC, when launching a new major cellular phone program, be required to take into consideration the safety of children and to produce an Environmental Impact Statement (as part of the National Environmental Policy Act) on the human health effects of electromagnetic fields before allocating cell tower licenses. (11)
Due to more awareness and concern over the health effects of radiation from cell phones and cell towers, legislation is emerging. Currently, in Georgia, for example, state legislators have presented bills that would ban the construction and placement of cell phone towers throughout the state on public school properties. One of the bills would also mandate local governments to conduct public hearings 45 days before leasing public property to a cell phone company. Rep. Karla Drenner, sponsor of the bill, mentioned the term "electronic smog," radiation emitted by cell phone towers. (12) This term is becoming more widespread as more bills regarding cell phone and cell phone tower radiation are being introduced in the U.S. In San Francisco, in 2010, the city council established a law requiring cell phone retailers to display the Specific Absorption Rate on cell phones. This new law allows cell phone buyers access to information so they can decide for themselves the amount of radio frequency they deem acceptable when purchasing their phones. (13) Scientists hope that the emergence of cell phone legislation will prompt more funding for research.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers several resources, including the research of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which concluded that "the overall pattern of results suggests a weak association between increasing exposure to EMFs and an increased risk of childhood leukemia." (14) The International EMF Alliance recently announced a new report and scientific consensus statement by a consortium of international scientists. The report, published in the Reviews on Environmental Health (15), highly recommends that national governments adopt much lower biologically-based standards for human exposure to electromagnetic fields. Current exposure guidelines are based on physics and only protect from damage associated with a heating effect. Some scientists believe these guidelines are outdated and obsolete.
Regardless of inconclusive research results on the health effects, at Green Schools Initiative, we follow the Precautionary Principle, meaning "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Generally, we believe that industrial and commercial facilities should not be located near schools. While, the recently-released U.S. EPA School Siting Guidelines did not include a specific recommendation limiting cell phone towers near schools, we believe a precautionary approach should limit cell phone towers, transmission lines, and other major sources of electromagnetic radiation near schools and yet we recognize that cell phone towers emit radio frequency. Until definitive scientific answers are available, here are several common sense steps to reduce your exposures proposed by the National Cancer Institute (3) and Environmental Working Group (16):
1. Limit cell phone use. If possible, use the landline phone instead.
2. Hands-free devices reduce contact between tissues and cell phone.
3. Buy a low-radiation phone. (You can consult the EWG's website to determine the radiation of cell phones
4. Hold cell phone away from your body.
5. Choose texting over talking.
6. Especially limit children's phone use as their bodies and brains are developing and particularly vulnerable. Children's heads absorb more radio frequency radiation than adults (Gandhi 1996; Kang 2002; Wang 2003). (17)
7. Store cell phones in purses, briefcases, or backpacks rather than in pockets to avoid any extended exposure. An article written by Joel M. Moskowitz, Ph.D., School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley highlights that you are exposed to one hundred times less radiation by keeping your cell phone ten inches from your body instead of an inch. (7)
(1) http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cellphones (National Cancer Institute)
(2) http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1572/teens-cell-phones-text-messages (PewResearch)
(3) http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cellphones (National Cancer Institute)
(4) http://www.ewg.org/cellphoneradiation/Health-problems (Environmental Working Group)
(5) http://electromagnetichealth.org/electromagnetic-health-blog/gsm-cdma/ (electromagnetichealth.org)
(6) http://www.livestrong.com/article/490704-health-effects-of-gsm-vs-cdma/ (livestrong.com)
(7) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/cell-phone-health-risks_b_869241.html (Huffington Post)
(8) http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/OtherCarcinogens/AtHome/cellular-phone-towers (American Cancer Society)
(9) http://transition.fcc.gov/oet/rfsafety/rf-faqs.html (Federal Communications Commission)
(10) http://oaklandlocal.com/article/oakland-residents-protest-nine-cell-phone-antennas-within-100-feet-schools-homes-and-park (Oakland Local)
(11) U.S. Supreme Court. "Supreme Court of the United States - Healthy Schools Network." 18 May 2012. PDF file.
(12) http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/bills-banning-school-sited-cell-towers-proposed-georgia?quicktabs_4=2 (Heartlander)
(13) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/16/us/16cell.html (NY Times)
(14) http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/emf/ (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
(15) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21268443 (National Center for Biotechnology Information)
(16) http://www.ewg.org/cellphoneradiation/8-Safety-Tips (Environmental Working Group)
(17) http://www.ewg.org/cellphoneradiation/executivesummary (Environmental Working Group)