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Do cell phone towers cause cancer?

There's been a lot of concern about the possible health effects of emissions from cell phones, including possible risks of living too close to cell phone towers. That concern has been heightened by reports of cancer clusters near cell phone base stations.

Well, there's some reassuring news out about whether it's dangerous to live near one of those cell phone bases. A new British study found that children born to mothers who lived near one of those towers when they were pregnant do not appear to be at increased risk for cancer.

In a paper published in a British medical journal known as BMJ, researchers at Imperial College in London studied 1,397 British children ages zero to 4 who had been diagnosed with leukemia or a tumor in the brain or central nervous system between 1999 and 2001 and 5,588 similar children who had not been diagnosed with a cancer.

The researchers found no association between the risk for cancer and whether their mothers lived near a cell phone tower or not. The researchers acknowledged that their findings do not rule out the possibility that children may be risk for other health problems later in life. But the findings should help researchers put any reports of cancer clusters near cell phone towers into context.

In an editorial accompanying the study, John Bithell of the University of Oxford said that while the study had some shortcoming, the findings should be reassuring to people living near cell phone towers. He noted that the stress and costs of moving away from the towers cannot be justified based on the existing scientific evidence.

By Rob Stein  |  June 23, 2010; 12:01 AM ET
Categories:  Cancer , Motherhood , Pregnancy  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Why are so many teens so overweight?
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Gahhhh! Stop subsidizing the corn/soy industry. Stop charging money for water, and remove soft drinks (including "juice" drinks). It's still capitalism if they have access. Why would we make it their only choice. I wasn't overweight as a teen, but 20 years ago, I only had access to processed food. I can't imagine what they have to choose from now.

Posted by: MzFitz | June 23, 2010 12:17 AM | Report abuse

From the cell tower studies discussion section:
(quotes around parts from study, other text are my comments)

"We assumed that radiofrequency exposures from mobile phone base stations estimated at registered birth address are representative of true individual exposures during pregnancy."

Whats that? Do the researchers believe that pregnant women stay at home for the full nine months? Most go to work and shop and go about their daily routines.

"We were unable to account for any attenuation of radiofrequency exposures within the home nor could we obtain personal measurements of individual exposures of the mothers from mobile phone base stations as cases and controls were identified from national registers, without individual contact."

Oh, so there was no personal exposure dosimetry done? Lots of different building materials in a home absorb radiation.

"In addition, our models did not include information on other sources of radiofrequency exposure, such as from microcells or picocells, cordless phone base stations, maternal use of mobile/DECT phones during pregnancy, or radio and television transmitters (though distance from nearest radio and television transmitters was similar for cases and controls)."

There's the very definition of a bias factor! Most of the controls have probably been blasted by DECT, wifi, mobiles and smaller masts (micro & pico celltowers).
Is anyone thinking what I'm thinking? that this exclusion of exposure sources, and only focusing on macrocell masts will include lots of microwave exposed controls into the study and create the same risk dilution effect as the W.H.O's INTERPHONE cellphone cancer study managed to do...

Then the researchers go on to admit that they hadn't a clue whether the mothers-to-be went to town, to the shops, to work or just down the pub... but journalists never read that far, do they?

"Neither were we able to take account of migration of the mother during pregnancy. Despite the large study size, such potential misclassification of exposure and migratory effects could have reduced the ability of the study to detect any true excess in risk."

Yes, try reading that last bit again.

Well, there you have it. Another large and expensive study that set out to not be able to find anything - with taxpayer money, naturally.

Posted by: HenrikEiriksson | June 23, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Let's hope so. This is natural selection at its best. We need to cull out the idiots who can't get those infernal gadgets out of their ears.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | June 23, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Thing is, you can post as many "reassuring" studies as you want. People will still think what they will. Even though it's been debunked, people still believe that simple use of a cell phone can cause a gas station to explode (to the point that many attendants will shut off the gas if you're caught using one while filling up, per stated company policy). Other people will continue to believe that even owning a cell phone will kill you from the radiation, whether it's proven or not. Some people believe that vaccinations will cause autism in otherwise developmentally normal children. The public will believe what it will, regardless of what studies/experiments do or don't say.

Posted by: | June 23, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

There's an obvious way to see whether cell-phone towers cause health problems: look at neighborhoods near TV towers. They use similar frequency bands, and they typically run at 1,000 times the power levels. Since radio amplitudes fall with the squares of distances, someone living 10 miles from a TV tower gets about 10 times the radio wave exposure of someone living only one mile from a cell-phone tower. Many TV towers have been near neighborhoods since the 1940s, while few cell-phone towers were in place before the 1990s. If anyone really cared, and that is doubtful, an answer to this question would be easy to find. For better or worse, the long-term study has already been done.

