Scary Rays from the Sky

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

From Katie: “Any thoughts on cell phone towers being placed on an elementary school’s property?”

Radiation. Powerful enough to turn Dr. Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby) into The Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), or meek Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) into The Amazing Spider-Man (still Tobey Maguire, but more buff and spandexed). It also obliterated two cities in Japan, and continues to contribute to cancers near Chernobyl. It’s sciency, strong, and scary. No wonder it creates so much apprehension.

We’re all living every day surrounded by radiation sources, and bathed in radioactive rays. Cosmic rays are a significant and unavoidable source of radiation from above, and naturally occurring forms of radon, carbon, and many other elements in the earth’s crust bombard us with radiation from below.

Not all radiation is the same. The more-powerful, cell-damaging kind is called “ionizing radiation,” and we know that can strip atoms apart and disrupt DNA. This kind of radiation occurs in cosmic rays and diagnostic x-rays, and that’s why radiology technicians wear lead overcoats. It is a bad idea to be exposed to excessive ionizing radiation, though even that risk should be put in perspective, since you can’t possibly avoid it entirely. For comparison, a single chest x-ray exposes an adult to about the same ionizing radiation that you’d get in three days of living on the earth at sea level. Three days, that doesn’t sound so bad. But an abdominal CT scan? That’s about three extra years. Diagnostic radiology is a wonderful tool, but it should be used carefully.

The other kind of radiation is called “non-ionizing.” You’re swimming in that, too. All light is a form of non-ionizing radiation, as are radio waves and microwaves. Though at very intense, high exposures these kinds of radiation can damage tissue (think about a microwave oven, or spending a day in the sun), the process of damage is by the transfer of heat, not the destruction of DNA or other molecules directly. And it only takes a very thin layer of shielding to protect from even intense non-ionizing radiation. You can get a sunburn, yes, but you won’t burn through a thin piece of clothing or a layer of sunscreen, and a little piece of darkened plastic can make squinting unnecessary even on a bright day. Non-ionizing radiation doesn’t penetrate tissue well, and that’s one reason it’s thought of as generally safe.

Cell phones themselves use non-ionizing radio waves to communicate with their towers, and that radiation can barely penetrate the topmost payer of your skin. The most recent research has found no link between cell phone use and cancer, though good studies of more than ten years exposure have not been done. Certainly, if there is a risk, it’s very small; a large risk effect would be easy to spot in demographic and population trends, and it just isn’t there.

Cell phone towers transmit in both radio waves and microwaves, though the microwaves are directed to travel along lines of sight to the next tower– they don’t point down towards the ground at all. There is no credible evidence that they cause any direct harm. At least not from their radiation.

The real risk, of course, is automobile accidents. Car wrecks kill about 45,000 people in the USA every year. How many of these are caused by drivers distracted by a cell phone?

For a while, high-voltage electric transmission lines, which also emit electromagnetic radiation, were implicated as a cause of cancer and other bad things. After decades of research failed to find real evidence of any harm, the anti-power line crowd seems to have moved on to cell phones as the latest health boogeyman. (For more about the story of epidemiology and the rise and fall of the hysteria over health risks from power lines, read Geoffrey Kabat’s Hyping Health Risks.)

Don’t fall for the hysteria over cell towers. Careful studies have so far been able to rule out any large effect; though tiny effects are still possible, good research is being done to see what the extent of that might be. In the meantime, if you want to be safe around cell phones, don’t use them when you’re driving. That’s a much, much bigger health risk than could possibly be associated from the Scary Rays from The Sky.

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6 Comments on “Scary Rays from the Sky”

  1. Amy Gurowitz Says:

    This is a wonderfully informative post Roy. Way to demystify radioactivity. These are always the things we hear about from those unknown sources and it’s just enough info to make us dangerous on the misinformation highway! Thanks steering me clear on this one. I always appreciate your posts.. thanks for the easy links!

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  2. Angela Flynn Says:

    There are thousands of studies and decades of research that prove there are non thermal effects from exposure to non ionizing radiation. It is also theorized that it is the magnetic field, which does penetrate and completely passes through our bodies, that may be causing these biological reactions. Please educate yourself on this issue. Read some of Dr, Robert Becker’s books. He was a pioneer in bioelectromagnetics and documents many of these effects. Review the BioInitiative Report compiled in 2007. (see http://www.bioinitiative.org)

    Some of the biological effects that have been found from exposure to non ionizing radiation are:

    Calcium efflux
    Cell membrane shut down
    Interference with DNA recombining
    Increase in stress proteins
    Increase in mast cells
    Insulin release
    Increase in Nitric Oxide levels
    Interference with Pineal gland
    Lower Melatonin levels
    Alter brain waves
    Open the Blood Brain Barrier
    Alter heart rate

    Or as the BioIntitive Report puts it:

    The BioInitiative Report 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 (EMFs) exposure. Health endpoints reported to be associated with ELF and/or RF include childhood leukaemia, brain tumours, genotoxic effects, neurological effects and neurodegenerative diseases, immune system deregulation, allergic and inflammatory responses, breast cancer, miscarriage and some cardiovascular effects.

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  3. Dr. Roy Says:

    Angela, if a tenth of what Becker believes were true, we’d all be dead many times over.

    For instance, his assertion that you mentioned about the ill effects of magnetic fields is ludicrous; the Earth itself creates a magnetic field thousands of times more potent than what electronic devices create. A little common sense and a high school physics class pretty much takes care of Becker’s “sky is falling” predictions.

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  4. Katie Says:

    With all due respect, Dr. Roy, I feel compelled to comment on your opinion of cell phone towers.

    I am a medical professional and feel that I am able to differentiate between scientific and emotional responses. I do not consider myself a “hysterical” parent.

    The problem with the cell tower issue for me is that there isn’t the science to say they are safe. You said yourself that long-term data is lacking. No one knows for sure. End of story. No one wants their children to be the guinea pigs.

    Yes, we do take risks everyday much greater than cell towers pose, but we do so because the benefit outweighs that risk. If we didn’t drive, we couldn’t get to work, pay the bills, etc etc. But the benefit of better cellular coverage just doesn’t outweigh the potential risk (no matter how small it is) of a 150 foot structure built less than 100 feet from a 5 year old’s playground. Not only does this tower emit EMF radiation which a lot of scientists say is harmful (whether one believes them or not) but such a structure will require road access through the school grounds, diesel tanks on the property, a 10 foot chain link fence and maintenance people on school grounds, not to mention the fact that these things can and do fall down.

    So I guess, when I originally posed the question to you, I should have been more clear. I’d like to know you thoughts of cellular towers on school grounds. How would you feel if one was being built at your children’s school?

    Thank you.

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  5. Dr. Roy Says:

    Katie, there are good reasons why it may not be ideal to put a cell phone tower on school grounds: they’re ugly, they need to be maintained, etc. I suppose one might even fall down. I would rather the space be used for something that would benefit the children.

    The “EMF radiation” (a phrase that’s more scary and less accurate than “radio waves”) itself is harmless; even the tort lawyers have moved on to more fertile and imaginative ways to twist science and extort money.

    Again, I urge you to read Kabat’s “Hyping Health Risks” for more detail. Thanks for posting and visiting the blog.

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  6. Katie Says:

    I will do that. Thanks Dr. Roy.

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