Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics
630 West 168 Street
New York, NY 10032
September 11, 2008
An open letter to
Mayor Young and the Langford Council
Re: Health effects of cell tower radiation
I have been an active researcher on biological effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF) for over twenty five years at Columbia University. I was also one of the organizers of the 2007 online Bioinitiative Report on the subject. Because of this background, I have been asked to provide background information regarding current discussions about the proposed cell tower.
There is now sufficient scientific data about the biological effects of EMF, and in particular about radiofrequency (RF) radiation, to argue for adoption of precautionary measures. We can state unequivocally that EMF can cause single and double strand DNA breakage at exposure levels that are considered safe under the FCC guidelines in the USA. As I shall illustrate below, there are also epidemiology studies that show an increased risk of cancers associated with exposure to RF. Since we know that an accumulation of changes or mutations in DNA is associated with cancer, there is good reason to believe that the elevated rates of cancers among persons living near radio towers are probably linked to DNA damage caused by EMF. Because of the nature of EMF exposure and the length of time it takes for most cancers to develop, one cannot expect 'conclusive proof' such as the link between helicobacter pylori and gastric ulcer. (That link was recently demonstrated by the Australian doctor who proved a link conclusively by swallowing the bacteria and getting the disease.) However, there is enough evidence of a plausible mechanism to link EMF exposure to increased risk of cancer, and therefore of a need to limit exposure, especially of children.
EMF have been shown to cause other potentially harmful biological effects, such as leakage of the blood brain barrier that can lead to damage of neurons in the brain, increased micronuclei (DNA fragments) in human blood lymphocytes, all at exposure rates well below the limits in the current FCC guidelines. Probably the most convincing evidence of potential harm comes from living cells themselves when they start to manufacture stress proteins upon exposure to EMF. The stress response occurs with a number of potentially harmful environmental factors, such as elevated temperature, changes in pH, toxic metals, etc. This means that when stress protein synthesis is stimulated by radiofrequency or power frequency EMF, the body is telling us in its own language that RF exposure is potentially harmful.
There have been several attempts to measure the health risks associated with exposure to RF, and I can summarize the findings with a graph from the study by Dr. Neil Cherry of all childhood cancers around the Sutro Tower in San Francisco between the years 1937 and 1988. Similar studies with similar results were done around broadcasting antennas in Sydney, Australia and Rome, Italy, and there are now studies of effects of cellphones on brain cancer. The Sutro tower contains antennas for broadcasting FM (54.7 kW) TV (616 kW) and UHF (18.3 MW) signals over a fairly wide area, and while the fields are not uniform, and also vary during the day, the fields were measured and average values estimated, so that one could associate the cancer risk with the degree of EMF exposure.
The data in the figure are the risk ratios (RR) for a total of 123 cases of childhood cancer from a population of 50,686 children, and include a 51 cases of leukaemia, 35 cases of brain cancer and 37 cases of lymphatic cancer. It is clear from the results that the risk ratio for all childhood cancers is elevated in the area studied, and while the risk falls off with radial distance from the antennas, as expected, it is still above a risk ratio of 5 even at a distance of 3km where the field was 1μW/cm2. This figure is what we can expect from prolonged RF exposure. In the Bioinitiative Report, we recommended 0.1μW/cm2 as a desirable precautionary level based on this and related studies, including recent studies of brain cancer and cellphone exposure..
As I mentioned above, many potentially harmful effects, such as the stress response and DNA strand breaks, occur at nonthermal levels (field strengths that do not cause a temperature increase) and are therefore considered safe. It is obvious that the safety standards must be revised down to take into account the nonthermal as well as thermal biological responses that occur at much lower intensities. Since we cannot rely on the current standards, it is best to act according to the precautionary principle, the approach advocated by the European Union and used by the scientists involved in the Bioinitiative report. In light of the current evidence, the precautionary approach appears to be the most reasonable for those who must protect the health and welfare of the public.
Martin Blank, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of physiology and cellular biophysics