Should Cell Phone Towers Be Put on Residential Buildings?

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Image: Lloyd Alter

Between the upgrading of existing systems and the licencing of new carriers, the rooftop landscape of Toronto, Canada is changing rapidly as new antennae are added daily. While TreeHugger has discussed the question of cell phone safety many times, we are usually talking about the phone itself, where users have some control, rather than the base stations, where residents in apartment buildings with base stations on the roof do not. Is this exposure dangerous? A recent installation raises some questions.

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Image: Lloyd Alter

I was first alerted to the issue when the daughter of a close friend, who lived in the top floor of the nearby building where base stations were installed in December, started complaining. My friend describes her daughter's symptoms:

Symptoms were aching in her upper arms, nausea, couldn't sleep, and generally feeling 'not right'. She was complaining to me about not being able to sleep and not feeling well for about a month before she was aware of the issue of the cellphone. She would actually sleep out in the hallway.

Many suggest that such complaints are psychosomatic; The fact that she felt ill for a month before she knew the base station was there is interesting. She has now moved out and is feeling much better.

According to Magda Havas, Associate Professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University and an anti-EMF activist, other residents started feeling effects shortly after the antennae were installed:

Within two months, those who lived on the top floor of this apartment building began to feel ill. Nausea, dizziness, buzzing in the ears, headaches, head pressure, difficulty sleeping, brain fog, skin rash, burning sensation in the skin, and a metallic taste in the mouth were just some of the symptoms. One woman and her daughter became so sick, they could no longer stay in their apartment and moved in with friends. The antennas were close enough to be touched by a broom from the top floor balcony.
On February 13, 2010, the tenants asked us to visit their building and measure the radiation in their penthouse apartment and on their balcony. Levels of radiation were among the highest we've ever measured and we used several meters that all gave similar readings....
One of our more expensive meters stopped working when we tried to measured the exposure on the balcony and later learned this meter was programmed with a safety feature that turned itself off, to protect the electronics, when exposed to high levels of radiation.

The landlord disagrees, says it meets all standards, and quotes from a report submitted to Industry Canada:

"Cumulative RF field levels relating to the site's antenna facilities are compliant with the limits of maximum RF exposure established in Health Canada Safety Code 6."
In fact "when measured at 2 metres above the roof, the RF strength was about 25 % of the maximum allowed by Safety Code 6, i.e. it was 4 times below the allowable maximum limit specified in Safety Code 6."

But Dr. Havas points out that Safety Code 6, the Canadian standard, is designed around cell phone use and based on a six minute exposure. She concludes:

Based on this type of calculation the residents in the penthouse apartment of this building are "cooked" within one week. In other words, if exposures were weighted for time, the Safety Code 6 Guideline would be exceeded within one week.

Safety Code Six includes recommendations for minimizing risk from cellphone exposure.

If you are concerned, you may choose to reduce your RF exposure by limiting the length of cell phone calls or using ""hands-free"" devices that keep the cell phone further away from your head and body. Since children are typically more sensitive to many known environmental agents, parents who are concerned about possible long-term risks from RF exposure may wish to take extra precautions by limiting their children's use of cell phones.
Precautions to limit public exposure to RF energy from base stations are unnecessary because worst-case exposure levels are typically thousands of times below those specified in health-based exposure standards.

But are they writing about people sleeping eight feet under these things? Did Bell Mobility enter the apartments and test the levels there?

We have written often at TreeHugger about EMF, cellphone radiation and "electrosmog", usually going with the scientific consensus that cellphones are like most things in life: fine in moderation. Also like most things in life, it is all about the dose, and about personal choice, the risks vs the benefits.

But what about when people have no choice, when base stations are stuck on top of the place where they live? If the base station is causing residents to become ill, they don't have the option of turning it off or holding it away from their head. That is a different story.

We will follow this one closely and report.