Undeterred by recent tests showing that radio frequency emissions from a cell tower at Deering High School are well below federal standards, some teachers are trying to garner community support to remove the tower from the school’s roof.
In late May, Deering biology teacher Polly Wilson reported that goldfish she kept in Room 305, right below the tower, kept dying. She and other teachers concerned about the tower met with district officials, and then-Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk ordered the tests.
The reports from U.S. Cellular and C Square Systems of New Hampshire, which both tested the cell tower, found that the radio frequency levels were below federal standards, and in some cases were lower than earlier readings, according to Craig Worth, the school district’s deputy chief operations officer. The reports show that the readings in Wilson’s room ranged from .03 percent to 1.07 percent of the maximum permissible exposure under FCC standards.
“There’s absolutely no educational benefit having that tower on top of Deering. Let’s take it down. Let’s do the right thing,” said Gus Goodwin, Wilson’s husband and a technology teacher at King Middle School. Goodwin has been a leading advocate for removing the tower.
Goodwin said he has seen the reports, but still plans to meet with parent teacher organizations at Portland schools this fall to gather support to remove the tower, which has been in place since 2006.
In late May, 91 Deering High School staff members signed a “statement of concern” requesting that the cell tower be removed because it has no educational value, according to social studies teacher Kirsten Platt, who collected the signatures. The district gets about $36,000 a year from leasing the roof space to U.S. Cellular.
The findings from the recent reports do not change Platt’s position, she said Monday.
“There’s no study on long-term, low-exposure limits,” she said. “That’s my concern.”
The safety of radio frequency waves is a subject of long-standing dispute.
The Federal Communications Commission says radio frequency emissions from antennas used for cell towers result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits. The agency monitors RF radiation for possible impact on the environment, including human exposure, according to the FCC website.
However, critics of cell towers note that cellphone emissions are classified by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans. In a 10-year review of research, the agency didn’t find a causal relationship between radio frequency energy and cancer, but couldn’t rule out the possibility.
Experts note that radio frequency waves barely penetrate water and don’t damage DNA like X-rays do, but instead generate heat, in the same way that microwaves operate. An excessively high concentration of radio waves from a cell tower could, hypothetically, cause a burn or excessive heat.
The FCC allows an ERP – effective radiated power – of up to 500 watts per channel. Most cell towers in urban and suburban areas operate at an ERP of 100 watts per channel or less, according to the FCC website. The FCC last updated its guidelines for evaluating human exposure to RF fields from fixed antennas used for cellphone service in 1996.
Sometime this fall, Goodwin hopes to present the signatures and their findings to the school board.
“I guess it comes down to what people want to do. It’s really about what does the community think is the best thing to do, given what we know,” Goodwin said. “I would think it would be some kind of organized effort to get people to have a voice and say Portland Public Schools should probably have some kind of policy on Wi-Fi and cell towers.”
Wilson knows her experiments aren’t proof that the cell tower is causing the fish to die, and the reports indicate there is not a safety issue, but she still wants the tower removed.
“There is a larger conversation going on,” Wilson said. “Tech is so much a part of our lives that people don’t want to acknowledge that their phone, what they do all day, could in some way be not so good for them.”
TEACHER LEAVING OVER TOWER
Wilson said the situation is behind her decision to leave Deering and teach special education students at Reiche Elementary School this fall.
“It wasn’t just the fish. For three years, none of the projects worked the way they did before (the tower was installed.) I couldn’t teach science that way,” she said.
U.S. Cellular added three more antennas to the Deering tower array in 2011, for a total of six. The company issued a report after those additions, in January 2012, that found RF readings were below FCC safety standards throughout the building and school grounds. However, it did note that the highest readings inside the building were in Room 305.
Worth, the district’s deputy chief operations officer, said he thought the issue would eventually be brought before the school board for discussion. Acting Superintendent Jeanne Crocker was not available for comment on Monday.
Goodwin and Wilson said district officials had been very responsive to their concerns.
Representatives from U.S. Cellular did not respond to requests for comment about the Deering cell tower on Monday, but in emails to the district company officials said they had 22 towers located on schools, churches and hospitals in Maine and New Hampshire. The representative also noted that if the Deering tower were removed or turned off, there would be “significant coverage loss especially indoor coverage at the Deering High School and surrounding areas,” and it would “also impact customer’s ability to make emergency/911 calls in the area.”
BOWIE – Milestone Communications has continued to build towers as per its agreement with the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Board of Education, despite opposition from invested, concerned citizens across the county against cell towers on school property.
Len Forkas, the president and chief executive officer of Milestone, said the company has completed five cell phone towers across the county on PGCPS grounds. The towers at John Carroll Elementary, Charles H. Flowers High, Green Valley Academy, Kenmore Middle and Oxon Hill Middle schools are all completed and operational. The recently built monopole at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie is completed in construction, but is still awaiting final wiring and a permanent fence.
