Cellphone tower radiation: Can it cause cancer, other adverse health effects?

No strong evidence that towers pose health risks

In this March 13, 2017 photo, a cell tower is seen through trees in North Andover, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) (Elise Amendola, Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

With the importance of, and abundance of, cellphone use in our everyday lives, it only makes sense that so many wireless cell sites exist around the U.S.

At a cell site, you’ll find electronic communications equipment and antennas that work together to receive and transmit signals from cellphones using radiofrequency (RF) radiation, a type of energy. Those antennas -- which are sometimes, but not always, atop a cell tower -- emit RF waves, which includes radio waves and microwaves that are “at the low-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum,” according to the American Cancer Society.

There are hundreds of thousands of cell sites and towers around the country, powering our cellphones each day -- and the number of those sites basically grows each year. Some people have expressed concerns about the sites being so close to people, worried that the RF energy emitted by antennas may be dangerous.

Here in Metro Detroit, a cellphone tower was erected near an elementary school in the Downriver city of Wyandotte, sparking an uproar among concerned parents. Their worry: Children being exposed to radiation.

But is the energy emitted from a cellphone tower actually dangerous? Does RF radiation cause cancer?

Experts: No reason to believe it’s dangerous

The research hasn’t provided much proof, so groups like the ACS, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the US National Toxicology Program have not taken an official stance saying whether or not the cellphone towers pose health risks. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, however, has said that there is no reason to believe cellphone towers pose a potential health risk to residents or students near them.

When it comes to cellphone towers, experts say that for people on the ground near the base of the tower, the energy coming from RF waves is not considered to be dangerous.

“RF waves from a cellphone tower antenna, like those from other telecommunication antennas, are directed toward the horizon (parallel to the ground), with some downward scatter. Base station antennas use higher power levels than other types of land-mobile antennas, but much lower levels than those from radio and television broadcast stations. The amount of energy from RF waves decreases rapidly as the distance from the antenna increases. As a result, the level of exposure to RF waves at ground level is much lower than the level close to the antenna,” the ACS writes.

“At ground level near typical cellular base stations, the amount of energy from RF waves is hundreds to thousands of times less than the limits for safe exposure set by the US Federal Communication Commission and other regulatory authorities. It is very unlikely that a person could be exposed to RF levels in excess of these limits just by being near a cellphone tower.”

There are other ways to mount cellular antennas, such as on a roof or on the side of a building. Even in these cases, officials say there is little possibility that people will be exposed to RF levels that exceed FCC safety guidelines -- unless they are directly in front of the antennas themselves.

More research needed

There is currently no strong evidence to support that exposure to RF waves from cellphone towers causes “any noticeable health effects,” the ACS says. Still, officials say more research is necessary to better understand the risk, as the towers’ RF waves haven’t been ruled completely safe, either.

Officials say that several studies have been conducted, which haven’t revealed any sufficient evidence linking cellphone towers to cancer risks.

A report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that there is “insufficient evidence to support a causal association between radiofrequency radiation exposure and (tumor formation).” The IARC has classified RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on “limited evidence of a possible increase in risk for brain tumors among cellphone users, and inadequate evidence for other types of cancer,” the ACS said.

Researchers also say that the waves radiating from cell towers don’t have enough energy to directly damage human DNA or heat body tissues, so it’s “not clear how cellphone towers might be able to cause cancer,” officials said.

Most of the newer 5G cell towers use higher frequency waves than the older generation towers, which means they have higher energy. However, this energy is still considered non-ionizing radiation, so it’s still unable to directly damage DNA, experts say.

Cellphones worse than towers

Just using a cellphone creates more exposure to RF radiation than living near a cellphone tower, experts say. The amount of exposure one may have living or being near a tower is often “many times lower” than the exposure from just using a cellphone, the ACS said.

The society also says that no link has yet been found between cellphone use and tumors in humans. Some studies have focused on this subject, but they reportedly had significant limitations.

More research is being conducted on this topic, as well.


There is currently no strong evidence that exposure to RF waves from cellphone towers cause adverse health effects, such as cancer. Experts across several industries say the exposure risk is low, even on the ground near cellphone towers.

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.