Cellphone Tower

A cellphone tower in Blacksburg, Feb. 24, 2020.

The Roanoke School Board voted to terminate a contract with Milestone Communications to build cell towers at two of the county’s schools on Dec. 12th, 2019.

Months earlier, in October of 2019, the school board gave Milestone the blessing they sought after to build the towers in a unanimous vote of 5-0. The financial prospects of this decision seemed great for the school system; Milestone planned to share 40% of its revenue from each of their towers, not to mention the initial $20,000 payment after the construction and $5,000 each time a carrier received permits.

During the school board meeting in October, project manager Chris Harold offered the reassurance that “‘there’s been no definitive evidence of any harm’ because of cell towers, according to reports by national health organizations.”

Despite Harold’s reassurances, after the meeting, school board members were bombarded with concerns from the community about the dangers of cell tower radiation. When the community had the opportunity to state their case in December, the members of the school board reconsidered their decision and decided to retract their agreement (and their blessing) for the construction of the cell towers.

With the decision to terminate the project, the Roanoke School Board also turned down a considerable revenue stream that could have been very useful. I’ve been to school board meetings in the past where the budget is the item of deliberation; there is a palpable feeling of disappointment and sacrifice in the room when budget proposals are rejected and promising programs are left on the cutting room floor so funds can be allocated toward non-discretionary parts of the budget — like payroll.

In waving this cash cow goodbye, one may wonder if these concerns were warranted or simply overblown. Which version of the truth about cell tower radiation are we to believe that of Chris Harold or of the voices of the Roanoke community?

In the interest of rebutting Harold’s claims that there’s no evidence of harm from radiation, one might reference a study conducted in Australia by Dr. Bruce Hocking. The study found that the occurrence of leukemia in children living near three TV and FM broadcast towers in Sydney was more than double compared to children living just seven miles away.

Still, it is easy to fall into a correlation-causation fallacy. One case should not determine the guidelines for the discussion on the harmful nature of these technologies. The only way to better understand the discussion is to dissect the reasons for their perceived danger.

RF Radiation

Cell towers, like TV and FM broadcast towers, emit electromagnetic radiation more specifically microwave radiation, otherwise known as RF (radio-frequency) radiation. But it isn’t only cell towers; most wireless devices are perpetually emitting and receiving these invisible frequencies, especially cell phones. Most of us might be completely unaware of how much manmade RF radiation we expose ourselves to. There is even an RF exposure suggestion tucked away in the “Legal & Regulatory” section of the settings app on iPhones which provides instructions on how to “reduce exposure to RF energy.” 

Sure, the immediate thought in response might be that the levels of radiation emitted from cell towers far surpasses anything we’re subjected to on a smaller level like smartphones and Wi-Fi routers. While that might be true on the surface, the effects of those smaller devices aren’t negligible.

On an uneventful night, one might decide to watch a movie on their SmartTV, which is constantly sending and receiving signals from a Wi-Fi router, as is their laptop lying asleep on the table in front of them. In preparation for the film, one might also go over to the microwave and pop a bag of popcorn, checking their phone in the dull silence before the kernels begin to pop. In this incredibly mundane scenario, you can imagine how the room is practically pulsing with radiofrequency waves.

According to Olle Johansson, Ph.D., associate professor in neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, we are subjected to a stunning one quintillion times more electromagnetic radiation than only about a decade ago. This measurement comes from common levels of public exposure due to the insistence to extend cell and Wi-Fi connectivity as far as possible. But thank God for eduroam.

The increase in exposure between last decade and today has coincided with the rate at which we have integrated wireless technologies into our daily lives. Wireless communication technology has no doubt amplified productivity in an incredible way, but it has become so intertwined in all facets of modern life that stepping back from it would be a regression. I spoke with Savanah Greenwald, a junior graphic design major, about how necessary wireless communication technology is for the success of a student.

“It is totally essential. As a student, you have to be constantly up to date with emails and notifications from professors and organizations,” Greenwald said. “A large majority of my coursework requires a computer as well as creating online submissions, making internet connectivity a necessity. I don’t think it’s possible to be a successful student in this day and age without these kinds of technologies.”

The Risk

It is clear that there is a disparity between people’s perception of the harms of RF radiation; some are so confident of its innocuous nature, they are prepared to erect massive steel towers emitting these frequencies in the children’s schoolyards, while others are so convinced of its harm that they petition their local governments to reverse contracts and chase telecommunication companies out of town. Where does this disconnect stem from?

Harold, who was citing national health organizations to the school board, wasn’t completely off-base in doing so. Agencies such as the FDA maintain that there isn’t a link between radiofrequency radiation levels and human health effects. One report states, “Based on our ongoing evaluation of this issue, the totality of the available scientific evidence continues to not support adverse health effects in humans caused by exposures at or under the current radiofrequency energy exposure limits.”

You may believe that your most obsessive smartphone-addicted friends are living testaments to the fact that there aren’t any overtly adverse health effects besides maybe those psychological aspects.

Dr. Devra Davis, MPH and founder of the Environmental Health Trust, argues that we cannot discredit the potential health ramifications of RF exposure. Davis states that analyses that try to prove RF’s innocuity by pointing to a lack in the increase of cancer may be jumping the gun.

