Love, the house....except for that cell phone tower in the backyard!
June 19, 2011 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Is it dangerous to live near a cell phone tower?

We're looking for a new house. And, we've got a great one, nice price, nice backyard....except when I looked up I saw a giant cell phone tower about 600ft from the place. Google results scare me. Two European studies citing increase serious health concerns. Not major journals and the popular press never picked up on it. Still, who knows what the cell phone makers would do to kill off bad press about their towers? Anyone know the science behind the radiation risk of them?
posted by skepticallypleased to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you use a mobile phone? Because the radiation it pumps into your head directly is orders of magnitude weaker than the dispersed and weak signal the tower is putting out. If you use a mobile phone, you should be fine with living near a tower.
posted by smoke at 9:04 PM on June 19, 2011

There is no danger. Cell phone towers give off radio waves not radioactive energy.
posted by dfriedman at 9:05 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Agreed. RF waves are very unlikely to be carcinogenic.

I looked into this seriously a couple of years ago. The scientific consensus on this then was "probably not," and "there's no likely mechanism" for carcinogenesis. But there haven't been that many large scale or longitudinal studies. We haven't had cell phones long enough to really know.

Odds are it's pretty low on the list of major risks you already live near, and which you can't see.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:08 PM on June 19, 2011

Most household electronics, not just cell phones, are much worse than cell towers. Microwave, TV, computers, not to mention TV and radio broadcast antennas. Are you getting it mixed up with supposed danger of living under power lines?

Cell phone towers are more common than you might think. I would guess that 90% of the population of every major city lives as close or closer to a cell tower than you do. (Exaggeration, but not by much.)
posted by supercres at 9:11 PM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your greatest risk from the cell tower is on your property value. Not many people want to see an ugly utility tower covered with antennas from their home.

As others have said, there's no mechanism for cell signals to cause cancer. Those two "studies" are more directionless ranting than actual studies. The popular presses pick them up from time, but they are lacking in substance.

I would guess that 90% of the population of every major city lives as close or closer to a cell tower than you do. (Exaggeration, but not by much.)

That sounds about right. If you work in an office building and have cell coverage in the middle of your building, you probably have cell antennas less than 100' from you. You've got multiple WiFi antennas less than 50' from you.

The problem boils down to linguistic confusion - ionizing radiation causes cancer. Non-ionizing radiation doesn't. Radio / cell wave are of the non-ionizing variety. They have as much chance of causing cancer as your radiator does.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:15 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

The American Cancer Society has a page on cellular phone towers summarizing the current research. They conclude that "most scientists agree that cell phone antennas or towers are unlikely to cause cancer." For that matter, a little calculation involving transmitter strengths and relative distances quickly shows that unless you're really close to a cell phone tower you receive many-orders of magnitude more RF exposure from the RF transmitter in your cell phone that you do from a cell phone tower. If RF exposure is a concern to you, your are much better off getting rid of your cellular phone than worrying about nearby cell towers.

However, b1tr0t is correct about the possible effect a cell tower might have on a home's property value. The property value might be adversely affected due to fact that some people do have concerns regarding RF exposure from cell phone towers (even if this concern is likely to be irrational). See, for instance, "The Impact of cellular phone base station towers on property values", S. Bond et al., 2003.
posted by RichardP at 9:23 PM on June 19, 2011

My sister & her husband are both doctors in specialist streams & they have kids. They bought a house directly across the road from a telecomms exchange, bristling with cellphone thingummies, on the basis that it gave them much more bang for their buck, as people are scared away from such things by media hype & yahoo answers.

Take from that what you will.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:27 PM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Power/emissions decrease as an inverse square. 600 feet, ~200 metres, is plenty close enough to cause a visual blight, but any energy signal would be greatly attenuated by that range.
posted by wilful at 10:59 PM on June 19, 2011

It depends how firmly it's bolted to the ground. Those things weigh a ton - you really don't want it falling on you.
posted by Ted Maul at 2:43 AM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

Cancer Research UK has an excellent page on mobile phones and cancer. The ACS page linked by RichardP is great too.

Basically, the only known method for radiation to cause cancer is by damaging your DNA leading to mutations, either directly (e.g. gamma rays hitting the DNA itself) or indirectly (e.g. UV rays converting molecules is your cells to highly reactive "free radicals", which go on to damage the DNA). For this to happen, the radiation you're exposed to needs to have a lot of energy; radiation in this category is known as "ionising radiation". This covers the stuff given off by radioactive sources like uranium. etc: alpha and beta particles, gamma rays). The definition arguably also includes high-energy electromagnetic waves like UV light, which can cause cancer (wear sunscreen!) this way.

The signals sent out by a mobile phone tower are electromagnetic waves at a much, much lower energy than gamma waves or UV light. Far too little energy to have the sort of ionising effect necessary to damage stuff inside your cells. The energy of an EM wave is defined by its strength (how "loud" it is, to analogise with sound waves) and, much more importantly, its frequency (how "high pitched" it is: higher pitched = higher frequency = more energy). So even if you're really close to a tower, where the signal is "loudest", the relatively low frequency of the signal means it doesn't have anywhere near enough energy to do any damage.

So, in our understanding of how different kinds of radiation causes cancer, the signals from mobile phone masts are nowhere near strong enough to have an effect, even over the long term.

Now, if you're talking about the studies that I'm thinking of, a couple of groups have looked at illness rates in the population and found that you get more reported illnesses near the masts. However, those groups did not account for the fact that masts tend to be in densely populated areas. In densely populated areas like inner cities, pollution of all kinds is worse, people tend to get less excercise and tend to have less healthy diets and so the illness rate is always higher, with or without the masts.

So if we plotted the same illness data against other things you mostly get in densely populated areas (Starbucks branches, banks, public sculptures), we'd see exactly the same pattern: people who live near public sculptures have higher illness rates. No-one would suggest that sculptures are causing illnesses; it's just that both sculptures and increased illnesses are both a result of high population densities, so if you put them on a map you see that they turn up in the same areas.

For the papers I'm thinking of, the data was re-analysed by other groups, and this effect seems to account for the results: most people who live near a mast are living in a densely populated area, and the study was actually just detecting the tiny added health risk from population density.

For future reference, this is a rather beautiful example of the post hoc fallacy, or "correlation does not show causation": seeing two things follow the same pattern does not mean that one must be controlling the other. It could also be co-incidence or, as seems likely in this case, the things you're looking at are actually both being controlled by a third thing that you can't see or haven't thought of yet.

NB: I know a bit about cancer science, but I am NOT a medical doctor. Health concerns should be discussed with a medic; if they disagree with me, you should probably believe them, not me.
posted by metaBugs at 5:42 AM on June 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

Health concerns? Minimal.

Property value concerns? Real. If the thing is an eyesore, it's going to be that much harder to sell when the time comes. But you can factor that in to your offer, so I wouldn't worry about it overly much if the rest of the house is to your liking.
posted by valkyryn at 6:05 AM on June 20, 2011

Thanks for the responses. So, yes, I'd see where the science behind the fear does not work out. I hope this thread eases other fears. Yes, it can be an eyesore, but it's sort of 45-degrees off the right border of the house so it's not like it's directly in the backyard. We could have driven a harder bargain, but real estate, like car purchasing, are not comfortable, rational processes. Thanks so much for the responses.
posted by skepticallypleased at 6:28 AM on June 20, 2011

Here's an interesting story on people *thinking* that a cell tower is affecting their health.
posted by galadriel at 11:51 AM on June 20, 2011

« Older Help me fix my refrigerator.   |   Using VPNS in China? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.