WE’VE written on several occasions about the possible health hazards of frequent and prolonged use of cellular phones. I’ve had an interesting conversation recently with Doctors Willie and Liza Ong, who are staunch advocates of public health, on the current controversy about cell sites being placed in residential villages.
I understand that in some posh villages, some homeowners are renting out to telecom companies whatever spaces in their backyard the cell site will require for as much as P50,000 monthly.
These satellite cell sites serve as base stations controlling cell phone communication for everyone using their cell phones in that particular area, depending on which service provider they are using. Considering the exponential growth in cell phone users, one can surmise that there’s also an exponential increase in cell sites.
Because of the overwhelming increase in cell phone traffic, especially with unli (unlimited text/phone call) promos, the density in existing cell towers is markedly increased; and when a cell becomes too busy, the logical solution would be to break it down into smaller cells, which means putting up more cell sites. I suppose this is the reason they have to erect smaller cell sites in residential backyards.
In the United States, they have something like 300,000 cell sites so in the Philippines, knowing our fondness for cell phones and imagining the degree of cellular traffic it causes, we should have tens of thousands of these cell sites. For all you know, there might be one in your neighbor’s backyard. They can just look like satellite discs or loudspeakers.
The basic question is—do they pose any harm to the people living near these satellite cell sites due to their radio frequency radiation?
Based on current scientific evidence which Willie and Liza have also studied, there is no indication that the radiation risk from these cell towers are harmful. The data lean more toward no harm rather than possible harm. Unfortunately, current data are also not sufficient to give anyone a reasonable level of confidence to categorically give the assurance that there is definitely no harm from these cell sites within residential villages.
Various countries adopt a wide-ranging standard for cell site radiation, which is anywhere from 450 to 1,000 microwatts per square centimeter. I believe each country arbitrarily sets its own standard depending on the recommendation of people who are supposed to be authorities on the subject but since scientific data of what’s safe and what’s not also differ, recommended standards also differ widely.
It can also be argued that some of these standards have been influenced, not solely by scientific data, but by socioeconomic or even political interests. This is a stark reality that many practising physicians are quite aware of. Sometimes, treatment guidelines of medical problems are influenced not by the science, but by the economics and politics prevalent in the country where the guidelines have been drafted.
I guess the jury is still out to ascertain the safety or hazard of cell sites. Based on available evidence, there is no clear evidence of any significant harm at this point. One is likely to get more radiation from an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test, which is frequently requested now, than from cell sites.
I agree with the recommendation of Willie and Liza that the Department of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, currently headed by the dynamic and forward-looking Dr. Kenneth Go, should periodically review the scientific evidences particularly when the results of ongoing studies are reported.
Should cell towers or satellite cell sites be allowed in the villages? Again, science can’t offer any data to support any recommendation on this but intuitively, my personal opinion is that they should not be allowed within 200 meters of any residence. The telecom companies should also measure with an accurate, scientifically validated meter the amount of irradiation one is getting from the tower or cell site. And all those who are within the range wherein some amount of electromagnetic radiation is present—although low and presumed safe—should be informed about it and should be asked to give their consent even if the cell site is not within their property.
Having said that, let me go back to the MRI analogy just to put things in proper perspective. We just have to weigh carefully the benefits and harm of the many things we use in modern life to decide whether or not we should allow them. We know that MRI emits a high level of radiation, but considering the valuable information we could get from it to arrive at the correct diagnosis and treatment of whatever medical problems we have, we don’t mind the minimal risk it poses.
Similarly, we should decide how important cell phone communication is to us. If we believe we can live without it, then we can dig in and fight against anything the telecom companies do which can potentially do some harm. If we consider cell phones as an essential tool we can’t live without, then we just have to put up with whatever yet unfounded doubts we have about its safety, provided some precautions are taken.
That’s the boon and bane of modern life.