Cell Tower Siting Requires Careful Planning

By Joshua Pearce, Dec 3, 2019 | Michigan Technological University article here.

There are many cell towers in the United States ( ~ 350,000), and many more coming ( ~ 800,000–1,000,000). This is because nearly everyone owns a cell phone and companies are marketing more and more data-intensive applications.

In the U.S., the Pew Research Center reports 96% of Americans own a cell phone of some kind, and smart phone ownership today has risen to 81% from 35% in 2011. Industry data reported by GSMA Intelligence estimates more than five billion people worldwide use mobile devices. All these devices work by using pulsed, data-modulated, Radio-frequency Electromagnetic Microwave Radiation (RF-EMR), which expose people to microwave radiation at levels that are tens of millions of times higher than background levels of electromagnetic fields (EMF) and natural, un-pulsed EMR.

Joshua Pearce, a professor in electrical and materials engineering from Michigan Technological University led the study which reviews current data on RF-EMR and engineering solutions for placing towers. Pearce said:

"The research on the negative health consequences of RF-EMR exposures is very large and, therefore, established: tens of thousands of studies since the 1930’s. Some of the data gives us reason to be alarmed. I’m pro-tech and I’m pro-human, so I think there are ways for us to have our cell phones and minimize negative health consequences — without waiting to find out that putting a cell tower on top of a school, or next to a home was a bad idea."

Pearce and his team’s solutions focus on getting companies to rethink where to place cell towers when they do a standard "search ring" map that prioritizes potential sites based on maximizing coverage for the least cost. Assessing tower placement is not a new idea; Canada and many European countries are looking into siting guidelines that help keep particularly vulnerable populations safe, like kids and those with illnesses.

The handful of human studies reviewed in Pearce’s paper indicate that proximity to base stations correlates with

  1. headaches
  2. dizziness
  3. depression
  4. other neurobehavioral symptoms
  5. increased cancer occurrence.

Animal studies also indicate that these effects are cumulative. The longer the exposures, the worse the negative health consequences.

Given the current research, cell towers should be placed 500 meters, or about a third of a mile away from schools, hospitals and people’s homes. The challenge in the U.S., unlike in India where such setback laws are already in place, is the laws that govern cell tower siting plans in Section 704 of The Telecommunications Act of 1996 specifically eliminate "environmental effects" from consideration of decisions for placement, construction and modification of Wireless Telecommunications Facilities, a.k.a cell towers.

Pearce continued:

"This is a peculiar law, but saying that something is legal doesn’t make it right or cost-effective in the long run. It’s in the companies’ best interests to be thoughtful about where to place cell towers; they don’t want to have to move towers or be held responsible down the line. These negative health consequences are real. There are options to do it differently; options that can reduce negative health consequences and, therefore, improve company’s future bottom line."

Pearce concluded:

"Revamping search ring mapping to include a 500-meter buffer from homes, schools. medical facilities and care facilities would not impact the cost of the siting process but would reduce future liabilities. There are also other innovative options, like cell splitting and significantly reducing the Effective Radiated Power from small cells, that could also decrease RF-EMR exposures. At the end of the day, it comes down to thinking before building."

Paper: Limiting Liability By Siting Cell Towers to Minimize Negative Health Effects

Link to paper; Emphases added by S4WT via bolded text, below.


The use of cellular phones is now ubiquitous through most of the world and the basic operation of cellular phone networks results in widespread human exposure to radio-frequency radiation (RFR). Wireless data needs are increasing due to a shift Internet use from personal computers to smart phones. Thus, both the density of cellular phone base stations and their power output is expected to increase the global human RFR exposure levels and duration. There is already enough medical and scientific evidence to warrant long-term liability concerns for companies deploying cellular phone towers. In order to protect cell phone tower firms from the ramifications of the failed paths of other industries that have caused unintended human harm (e.g. tobacco) this article summarizes the peer-reviewed literature on the effects of RFR from cellular phone base stations. Specifically the impacts of siting base stations are closely examined and recommendations are made for companies that deploy them to minimize their potential future liability.

Negative human health effects from proximity to cellular phone base stations

There is a large and growing body of evidence that human exposure to RFR from cellular phone base stations causes negative health effects1,2,3 including both

(i) neurological harms such as headache, concentration difficulties, memory changes, dizziness, tremors, depressive symptoms, fatigue and sleep disturbance4,5,6; and

(ii) increased incidence of cancer when living in proximity to a cell phone transmitter station7,8. The mechanism for causing cancer could be from observed genetic damage using the single cell gel electrophoresis assay assessed in peripheral blood leukocytes of individuals residing in the vicinity of a mobile phone base station and comparing it to that in healthy controls9.

Overall, in epidemiological studies to date that assessed negative health effects of mobile phone base stations (seven studies explored the association between base station proximity and neurobehavioral effects 4-6,10,11,12,13 and three that investigated cancer 7,8,14), 80% reported increased prevalence of adverse neurobehavioral symptoms or cancer in populations living at distances < 500 meters (or 1,640 feet) from base stations1.