Posted by: AppDev | June 23, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Re HenrikEiriksson's comment: " Another large and expensive study that set out to not be able to find anything - with taxpayer money, naturally."

The authors didn't control for all of the variables, as they discuss in the paper. They make the assumption that _on average_ a person living near a tower is exposed to more radiation than a person living farther away. Though you can only infer the lack of a causal relationship between cell phone tower radiation & cancer in children, this is one of a large number of studies that points to the null hypothesis.

If the authors were to control for personal exposure of cell tower radiation, I'm afraid that would have to spend a heck of a lot more tax dollars. And frankly, I think this would be waste. Unless scientists come up with a plausible biological model for how non-ionizing radiation can cause negative health effects, there's no reason to add to the mountain of evidence that they do not cause cancer. Anyone with a reasonable grasp on the science realizes that even if there is a causal connection (which is unlikely) the risk would have to be pretty low (or else some of these studies would be able to find a significant association). These folks have moved on to worrying about real dangers in life, like driving a car, eating junk food, or smoking. For those who are stuck on the idea that cell phones are gonna kill them in the end, I'm afraid no amount of research can assuage their fear.

Posted by: labastar1 | June 23, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

These kinds of articles are frustrating, because they tend to send a message that Everything is ok! Crisis averted! You can stop worrying now! And they give fodder to pro-cell phone tower advocates to plunder their way forward with placing even more cell phone towers ever so closer to where we live, work and play. Further, this study was for three years only, at a time when the explosion of cell phone towers had not quite taken place, at least not at the level you see now where cell phone antennae are attached to anything the phone carriers can get away with.

Posted by: the_general_public | June 23, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

Has any research been done regarding the increased risk of hemorrhoids in people who live near cell phone towers and complain about it all the time?

Posted by: barferio | June 24, 2010 1:53 AM | Report abuse

Re AppDev's comment:
As you correctly point out, there is a large difference in power-output from radio/TV transmitters compared to celltowers.
I really recommend you take a look at the list of peer-reviewed and published studies maintained by Powerwatch, a UK watchdog group:
The above link points to the section of radio & TV transmitter studies. Note how many of the listed studies are marked by a "P", meaning that they found a biological effect.

So, when everyone is worried about cancer, maybe something else is under the radar (no pun intended). Allow me to explain:
Power output of the source is just not the only issue and that's relevant when you look at celltowers in comparison to radio/TV transmitters. There is a large and growing body of evidence showing that it's the "modulation" of a signal is what causes the short-term adverse effects even at low power.
Modulation is how the information carried is encoded into the signal.
Cellphone signals, being digital, have sharp on/off pulse-like modulations causing the signal to fluctuate heavily in amplitude and studies show that these modulations create disturbances at the cell level of the body. Such disturbances manifest, in the short-term, as symptoms like: sleep disturbance, fatigue, depression, irritability, headaches, frequent infections, general body discomfort especially at night, allergies etc. This is what most studies on celltowers show, that people living within the main beam of a celltower are more unhealthy.

Posted by: HenrikEiriksson | June 24, 2010 4:33 AM | Report abuse

Re labastar's comment:
You write: "Unless scientists come up with a plausible biological model for how non-ionizing radiation can cause negative health effects, there's no reason to add to the mountain of evidence that they do not cause cancer."

A "negative health effect" can manifest in lots of ways, not just in cancer.

I don't know how closely you follow the science in this area but I'd like to point out that many studies are now reporting that exposure to low-level non-ionizing microwaves (emitted by cellphones, wifi, towers, cordless phones etc.) cause an increase in free-radical formation within cells of the body.
Anyone who has seen an ad for skin creams knows that free-radicals can damage cells if they are not neutralized by anti-oxidants.

Recent studies from Turkey have shown that mice irradiated by ordinary cellphones and given anti-oxidant supplements in the form of vitamin C & E had significantly less DNA damage than irradiated mice without the anti-oxidants.
Free-radicals can damage DNA in cells so it's not the power of the microwaves that's the issue here, but a side effect of the exposure.

Most people understand that DNA damage can lead to cancer in the long-term.
And this happens even at non-thermal levels (too low power to cause tissue heating) meaning that the current FCC exposure limits are not protective.

Posted by: HenrikEiriksson | June 24, 2010 4:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm kind of surprised they didn't find some sort of correlation between health problems and living next to a cell tower. It's not that I believe cell towers are dangerous, it's just that they are ugly and some people believe they are dangerous, which means property values are lower near cell towers. Lower property values means poorer people live in those in houses, and in general, being poor is hazardous to your health.

Posted by: wolfcastle | June 24, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Wow, these comments are thoughtful, relevant, and useful. Much appreciated.

Posted by: mwalker1 | June 24, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

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