This fails to consider latency; the time that elapses between initial exposure and the diagnosis of cancer.

“It would be unreasonable to expect to see any general population effect from such phone use in such a short period of time. Scientists know that brain cancer can take a decade or longer to develop in adults,” Davis said. “In the case of the Hiroshima bombing that ended World War Two, brain cancers associated with that one-time massive exposure to radiation did not become evident until forty years later.”

This would make sense as to why a clear link to an increase in cancer isn’t distinguishable in the general population. If Johansson’s calculations are correct and we are typically experiencing electromagnetic radiation exposure on a scale of one quintillion times greater than we did in the previous decade, the ramifications are potentially something we have yet to see.

Even if one disregards the concerns around latency, recently published scientific papers are beginning to show the link between the increase in mobile phone use and cancer.

A recent study published by the Journal of Environmental and Public Health in June of 2018 showed that the occurrence of a malignant brain tumor called glioblastoma, or GBM, has more than doubled in patients of all ages from 1995-2015 in England. This is a significant and unprecedented rise of which many researchers point to the use of cell phones as being a contributing factor because of the time frame; 1995-2015 is when the use of cell phones skyrocketed. Occurrences of malignant brain tumors aren't only increasing drastically in the U.K.; studies done in the U.S. and in Sweden have also shown that there are statistically significant increases in GBM in around those same time spans.

GBM is most commonly found in the temporal lobes the portion of the brain directly beside where one would hold their cell phone.

Lopsided Regulation

Another factor that might create doubt in the hearts of individuals who disbelieve that RF radiation actually has the potential to be “that bad” is the fact that there aren’t any government protections against its limitless proliferation. Surely, if something posed as great of a risk as the sources that I am citing claim, an informed governmental body would take the steps to protect its citizens from what might pan out to be a significant health problem.

To those idealistic individuals, I’d retort that they must’ve forgotten the country we’re living in; America the country where government regulation takes a back seat to the power of the almighty dollar.

As it stands now, France and Russia are the two countries that have the world's longest research history on the health effects of microwave radiation or RF radiation. In a move that is surely not a coincidence, both countries have also banned the use of Wi-Fi in their schools.

The list doesn’t stop there; over a dozen countries have banned the use of Wi-Fi and cell phones or have created guidelines and regulations surrounding their use, including Belgium, Germany and Spain. These countries have put these restrictions in place due to concerns over RF radiation.

The concern over this kind of radiation is especially potent as it relates to children.

One article by NaturalHealth365 cites a study that shows that the brains of children absorb double the amount of radiation that an adult brain does. This is in large part due to the fact that the skulls of children are much thinner than those in adults. Furthermore, authors for the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure conducted a meta-analysis on peer-reviewed cell phone exposure studies from 2009-2014 and concluded that children and unborn babies face a greater risk for bodily damage as a result of the microwave radiation given off by wireless devices.

Considering this information, it seems especially heinous that Milestone Communication tried to construct cell towers on location at two schools in our neighboring county, Roanoke.

With so many developed countries around the world taking justified preventative measures to prevent public exposure to RF radiation, it begs the question of why the U.S. is so behind the curve.

The agencies responsible for setting guidelines and limits for public exposure to RF radiation are heavily influenced by telecom companies — the ones who profit from the proliferation of cell towers and consequently the increase in RF radiation. The FCC is the federal agency currently charged with setting the limits for public exposure to radiofrequency radiation. Positions in the FCC are appointed by the sitting president of the United States, but that hardly means their decisions are free from the corrupting influence of monied interests.

For example, in 2013, President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler as the chairman of the FCC. Prior to his appointment, Tom Wheeler was at one point president and CEO of both NCTA (National Cable and Telecommunications Association) and CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association), both trade associations responsible for representing the interests of the wireless communication industry.

These facts about the FCC are even more disturbing when you compare our permitted public exposure levels to other developed countries around the globe. The city of Salzburg, Austria, is incredibly modest with its limits — 0.001 microwatts per centimeter squared. Switzerland reserves a limit of 4.25 microwatts per centimeter squared for schools and hospitals while maintaining a limit of 9.5 microwatts per centimeter squared for the general public. Other developed countries such as China, Russia, Italy, Poland and France maintain a limit of 10 microwatts per centimeter squared; but this wouldn’t be the good ol’ US of A if our limit for public exposure to RF radiation was shy of 1000 microwatts per centimeter squared.

We seem to live in a gray area where, because there aren’t an alarming number of Americans folding over and convulsing from seizures induced by glioblastomas, we can capitalize in the midst of plausible deniability.

What happened in Roanoke this December was truly amazing; the local community championed the spirit of democracy and petitioned their government and won, in the best interest of public health. As a writer for a student-run paper, I find it appropriate to suggest that we all find an example in that and remain informed and active in our community.

Even when public opinion rears its ugly head to challenge the purveyors of radiofrequency emitting technology, the market finds a way to work in spite of the best interest of its contributors. The means will be covert. That’s why the title of this WDBJ article from September 2019 reads “Roanoke company unveils secret cell tower along Blue Ridge Parkway.”

I find a quotation within the article from Anthony Smith fitting: “We live and die by our cell phones now…”

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