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Telecom Towers: A health hazard or urban legend?

A telecommunications tower managed by American Tower is seen in Golden, Colorado February 25, 2014. (Reuters Photo/Rick Wilking)
A telecommunications tower managed by American Tower is seen in Golden, Colorado February 25, 2014. (Reuters Photo/Rick Wilking)
By Yehia El Amine    | Annahar | February 17, 2017 at 19:37

BEIRUT: Throughout the years, most Lebanese have gladly greeted the ongoing boost of network accessibility brought about by the increase of mobile phone towers across the country.

After all, there are millions of mobile phone users.

However as this technology has proliferated, the subject of microwaves emitted by the towers has become the topic urban legend, with many Lebanese warning of the possible health hazards of these towers. Some citizens worry that the emission of microwave radiation by these towers is harmful to the health of those who live within the vicinity of these relay stations.

Annahar interviewed a number of doctors, health specialists, and technology experts who assured that this is not the case. Readers can take courage that microwave relay towers are not frying your brain.

To begin with, what is radiation?

Radiation is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as being the transmission of energy in the form of waves through space or a material medium. Radiation is of two kinds - ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation or high-energy radiation like X-rays or gamma rays can alter DNA and be harmful. Non-ionizing radiation is low energy as emitted by mobile phones or radio towers.

According to a report from the American Cancer Society, mobile phone towers – also known as base stations – emit microwave radiation in order for voice and telephone data to be conducted over invisible radio waves, which are part of a family of waves in the electromagnetic field spectrum.

"Some people have expressed concern that living, working, or going to school near a cell phone tower might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems. At this time, there is very little evidence to support this idea," the report added.

The energy level of radiofrequency (RF) waves is relatively low, especially when compared with the types of radiation that are known to increase cancer risk, such as gamma rays, x-rays, and ultraviolet (UV) light.

"The energy of RF waves given off by cell phone towers is not enough to break chemical bonds in DNA molecules, which is how stronger forms of radiation, may lead to cancer," Dr. Ashraf El Faraj, head of Radiology at the American University of Science and Technology, told Annahar.

Faraj added that RF waves have long wavelengths, which can only be concentrated to about an inch or two in size. "This makes it unlikely that the energy from RF waves could be concentrated enough to affect individual cells in the body."

"If people are worried about radiation emission they should know that electrical items such as microwave ovens, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and mixer grinders also emit radiation," he added.

According to a report by the WHO, to date, the only health effect from RF fields identified in scientific reviews has been related to an increase in body temperature (> 1 °C) from exposure at very high field intensity found only in certain industrial facilities.

"The levels of RF exposure from base stations and wireless networks are so low that the temperature increases are insignificant and do not affect human health; thus most researchers and regulatory authorities do not believe that cell phone towers pose health risks under ordinary conditions," the report adds.

Dr. Joseph Makdissi, an oncologist at the Saint George Hospital attribute people's innate worry of telecom towers within residential areas to their fear of anything remotely radiation oriented.

"Usually people are frightened by base stations in residential areas due to many negative reports about radiation," he said. "There is no scientific basis for these claims, nor is there a study that cements any health hazards to civilians, especially since the RF emitted by them are too slim to cause any damage to the human body."

In fact, due to their lower frequency, at similar RF exposure levels, the body absorbs up to five times more of the signal from FM radio and television than from base stations, according to the WHO report.

"Although frequencies used in FM radio (around 100 MHz) and in TV broadcasting (around 300 to 400 MHz) are lower than those employed in mobile telephony; radio and television broadcast stations have been in operation for years without any adverse health consequence being established," the report reads.

Mohammad Chaaban, a member of Lebanon's telecommunications regulatory authority, confirms that there are no health hazards from these base stations adding that "all our towers are in accordance with numerous reports published by the World Health Organization to ensure public safety."



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