There are currently over 200 million mobile phone users in the US alone. According to Statista, the number of mobile phone users around the world is estimated to be a little over 4.6 billion.
To service this growing demand for telecommunication services, mobile service providers are putting up more cell towers to ensure that everyone stays connected. But doing this also increases the risk of radiofrequency (RF) radiation exposure, more so for the inhabitants of the area surrounding a base station.
If you live near a cell tower and are worried about the potential health risks you face, this post was written with you in mind. Forget about the age-old assertions fronting that there are no health risks that come with living near base stations. Here’s the truth about living and working near a cell tower.
Read more about 5G towers in this article.
What Is a Cell Tower?
First, it’s important to understand what a cell tower is and how it works. A cell tower is a base station which controls mobile phone communication in a particular area. It is where all the electric equipment and communication antennae are mounted.
This comprises transmitters and receivers that send and receive radio signals. It also comprises control electronics and backup power sources in the event of a power failure.
Cell phone base stations may take one of two forms. They could be free-standing towers or masts. Alternatively, they could also be mounted on existing structures like tall buildings, water tanks, or trees.
Cell tower antennas need to be high enough to not only adequately receive and transmit radio signals, but also to adequately cover the area without any obstructions. As a rule of thumb, cell towers typically range between a minimum height of 50 feet and a maximum of 200 feet above the ground.
The total area covered by a cell tower is called a “cell.” Mobile service providers are constantly in a scramble to improve their coverage, to service their growing customer base.
How Do Cell Towers Work?
Mobile phones communicate with nearby cell towers through signals that are transmitted via RF waves. These are a form of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum that lies between microwaves and FM radio waves.
They are categorized as a form of non-ionizing radiation, which means that they do not damage the DNA inside cells. This classification, however, is debatable and will be covered in greater depth in the coming sections.
High levels of RF waves, on the other hand, have a thermal effect on body tissues. This category of electromagnetic energy is referred to as ionizing radiation. Examples include X-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet light. Since they can alter the structure of DNA inside cells, they are potentially carcinogenic when individuals are exposed to it over sustained periods.
Here’s how cell towers work. When you make a phone call from your mobile device, a signal is sent from the phone’s antenna to the closest cell tower. If the connection is successful, the base station assigns the signal to an available RF channel.
Voice data is then transmitted from the phone to the base station over this channel. The base station then sends these signals to a switching center. The switching center then identifies the destination call-recipient via the base station they’re in.
It then relays this voice information through an available channel to its intended destination. Voice information is then transferred back and forth during the call, therefore, facilitating communication.
Here is a very good explainer video:
The Range of a Cell Tower
There are places where you’ll often come across a large number of cell towers in the same area. If they were all huddled together, can you guess what the range of each tower would be?
The answer to this question isn’t straightforward. The range of a cell tower depends on several factors. These include but are not limited to:
- How high the antennas are over the surrounding landscape
- The specific frequency of the radio wave in use
- The transmitter power
- The specific directional attributes of the antenna array on the cell site
- The presence (or lack thereof) of vegetation or buildings and the role they play in the reflection or absorption of RF energy
- The area weather conditions and local geography
Mobile service providers that have enough cell towers available position them in such a way that the coverage range of one overlaps with the other. They also have to ensure that the overlap area isn’t too wide to cause signal interference.
Here’s why it matters. If you were on the road during a call, the base station controller and the intelligent system in your mobile phone, work hand in hand to allow your phone to switch from one cell tower to the next without interrupting the conversation.
As you move towards a cell tower, your phone connects to the strongest signal and releases the previous one as its strength fades. The US has hundreds of thousands of cell sites with the number growing by leaps and bounds with each passing year.
Your Chimney Might Be Emitting Cell Tower Radiation
It is not always the case that cell sites take the form of a tower or mast. In some instances, they are camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings. When this happens, it becomes quite difficult to visually discern them.
While you might be able to notice the odd-looking camouflaged “tree,” you may not be able to spot cell sites that look like speaker boxes on top of buildings. You might even miss those installed on church steeples, chimneys, and even flag posts.
There are even instances where mobile service providers get into private arrangements with some homeowners where they install cell sites on the walls of their homes in exchange for a handsome rental. They also get protective screening tools to safeguard themselves from the effects of RF radiation.
