Cell Towers Are Challenged

Cell Towers Are Challenged

Two local parents are on a crusade to stop school officials from allowing cellular towers to be erected or placed on school grounds. The pair met at a recent public hearing at Robinson Secondary School to discuss erecting a pole at the high school. Both were opposed to the move based on health concerns.

“There’s not enough evidence that these are safe. The best thing they can say is that this is inconclusive,” activist and parent Diana Barbara said. Barbara is concerned that children will be exposed to radiation emitted from the cellular towers.

Karl Polzer’s children will attend McLean High School in a few years. As a health policy analyst, Polzer is concerned about the exposure students could receive and contends the evidence calling the levels safe is insufficient and is set at too low a standard.

McLean High School was scheduled to have a monopole erected this summer that would provide coverage for Cingular and T-Mobile. It has not been built yet.

The Fairfax County School System has a contract with a company called Milestone that puts the cell towers on poles on school grounds. Dave Watkins manages the Milestone contract for the school system. Watkins said there are currently six schools in the county that have the cellular towers and there are plans for more in the future.

In return for placing the poles on their grounds, the schools get a lump sum and percentage of the revenue from the towers. “The benefits to the school system getting that money is not worth the risk,” counters Barbara. “They get $25,000 up front and 40 percent of the revenue, that’s then split by the school district and the school. Robinson will end up getting $200. That’s not worth it to me,” said Barbara.

DAVID MARSHALL with Fairfax County Planning and Zoning says the evidence they use as a guideline is sufficient. “There is a federal threshold for safety in these facilities,” said Marshall. “There is a county check to make sure that the antennas and the radiation output from the antennas is within the guidelines,” Marshall said.

The monopoles dot public high schools around the county. Local officials contend that, until now, no one has objected on health reasons. Rosemary Ryan at Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois’ office said, “The Milestone pole was the subject of extensive meetings. There is extensive research that shows there is absolutely no risk. We went through this [debate] in 1996 and 97. We don’t get involved in it anymore.”

County officials prefer to erect the monopoles on public land with existing sites to reduce the visual blight. “It’s the county’s policy to place the poles on county property whenever possible,” said Ryan. Marshall said, “Locating on public property and existing structures is preferred. We’re kind of silent on schools. We try to piggy back on existing things that are already there.”

“Why does it have to be on school grounds though,” asks Barbara. “In effect, when you’re exposing our children, they are guinea pigs.”

Polzer has done extensive research on the poles and effects of radiation received through cell phones and finds the government standard lacking. “The industry dominates much of the research in this field. Of course it goes their way,” said Polzer.

Marshall adds that the county does not use health considerations as a factor in determining the siting of the cell poles. “The county doesn’t have the authority to deny applications based on health reasons. It’s specifically stated that that’s not the case. We consider it a land use issue,” said Marshall.

Polzer believes that having the poles on school grounds covertly advertises cell phone use to children. “It’s like the Coke machines in schools. The school is making money off it,” said Polzer. “Maybe this is the next Joe Camel. Where is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Polzer said.

The need for cell poles has grown exponentially with the increase of the use of hand-held cell phones. “Every kid you see today has one. They are even advertising them to kids at the Olympics,” said Polzer. “This is based on demand,” said Marshall. “It used to be a luxury item but now everybody has them and their kid has it, too. The more people you have using them, the more [poles] you need,” Marshall said.

BARBARA AND POLZER have recently put up a Web site to educate parents to the potential dangers posed by the cell towers and to give those opposed to them being on school grounds a place to come together in order to build momentum for an organized opposition. The Web site is www.protectschools.org.

“We both want to work with the schools to get this resolved, to find a good solution. My first concern is the kids,” said Barbara. “With the Web site, people will be able to learn more about this issue. The county is not forthcoming with the information. This has become almost a full-time job for me. I’m not a scientist but when I read these things, I become concerned about it. They’ll tell you it’s no more dangerous than a light bulb but it’s not the same,” said Barbara.

Barbara is considering moving her children out of their current high school if the monopole is built. “I’m faced with this dilemma now. Do I send my kids back to Robinson now knowing the health risks. I have no guarantee that even if I do uproot my kids, they’d have a safe place to go. Who’s to say Centreville won’t get one. It’s forcing me to consider if the health risks outweigh the social risks,” said Barbara.

There is some evidence that the pair might be on to something. The International Association of Firefighters voted on Aug. 24 to study the health effects of cell towers placed on fire stations. Added to the resolution was an amendment calling for the association to support a moratorium on any new towers until the study was complete. The call for the study emerged from a small trial of firefighters who suffered neurological symptoms that may be linked to be exposed to radiation for extended time periods when they live and work at the fire station. The symptoms documented include: slowed reaction time, lack of focus, lack of impulse control, headaches, sleep deprivation and depression.

Polzer said, “We think first of all the school shouldn’t have this contract. It puts students at risk and the money is insignificant.”

Barbara said, “This contract with Milestone is up for renewal. We want them to review it and to cancel it. The school board should not be in this business.”

Watkins said, “The contract was just recently renewed. It was put in place two years ago and is up for renewal again in June. There are three, two-year renewals in the contract.” Watkins adds that there is a good deal of support for the contact with school board officials and that he believes it will easily be renewed when the time comes.