The literature also indicates that these effects may be cumulative based on results that report

(i) mice exposed to low intensity RFR became less reproductive and after five generations of exposure the mice were not able to produce offspring indicating intergenerational transfer of effects15;

(ii) DNA damage in cells after 24 hours of exposure to low-intensity RFR, which can lead to gene mutation that accumulates over time16 and

(iii) increased sensitivity to behavior–disruption experiments in rats17 and monkeys18,

(iv) an increase in permeability of the blood–brain barrier in mice suggesting that a short-term, high-intensity exposure can produce the same effect as a long-term, low-intensity exposure19. Studies on short-term exposure generally show no effects. For example, early studies saw no effect from short-term exposure, however, studies found effects after prolonged, repeated exposure in guinea pigs and rabbits20.

There are several studies showing the effects intensifiy with reduced distance to the cell tower. The first7 found increased symptoms and complaints the closer a person lived to a tower7 and similar results were found in later studies.3-6

U.S. Law Unhelpful for Preventing Future Liability

Current U.S. law has created a somewhat peculiar overriding federal preemption that precludes taking the ‘‘environmental effects’’ of RFR into consideration in cell tower "placement, construction and modification." (see Section 704 of The Telecommunications Act of 1996). The current, U.S. RFR exposure standards are based solely on thermal effects (the heating of tissue) and thus do not mitigate against non-thermal biological effects (for which there is a growing evidence in the medical/scientific community). Due to the findings of many studies briefly summarized above, many researchers argue for the revision of standard guidelines for public exposure to RFR from mobile phone base station antennas 6,21,22.

This is perhaps most forcefully concluded by the BioInitiative Report published by the BioInitiative Working Group, which is based on an international research and public policy initiative to give an overview of what is known of biological effects that occur at low-intensity electromagnetic fields exposure. American companies simply follow “regulatory compliance” despite clear evidence of biological harms from RFR exposures in the scientific/medical communities. Cellular phone companies could be facing significant legal exposure for causing widespread human health problems and premature deaths. It is, therefore, in American companies’ best interest to act before government and regulation catches up with the science.

Current Cell Tower Positioning

Current cell tower locations are chosen based on a “search ring” priority basis of geographic optimum for technical coverage of wireless transmissions (e.g. users). This combination of technical parameters (e.g. geography) to enable coverage and dependable service and costs (e.g. positioning on mountaintops only accessibly by helicopter) is then weighed against and local regulations such as local zoning.

To overcome these challenges in urban areas cellphone companies often locate cellphone base stations at schools, because the monthly rental fee (~$1500) is welcome income for economically-challenged school districts that have influence on local zoning. However, some jurisdictions have already prohibited the placement of cell phone towers near schools or hospitals because of the increased sensitivity of these populations, as in India. Other regions such as Europe20 could follow a similar approach. Now even in North America, Canada’s Standing Committee on Health are considering more precautionary approaches to RFR exposures.

Recommended Cell Phone Base Station Positioning

A review article of the health effects near base stations concluded that deployment of base stations should minimize exposure of the public to RFR and should not be located less than 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the population, or lower than 50 meters (164 feet) (.11 This presents a serious challenge to cell phone company RF engineers. However, it is possible to obtain necessary coverage while at the same time minimizing human exposure at the highest intensities. There are several first steps a cellular phone company can take to minimize human exposure particularly of the most vulnerable populations.

First, voluntary restrictions can be made on the placement of cellular phone base stations within 500 meters (1,640 feet) of schools and hospitals. This will synchronize base station deployment strategies between regions. This can be done by utilizing the existing hexagon planning map structure of an area with an overlay using an additional semi-automated process with a geographic information system (GIS) 24 such as the Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS) to identify any regions within 500m of existing schools and hospitals. All hexagons with schools or hospitals are marked as unusable for RF engineer planning (e.g. colored red). This restriction only makes planning slightly more difficult, but does present a challenge in regions where schools were specifically targeted as base station locations in (e.g. Verizon deployments in the U.S.). Future work is needed to determine if the increased legal exposure warrants the cost of moving existing stations. However, the increased cost to locate future stations away from schools and hospitals should be minimal.

The second technical hurdle is more challenging. Ideally, all cell phone users would have coverage while minimizing the population density near cellular phone base stations (thus minimizing health impacts). This can be planned using GIS tools, freely-accessible U.S. Census data, parcel data and/or satellite images. The population density can be color coded for straightforward decision making for RF engineers. As a cellphone base station costs $250-350,000 to install in the U.S., using a precautionary approach to potential future regulation can save substantial relocation fees

The cell phone industry should also consider cell splitting, small cell deployment, beam and null steering antennas as possible technical means for reducing RF exposure. Moreover, more research on cognitive radio should also be conducted, so that the overall RF exposure is reduced. These measures will ultimately benefit the entire telecommunications industry, while significantly reducing global RF pollution.

Finally, exposed companies should consider funding large-scale epidemiological studies with personal dosimeters for strict dose measurement and straight-forward tissue exposure. By quantifying the human medical threat themselves, more appropriate long-term planning can be made to minimize the risk of liability from unintended human harm due to cellular phone base station siting.


