Driving through her South minneapolis neighborhood, Stephanie Malcy began to notice metal towers sticking up from school rooftops, including Armatage and Burroughs. A freelance designer and mother of two young children, she had read online about possible health concerns related to cell phones and their base stations. When she heard that Verizon was in talks with Minneapolis Public Schools about placing a tower next to door number two on the north side of Clara Barton Open School, where her son is a third-grader, she took action.
Malcy and other concerned parents banded together to create a petition signed by hundreds; several members of the group delivered impassioned speeches at a school board meeting in December. The board quickly agreed to keep Barton cell-tower free and to temporarily halt any new cell-tower contracts with the Minneapolis school district, which already leases space at 18 city schools to communications companies.
Now, Malcy’s coalition has its sights set on a statewide ban on cell-phone towers within 1,500 feet of schools and daycare centers. If the group has its way, Minnesota would become the first state to make schools a cell-tower safe zone. In its view, the radiation emitted by cell towers is the public-health equivalent of secondhand smoke. “In terms of involuntary prolonged exposure,” Malcy says, “this is not something that’s a safe option for our children.”
Cell-phone radiation provokes worries that remain as ubiquitous as cell phones themselves. Of primary concern are the low-energy radio-frequency (RF) waves the devices emit, which lie on the electromagnetic spectrum between FM radio waves and microwaves. In addition to mobile phones, RF waves transmit signals to televisions, GPS devices, wi-fi networks, and smart meters that communicate with utility companies.
Unlike high-energy x-rays, gamma rays, and nuclear fallout, RF radiation is non-ionizing, which means it does not cause DNA damage on contact. However, RF waves do heat cells and tissues, which has led to concerns that enough exposure at close range (a cell phone held up to the ear) could lead to cancers and other health consequences. But should we be as concerned about RF radiation as we are about secondhand smoke? Studies on cigarettes quickly led to strong and convincing evidence that ambient tobacco smoke is hazardous to health, whereas two decades of intensive research, including an international project called Interphone that included thousands of people in 13 countries, has yet to deliver conclusive evidence that cell-phone radiation causes tumors, heart disease, or other harm. Even with 91 percent of American adults now owning a cell phone, there has been no documented rise in brain cancers since the late ’80s, when mobile-phone technology was relatively scarce.
When it comes to studies of cell towers, data can be hard to interpret. Some research has linked proximity to base stations with higher rates of cancer, irritability, trouble concentrating, and other problems. But those studies have been criticized for either relying on participants’ own reports, which can be biased, or blaming the towers when there could be other factors contributing to health problems in particular communities.
Towers are generally placed high above the ground and aim signals at the horizon. Since radiation levels decline rapidly the farther you get from the source of the signal, towers are a relatively low source of exposure compared to cell phones themselves and even wi-fi networks. According to the World Health Organization, our bodies absorb more RF radiation from radio and TV broadcasts than from cell towers.
Still, towers emit radiation around the clock. And while research has not yet definitively shown that RF radiation causes health problems, studies haven’t been following subjects long enough to completely rule out the possibility, especially for diseases such as brain cancer that can take decades to develop, says David Carpenter, a public-health physician at the University of Albany in New York who has studied the issue extensively. With so much RF radiation bouncing around us now, he says, every source of exposure adds up. Towers on schools emit radiation where kids—whose bodies and brains are still developing—spend much of their time, adds Keiko Veasey, a sustainability consultant and mother of Barton first- and third-graders. “This is about all children who have no choice but to come to school.”
As it stands, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has put radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in Group 2B: “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” the same designation given to coffee, gasoline, and Asian pickled vegetables. Other major organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission, have not yet classified cell phones or towers as dangerous, though all encourage more research. “I don’t want to overstate how strong the evidence is,” Carpenter says, adding that he is most concerned about the effects of long-term and heavy cell-phone use. Nevertheless, he advocates caution in the face of unknowns. “When you are developing a body of evidence for harm, it’s not wise to continue the exposure, even though there’s a lot of uncertainty.”