Although school began on Aug. 25, Forkas said there is no danger to the students at Tasker, despite the incomplete nature of the tower and the lack of permanent fencing.
“We’ve got construction fencing that keeps people out from the site. All the electrical conduits are in. We are just waiting for a few more small approvals before we’ll do the final and complete fencing site, but no one’s at risk,” Forkas said. “I mean the tower itself, you can’t climb the tower unless you’re 10-15 feet. The climbing pegs don’t start until 10 feet.”
Forkas said the construction of each tower takes anywhere from six to 12 weeks to construct after the zoning and permitting process undertaken by the county and board of education are approved. Now that the company has nearly completed six towers, Forkas said Milestone is looking to complete a seventh and begin the process of vetting other locations.
“We have another site that we’re getting ready for construction in the fourth quarter, which is Madison Middle School. Then we’ve got some other sites that we are still in the process of vetting as to whether or not they go forward or don’t go forward,” he said.
The tower was built within 500 feet of a previously existing tower, which is contrary to the original contract signed with the county school board, but Forkas said the preexisting tower was at capacity and therefore defined the need for the new tower. The new tower at Tasker, so far, will house Verizon Wireless.
In 2011 the PGCPS Board of Education approved a contract with Milestone Communications in which 73 potential school sites were offered for cell tower construction. The initial approval of construction of cell phone towers on public school grounds was on Nov. 11, 2010. The contract states the school system will receive $25,000 for each tower built on school grounds and 40 percent of profits from the tower.
“We have relationships with over 40 different property owners in six states, and that’s the offering that we make. It’s a 40 percent revenue share,” Forkas said. “So the economics associated with the Prince George’s agreement are consistent with the majority of the organizations, schools and municipalities that we do business with.”
Since the passage of the contract, multiple groups across the county and state have voiced opposition to what they call dangerous situations for both students and school staff. The towers in PGC are continuing construction at a time when the issue of towers on school property is being reviewed by the state board of education.
Lynn Beiber, a member of a statewide coalition against cell towers at schools, said she is concerned about the electromagnetic radiation the towers produce and the overall safety of the students where a tower is placed.
“It’s an issue that is in every state,” Beiber said. “There are so many liability issues. If a tower worker gets hurt and falls, if something falls off the tower, if the tower falls. These towers are so close to the schools. There is no reason for them to be so close.”
Beiber said she is worried the citizens of the county are not informed about these towers going up. She said, if people knew, they would fight the towers going up.
“It’s critical to get the public involved. The hardest part is getting the public to realize what is going on,” she said.
Although Beiber said she worries about the radiation from the towers, research done by the American Cancer Society, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and multiple other organizations say the radiation emission levels at the ground are below the safety limits set by the FCC in 1996.
“I put my faith in organizations like the American Cancer Society and the American Cancer Institute, as well as the World Health Organization and the FCC,” Forkas said. “I mean, these are all organizations that have evaluated issues associated with our infrastructure, so those are the organizations that I look to. They determine what the risks are with respect to radio energy. So, we don’t obviously believe that there is anything that would be of concern.”
Despite conclusions reached by FCC, CDC and American Cancer Society about radiation levels from cell towers, Beiber said most researchers have called for further studies into the health risks of the towers. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FCC, CDC and American Cancer Society have all stated the effects of radiation from cell towers and cellular devices is still an “area of active research.” All of those organizations are still evaluating and researching long-term effects of the radiation, as well as “chronic exposure.”
In light of continued research the World Health Organization has classified the radio frequency radiation, which cell towers emit, as a Group 2B carcinogenic in a press release from 2011. A Group 2B carcinogenic is a possible cancer-causing agent.
Because of the ongoing research, Theodora Scarato, a parent in Greenbelt, said she is uncomfortable with the towers continuing to be built on school property. Because there is no definitive statement proving there are no risks from the towers, she thinks the school system and Milestone are making school children “part of an experiment.”
“There isn’t any amount of money you could pay me to risk my child’s safety,” Scarato said. “I think parents might want to think about the issue of the long-term effects of the towers. It is a controversial, scientific debate right now and it’s just common sense, in my mind, to say, ‘let’s put something safe up.’”
Scarato said she has multiple reasons for opposing the cell towers, but overall she is concerned about the safety of the children. She said she worries about construction, potential hazmat issues, and the monthly visits from contractors to the site.
“I just don’t think a school should be a hard hat area,” she said.
Despite safety concerns, Forkas said Milestone works hard to make sure they build when students are on breaks or not in school.
“We have to be very thoughtful on the use of the property. I mean, the primary use of the property in the schools is to educate children, so we make sure that we are working at a time and a location that is not going to interfere with that use,” he said. “We are very, very thoughtful to choreograph our construction activities with the school facility staff to make sure that we’re all aligned.”