But in these cases, their neighbors remain exposed much to the detriment of their health. In instances where base stations are installed on top of apartment buildings where people live, or high-rises where people work, they are likely completely oblivious to the fact that they have a cell tower near them.
Even more worrying is that they are unaware of the high RF radiation levels they are exposed to daily. Unfortunately, there are no laws in force to compel property owners who have cell towers on-site to disclose this information to all those who would potentially be affected by continued radiation exposure.
How You Are Exposed to Radiation from a Cell Tower
When you use your mobile phone to make calls, signals are transmitted to and from the base station. All the RF waves produced are emitted into the environment. That’s how people get exposed.
The energy that a cell tower antenna emits is usually projected parallel to the ground towards the earth’s horizon. It does, however, give off downward scatter in the process.
The amount of energy the radio wave contains decreases as the distance it travels increases. The result is that the RF radiation exposure levels at ground-level further out from the cell site is a lot lower compared to those close to the base station antenna.
Health Dangers That Cell Towers Pose
The key stakeholders in the mobile phone industry continue to maintain that cell phone towers pose no adverse health risk to people. That is utter hogwash, and it would be foolish for anyone to believe that in this day and age.
There’s no self-respecting scientist who would support that assertion – unless, of course, they are employed by the cellular phone industry. There has been extensive research and irrefutable evidence over the years to support the fact that radiation emitted from cell phone towers is damaging to both human and animal biological systems.
This ultimately leads to irreversible health issues after continued exposure. Let’s examine two studies that support this premise.
1. The Bavaria State Government Study
In 1998, the Bavarian state government published the findings of a study conducted to investigate the effect of the erection of a cell tower on a nearby herd of dairy cows. The study went on for two years.
High levels of electromagnetic radiation emitted from the TV and radio antenna mounted on the cell tower caused a considerable reduction in the herd’s milk yields. What’s even more remarkable was the observed increase in health problems and behavioral abnormalities in the herd.
To prove that the RF radiation was responsible for the abnormal behavior of the herd, one of the cows was removed from that environment and taken to a stable in a different radiation-free zone. Interestingly, the cow’s behavior normalized within 5 days.
However, when the same cow was returned to its original habitat, which was close to the cell tower in question, all the observed abnormalities and associated symptoms returned. The study concluded that there was a direct link between the proximity of the cell tower and the low milk yields, health problems and behavioral abnormalities witnessed in the herd.
2. The Kempten West Study
In 2007, a study was done to investigate the adverse effects of RF radiation soon after a cell tower was installed in the town. Blood samples were drawn from 25 participants in the study before the transmitter became operational.
The second set of blood samples were drawn from the participants 5 months after the transmitter became operational. All 25 subjects lived within a 15 to a 300-meter radius of the cell tower. Here are some of the findings:
- 84% of participants exhibited a massive decline in serotonin levels following continued exposure.
- 56% of participants exhibited a decrease in nightly melatonin by nearly half of their usual levels.
- There was an observed increase in inner agitation, lethargy, mood and appetite disturbances, and a general reduction in the quality of life experienced by the majority of the participants.
Serotonin and melatonin are two important hormones that play a critical role in mood and sleep regulation, immune system function, and brain messaging. The conclusion drawn from the study was that people who live close to cell towers experience the adverse effects of RF radiation, which manifests as changes in hormonal levels. This ultimately affects their quality of life.
Radiofrequency Radiation Sickness: Fact or Myth
While most people believe that the effects of RF radiation exposure are long term, the truth is, numerous biological effects occur in the short term even after low-intensity exposure. The adverse effects of long term exposure can be quite different from those in the short term.
There are lots of people who live or work near cell towers and other RF radiation-generating sources, reporting physical symptoms that are too similar to be a coincidence. These symptoms have been christened “microwave sickness syndrome” or “RF radiation sickness.”
These symptoms were first observed in the 1950s by Soviet medical researchers. Some of these included:
- Sleep disorders
- Ocular dysfunction
Some clinical manifestations included:
- Blood changes
- Cardiovascular abnormalities
- Reproductive abnormalities
- Memory impairment
These same debilitating symptoms still manifest today among different populations living near cell towers. However, certain US regulatory agencies classify RF radiation sickness as a hypothetical disease. This is despite the fact that there are lots of studies that have found the same health complaints among people who live close to RF radiating infrastructures.
More on RF radiation in this article about Fitbit safety.