Financial Disclosure: The author owns stock in the American Tower Corporation

End Notes

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2 Singh, R., Nath, R., Mathur, A.K. and Sharma, R.S., 2018. Effect of radiofrequency radiation on reproductive health. The Indian journal of medical research, 148(Suppl 1), p.S92.

3 Faisal, M.M.A., Mortuza, M.G. and Alam, T., 2018, October. Cell Tower Radiation and Effect on Human Body: Bangladesh Perspective. In 2018 International Conference on Innovations in Science, Engineering and Technology (ICISET) (pp. 423-426). IEEE

4 Navarro, A.E., Sequra, J., Portole´s, M., and Go´mez-Perretta de Mateo, C. 2003. The microwave syndrome: a preliminary study in Spain. Electromagn. Biol. Med. 22(2-3): 161–169. doi:10.1081/JBC-120024625.

5 Hutter, H. P., Moshammer, H., Wallner, P., & Kundi, M. (2006). Subjective symptoms, sleeping problems, and cognitive performance in subjects living near mobile phone base stations. Occupational and Environmental Medicine,63(5), 307-313.

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7 Wolf, R., & Wolf, D. (2004). Increased incidence of cancer near a cell-phone transmitter station. International Journal of Cancer Prevention, 1(2), 123-128

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9 Gandhi, G., Kaur, G., & Nisar, U. (2014). A cross-sectional case control study on genetic damage in individuals residing in the vicinity of a mobile phone base station. Electromagnetic biology and medicine, (0), 1-11.

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11 Gadzicka, E., Bortkiewicz, A., Zmyslony, M., Szymczak, W., & Szyjkowska, A. (2006). Assessment of subjective complaints reported by people living near mobile phone base stations. Biuletyn PTZE Warszawa, 14, 23-26.

12 Blettner, Maria, Brigitte Schlehofer, Juergen Breckenkamp, Bernd Kowall, Sven Schmiedel, Ursula Reis, Peter Potthoff, Joachim Schuez, and Gabriele Berg-Beckhoff. "Mobile phone base stations and adverse health effects: phase 1 of a population-based, cross-sectional study in Germany." Occupational and environmental medicine 66, no. 2 (2009): 118-123.

13 Berg-Beckhoff, G., Blettner, M., Kowall, B., Breckenkamp, J., Schlehofer, B., Schmiedel, S., … & Schüz, J. (2009). Mobile phone base stations and adverse health effects: phase 2 of a cross sectional study with measured radio frequency electromagnetic fields. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 66(2), 124-130.

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16 Phillips, J.L., Ivaschuk, O., Ishida-Jones, T., Jones, R.A., Campbell-Beachler, M., and Haggren,W. 1998. DNA damage in Molt-4 T-lymphoblastoid cells exposed to cellular telephone radiofrequency fields in vitro. Bioelectrochem. Bioenerg. 45(1): 103–110. doi:10.1016/S0302 4598(98)00074-9.

17 D’Andrea, J.A., DeWitt, J.R., Gandhi, O.P., Stensaas, S., Lords, J.L., and Nielson, H.C. 1986. Behavioral and physiological effects of chronic 2450 MHz microwave irradiation of the rat at 0.5 mW/cm2. Bioelectromagnetics, 7(1): 45–56. doi:10.1002/bem.2250070106.

18 de Lorge, J.O. 1984. Operant behavior and colonic temperature of Macaca mulatta exposed to radiofrequency fields at and above resonant frequencies. Bioelectromagnetics, 5(2): 233–246. doi:10.1002/bem.2250050211.

19 Persson, B.R.R., Salford, L.G., and Brun, A. 1997. Blood–brain barrier permeability in rats exposed to electromagnetic fields used in wireless communication. Wirel. Netw. 3(6): 455–461. doi:10.1023/A:1019150510840.

20 Takashima, S., Onaral, B., and Schwan, H.P. 1979. Effects of modulated RF energy on the EEG of mammalian brain. Radiat. Environ. Biophys. 16(1): 15–27. doi:10.1007/BF01326893.

21 Hardell, L., & Sage, C. (2008). Biological effects from electromagnetic field exposure and public exposure standards. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy,62(2), 104-109.

22 Khurana, V. G., Hardell, L., Everaert, J., Bortkiewicz, A., Carlberg, M., & Ahonen, M. (2010). Epidemiological evidence for a health risk from mobile phone base stations. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health,16(3), 263-267.

23 Roda, C., & Perry, S. (2014). Mobile phone infrastructure regulation in Europe: Scientific challenges and human rights protection. Environmental Science & Policy, 37, 204-214

24 Al–Sahly, A., Hassan, M.M., Al–Rubaian, M. and Al–Qurishi, M., 2018, April. Using GIS for Measuring Mobile Tower Radiation on Human. In 2018 1st International Conference on Computer Applications & Information Security (ICCAIS) (pp. 1-6). IEEE