Palm Coast government can’t win. For years, residents complained that the city was a dead zone for cell reception and that city government was impeding improvements by overregulating cell-tower placement.
That changed two years ago. The city loosened regulations, enabling taller towers and towers in closer proximity to residential zones, and it contracted with a cell-tower builder. Diamond Communications built or is building four new towers this year, breaking a decade-long drought of the steely structures. Now residents are raising alarms that the city is cooking them with radiation and that the local cancer rate will spike.
“If you look at Israel, and you look at Germany, who have already decided to disband their cell towers, they noticed a 400 percent increase in cancers by anybody within five miles of those towers, so they are dismantling theirs,” Sonya Snyder told the Palm Coast City Council this morning. She described Palm Coast’s amenities, “but you’re going to have cancer rates four times the national average” if the towers go in residential areas, and cited the case of a cell tower in Israel where 45 students developed cancer over three years.
The concerns are not isolated: For a decade and a half concerns have been raised and aired in innumerable articles and TV news stories about a possible link between cancers and radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, the very low level but constant emission of low-grade radiation from phones and tablets that communicate with cell towers, and from cell towers themselves.
Snyder was one of three residents addressed the council to that effect, but in language as dire as it was general, and inaccurate in key regards.
Israel and Germany are not dismantling their cell towers. If anything, Israel is at the cutting edge of the 5G rollout (which can deliver data at 1,000 times the speed of 4G), having played a key role in its development. It sees the technology as vital to its economic strategy, as do many nations. Germany launched its first 5G network last month, with coverage due in 20 cities by next year. The network depends on more, not fewer, towers, albeit towers or structures not nearly as tall, but extremely frequent: booster antennas are necessary at 500 feet intervals, though neighborhood electric lines emit their own share of electromagnetic fields.
And the cancer numbers Snyder used could not be found anywhere, even after following her suggestion (“just Google, ‘dangers of cell towers’”) at least not from sources not prone to fringe conspiracy theories.
But the possibility of a connection between cell-tower radiation and cancer isn’t zero. It just is far more nuanced, uncertain and inconclusive than alarmist claims based on unverified and anecdotal information can make it sound. The two common themes in studies on the subject are that the technology has not been around long enough to produce conclusive research, or that a causal link is possible, but always associated with many qualifiers.
“A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk,” the World Health Organization concludes in its briefing on cell radiation and health, citing the nearly 7 billion devices in use currently. “To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.”
The organization concluded similarly regarding towers and “base stations.” To date, it concludes, “the only health effect from RF fields identified in scientific reviews has been related to an increase in body temperature (> 1 °C) from exposure at very high field intensity found only in certain industrial facilities, such as RF heaters. The levels of RF exposure from base stations and wireless networks are so low that the temperature increases are insignificant and do not affect human health.”
Last month a small city government east of San Francisco convinced Sprint to move a tower away from an elementary school where parents claimed the tower had triggered a cancer cluster (14 cases reported in the whole town in 10 years, some of them at the school), though neither the city nor Sprint conceded a cancer risk. And some parents questioned the presence of a chemical in the water, not the cell tower, as a cause of elevated cancers among children.
The World Health Organization addresses the anecdotal phenomenon directly: “Media or anecdotal reports of cancer clusters around mobile phone base stations have heightened public concern. It should be noted that geographically, cancers are unevenly distributed among any population. Given the widespread presence of base stations in the environment, it is expected that possible cancer clusters will occur near base stations merely by chance. Moreover, the reported cancers in these clusters are often a collection of different types of cancer with no common characteristics and hence unlikely to have a common cause.
But last month Scientific American summarized a set of studies making a link between the heat that cell towers and cell devices emit and slightly elevated cancers in lab rats–again, with caveats: researchers could not rule out other reasons, and “the radiation-treated animals also lived longer than the nonexposed controls.”
Snyder was preceded by another resident who saw a new cell tower rise near his home. He referred to the city’s contract with Diamond Communications. “God bless, you’re making $100,000, God knows how much they’re making,” he said. (Palm Coast is receiving $25,000 per tower as a one-time fee from Diamond. The company is building the towers at its expense, and reaping whatever revenue from it that it can generate.) “But, you’re going to be damaging the people in the area. Everyone is going to get sick, then we’re talking class-action suits, you’re going to be talking, you know–people are dying,” the resident said.
He did not cite evidence, and the council members did not address the claims before moving on to other issues. Nick Klufas, the council member usually conversant with those concerns, was on vacation.