Cellphone towers are sprouting up in many neighborhoods. Despite reassurances to the contrary, do cell towers and radiofrequency (rf) signals affect our health?
In 1987 there were 100,000 cellphone users in Canada. Today there are over 22 million. To meet the demand, cellphone towers are going up everywhere—next to our homes, schools, and work. Are we safe, or is it time to break out those EMF-blocking tin-foil hats?
According to Health Canada, you can safely stow your shiny headpiece away. Their official stance is that radiofrequency (RF) energy emitted by cellphone towers is too low to cause adverse health effects in humans.
Even in a worst-case scenario, public exposure to RF energy is thousands of times below the exposure standard known as Safety Code 6. This standard is based on the government’s own research and has been adopted by Industry Canada, the organization that monitors cellphone tower placement.
Cause for concern?
Some independent studies on RF exposure are less optimistic. Researchers have identified common symptoms in people living near cellphone towers. These include headaches, dizziness, muscle fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sleep disorders, and depression, as well as dermatological symptoms (redness, tingling, and burning sensations).
Some of these symptoms are remarkably similar to those seen in vibroacoustic disease patients—a disease caused by prolonged exposure to low-frequency noise.
The World Health Organization (WHO) established the International EMF Project in 1996 to assess the possible health effects of RF exposure. People with the above symptoms are said to be suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which is similar to another disorder associated with environmental exposure to chemicals (called multiple chemical sensitivity).
Some scientists posit that exposure to even low levels of radiation causes damage to cell tissue and DNA, leading to cancer, but the research is inconclusive. The WHO states: “To date, research does not suggest any consistent evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to radiofrequency fields at levels below those that cause tissue heating. Further, research has not been able to provide support for a causal relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and self-reported symptoms, or ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’.”
The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) cites WHO research from 2005 that did not find any “short- or long-term health effects from the signals produced by cell phone towers.” However, the CCS notes that ongoing research is examining the possible link between RF exposure from all sources and cancer.
The wireless gold rush
So if we need more time to gather data on the long-term effects of RF radiation, why is the government allowing a proliferation of cellphone towers across Canada? Well, in 2009 the cellphone industry in Canada generated $16.9 billion—up 80 percent over previous years.
The industry is not just an economic boon for the government: public regulatory agencies such as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which governs the use of radio frequencies in Canada, also auction off frequency bandwidths for more than a billion dollars each. Both industry and government have a vested interest in developing wireless technology.
In 2007 there were around 8,000 cellphone towers in Canada. You won’t see many of them because they are found on top of buildings—hospitals, schools, churches, and fire stations. These organizations often have tight budgets. Cellphone companies pay from a couple of hundred to thousands of dollars per month to lease the space on top of their buildings. Why wouldn’t a struggling church accept the money without question, even if their steeple is transformed into an RF transmitter?
Canada lags behind
There is no standardized process for cellphone tower placement, and public input is not required. Industry Canada only requires that the cellphone company notifies neighbours that a tower is going up. Even more worrying is that nobody knows how many towers there currently are or where they are.
A 2004 report on cellphone tower policy published by Industry Canada outlined some recommendations to improve placement policy and the local consultation process. This report praised the voluntarily imposed cellphone tower placement guidelines in the United Kingdom. For example, the British government provides a national online cellphone tower database to the public.
Canada, on the other hand, is an information hinterland. Six years later and we still have no clear indication of where all the towers are located. Furthermore, while the European Parliament voted last year for tougher regulations on cellphone towers, Health Canada upheld Safety Code 6 as adequate protection. The code was last revised over a decade ago in
1999 (a minor amendment was made last year to correct a statistical error).
An uncertain future
Ultimately, there do not appear to be any short-term health effects from cellphone towers, but the technology is still too new to determine whether we’re hurting ourselves in the long term. If there is any doubt, why are we perpetuating a potentially harmful technology?
A cleaner, safer technology already exists: fibre optic cable. Fibre optics is a reliable, high-capacity means of carrying data and is already laid in many Canadian communities—but it is expensive.
Consumer demand for greater bandwidth for services such as high-definition television and faster Internet speeds is prompting telecommunications companies to invest heavily in fibre optic cable to connect new homes and condos to their networks. Despite the expense, fibre optics is the way of the future.
Nevertheless, new cellphone towers are continuing to be erected as cellphone use increases.
The future of your community is up to you. If you’re concerned about a cellphone tower going up in your neighbourhood, follow the steps to fight back suggested in the sidebar (see below). Or you could start sporting a radiation-deflecting tin-foil hat and be the envy of your neighbours.
|How you can fight back
Stopping a cellphone tower from going up in your community isn’t easy, but there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the thousands who have tried—and succeeded.