Cell Towers and Cancer: Is There a Link?
Doctors in the German city of Naila conducted a 10-year long study to monitor 1000 residents who had been living near two cell towers for the given time duration of the research project.
The findings revealed that over the last 5 years of the study, people who lived within a 400-meter radius had a newly-diagnosed cancer rate that was three times higher than that of individuals who lived further away.
The most prevalent cancer cases included breast cancer, bowel, prostate, lung, pancreas, and skin cancers, as well as leukemia. While there haven’t been many studies that center specifically on the cancer risk from cell towers (which is in itself a cause for alarm), there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the link. One such example is the Towers of Doom in London.
In this 1994 report, two cell towers were installed on the rooftop of a five-story apartment building. In the following years, the building residents started developing many health ailments.
Seven of the residents ended up with a cancer diagnosis. The number of cancer cases on the top floor (which was the closest to the tower) was 10 times higher than the national average. This wasn’t a mere coincidence. There is an irrefutable link between RF radiation and cancer.
If cell towers are causing cancer, as seen in numerous reports from all around the world, it will not occur immediately. Only after numerous years of cumulative exposure will it develop once the body’s repair and defense mechanisms have completely been subdued by radiation exposure.
Other Cell Tower Health Problems
Different people respond differently to electromagnetic radiation. Two people may be exposed to the same levels of RF radiation but might exhibit different symptoms altogether.
For some, the short term effects of radiation exposure include poor memory, sleep disorders, mental excitation, depression, anxiety, listlessness, confusion, and appetite disturbances.
The higher the levels of radiation people were exposed to, the higher the levels of both major and minor health problems in affected patients. A small group of doctors in Bamberg, Germany conclusively proved this in their study.
Here are some of the health-problems they found that you could be at risk for if you live and work near a cell tower:
- Frequent infections due to a weakened immune system
- Chronic pain in the limbs and joints
- Heart rhythm disturbances
- Memory problems
Imagine how much more comprehensive information would there be if the government fully funded a study? That, however, is a debate for another day.
The information explored so far indicates that there are a lot more ailments aside from cancer that come with RF radiation exposure. Regardless of which particular health-issue it is, there’s always a higher incidence of it in patients who have high levels of RF radiation exposure.
According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, there are still numerous adverse biological effects that occur even with non-thermal RF exposure. Some of these health problems include:
- Reproductive abnormalities
- Developmental defects
- Genetic damage
- Kidney damage
- Nervous system dysfunction
- Cognitive defects
- Immune system dysfunction
- Protein and peptide damage
- Neurological degradation
All these health issues have been observed and reported in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
Cell Tower Radiation: What’s the Legal Level?
The reality of the world today is that economic and political factors play a huge role in determining what constitutes an acceptable level of RF radiation emitted from cell towers, that is considered safe. For this reason, different countries have set out different legal limits depending on how concerned they are about radiation emissions.
For instance, the legal limit for cell tower RF radiation in the US and the UK is 1000µW/cm2. In China, Italy, and Switzerland, the limit is capped at 10µW/cm2.
As you can see from the huge difference in legal limits, there isn’t a definitive number per se partly because there isn’t a level deemed to be safe in the long term. But, the one thing we can all agree on is: Lower is better.
If you’re concerned about whether the cell tower near you poses a health risk, the answer is yes, it does. To be on the safe side, get a hold of an RF meter, and measure the level of electromagnetic radiation you’re getting exposed to.
Bear in mind that there will be areas in your home or office that report lower radiation levels than others. Mark these places as safe. That’s ideally where you want to be spending most of your time.
Read our full guide on protecting your home from EMFs.
If you live or work next to a cell site, you might want to consider moving or changing jobs to be on the safe side. What you sow today is what you’ll reap tomorrow. So, protect yourself by staying as far away from cell towers as you possibly can. Not sure what constitutes electromagnetic energy? Here are 5 real-life EMF examples!
Read next: A full guide to EMF protection clothes
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Levitt, B.B., & Lai, H.L. (2010). Biological effects from exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell tower base stations and other antenna arrays.
Hardell, L., Carlberg, M., & Hedendahl, L. K. (2018). Radiofrequency radiation from nearby base stations gives high levels in an apartment in Stockholm, Sweden: A case report. Oncology letters, 15(5), 7871–7883. doi:10.3892/ol.2018.8285