A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

Cell Antennas on Fire Stations: Is There a Health Risk?

Radar Gun Parallels

April 8, 2005

Fire fighters want to know if placing cell phone towers on fire stations puts them at risk. Until a study can provide some reassurance that there is no radiation hazard, the International Association of Fire Fighters wants to ban antennas from fire stations.

We wish them luck, but we bet that the study will never get off the ground. In any case, if an epidemiological study were to be done, this is not the one to do.

The fire fighters’ appeal reminds us what happened when, some 15 years ago, police officers asked the government to look into allegations that radar guns could cause cancer. The police had some powerful friends. Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman asked the NIEHS and the NIOSH for an epidemiological study while the International Brotherhood of Police Officers campaigned for a ban on the use of radar guns. At a Senate hearing held on August 10, 1992, representatives from government, industry and academia all voiced support for a study.

“Senator Dodd and I are going to stick with this until we get some answers,” Lieberman promised that day. Space hero Sen. John Glenn showed up and said that he was “extremely disturbed” by the reported link between police radar and cancer. And Dodd urged the NIH to get on with it because his patience was “about to run out” (see MWN, S/O92, p.7). That summer, the controversy was featured on a segment of 60 Minutes. But nothing ever happened. There was no study, there was no follow-up. The next summer, an epidemiologist and a pathologist jointly reported in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine an abnormal clustering of testicular cancer among police officers who had used hand-held radar guns (see MWN, J/A93, p.12). But that also failed to prompt any action from NIH. And five years later, the same journal published a paper pointing to a link between both testicular cancer and skin cancer (melanoma) with radar guns (see MWN, J/A98, pp.11-12). Again, nothing happened.

The fire fighters have a much tougher battle than the police officers because very few people think it’s worth spending the money to investigate cancer rates around a cell site. If they really want a study, the union will have to pay for it. But even if the fire fighters pony up the money, it’s unlikely they will get any reliable answers. These types of studies are notoriously hard to do and, in this case, it will be even more difficult because the microwaves from cell towers are not very strong. It will be a torturous task to untangle all the various factors at work.

We must believe that the fire fighters have been warned about how hard the epidemiology will be. And that they have been told that it would be much easier to study those who use hand-held phones. After all, it’s essentially the same type of radiation and although the exposures from the phones are intermittent, their intensity is approximately a thousand times higher.

Another approach would be to study radio and TV towers, which broadcast much stronger radiation signals. That was the logic of Bruce Hocking, who once was the chief medical officer of Australia Telecom (later called Telstra). He wanted to show that cell towers were safe and figured that if he could show that TV towers were not associated with cancer, he would reassure the locals who were fighting cell towers. It did not turn out the way he expected. He found higher rates of leukemia among children living near the TV antennas in Sydney (see MWN, N/D95, p.1t).

To no one's surprise, a controversy erupted and no one dared to repeat the study. This too is unresolved.

As long as each group limits itself to a special case, there will be no answers. Progress will only come when the various factions understand that they have common interests. A useful first step would be for the firefighters to look beyond the towers and ask for studies of cell phone users. In the long run, that’s their only hope of finding out whether those antennas are safe.