A scientific approach to understanding the technical components of societal issues is helpful even though science, by itself, cannot provide answers to larger public policy questions. Cell tower safety, or the health effects from radio waves, is a current technical issue in our community.
Science does not provide answers to technical questions with absolute certainty; nor are there absolute authorities on scientific questions; and neither court nor electoral processes determine facts. However, the methods of scientific inquiry are very powerful and a basic understanding of those methods can give citizens a way to gain useful perspective on this and other technical issues of concern.
Radio technology has been in use for more than a century, its medical uses (diathermy) for more than 80 years, and its high frequency form, used in cell phones, for more than 60 years (radar). From the beginning, effects of radio waves on living things have been studied extensively, with continuing larger and more comprehensive studies underway today.
The United States governmental exposure limits for radio frequency radiation were developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE, a nonprofit technical professional society). Normal cell phone use and cell phone towers are below these exposure limits. Radio waves at high power densities result in heating (cooking, as in microwave ovens) with clear direct adverse effects on living systems. Somewhat lower power densities have been used in medical procedures (diathermy) to heat internal tissue in the body. Recently, we have seen a proliferation of low power radio wave devices and uses so that now more than half the world’s population and about 90 percent of the U.S. population use cell phones. Since low power density radio waves, such as those used in cell phones, do not show direct effects in laboratory experiments, epidemiological approaches (looking for correlations of exposure with health in large groups of people over many years) have been used. The vast majority of these studies also do not show any adverse health effects from cell phone radio waves.
But science is not based on a vote, even a vast majority. What is scientifically correct is not necessarily a majority opinion. This is the reason we cannot ignore a researcher who finds results that contradict commonly held beliefs. The researcher has the challenge of communicating the unusual results to the scientific community in sufficient detail to help convince colleagues of its importance. This sets the stage for confusion on the part of citizens who take such a study as proof that the establishment is wrong or who take the establishment’s view as proof that the minority studies are wrong. Neither conclusion is scientifically valid. Scientists use peer-reviewed publications as the back-and-forth questioning and analyzing system to refine scientific knowledge. But this leaves non-scientist citizens in an awkward position: there are conflicting studies without an authority. No wonder the public has trouble dealing with technical issues like global climate change, vaccine-autism links, aerial pesticide spraying safety, and cell phone safety. Previous generations dealt with ozone-depleting hair-spray, mandatory chest X-ray safety, and laetrile cancer treatment, among others.
One way to gather perspective on the issue is to make comparisons. For example, if irradiation with radio waves caused a health problem that depended upon the power density and length of exposure time, then one can calculate that the effect from a hand-held cell phone (at 2 watts) used for 10 minutes per day an inch from one’s head would be a thousand times greater than the effect from a cell tower (at 50 watts) for 24 hours per day that is a couple hundred feet away. As such, cell phone use, not cell towers, would constitute the very much greater health risk, if any.
I welcome further discussion on these technical questions. Further information is available at ralphchapman.org.
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