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06 September 2016

Virginia: Health Concerns Cannot Play into Decision on School Cell Tower

[Our comment:  People in any parts of the U.S. are still ignorant about the health effects of non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phone towers.  Or is their concern overrided by the powerful influence of telecoms companies, financial incentives, the 1996 Telecommunications Act which does not allow taking health concerns into account when deciding on cell tower installations?] 

Health concerns can’t play into decision on AHS cell tower
by Michael Bragg, dailyprogress.com, 
5 September 2016

A proposed cell tower to be built toward the back of Albemarle High School’s campus, first proposed in late 2015, has been assessed by county officials for its height, visibility, ability to improve wireless coverage for the area and how much money it will generate for the school division, but not for its safety in terms of radio frequency emission.

The proposal from Milestone Communications, a Reston-based company, would locate a 125-foot-tall monopole on the school’s campus to help address wireless coverage needs in the area. In the proposal, Albemarle County Public Schools would receive financial compensation from Milestone.

The proposal has made its way to the county’s Board of Supervisors for final approval this month.

But according to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, local and state officials are prohibited from citing scientific evidence — either for or against the notion that cell towers are a public or environmental health concern — as the basis for their decision to approve or disapprove cell towers.

Scientific consensus, and the generally accepted belief, is that cell towers do not impose any kind of adverse health effects on human beings, but some area residents remain skeptical of placing such structures on school grounds.

Some research has linked a possibility of health concerns to exposure to the towers’ radiation but nothing has definitively linked cellphone use or the presence of cell towers in communities to cancer or other health problems.

So, when the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday makes a decision on whether to approve the tower, it will base the decision on matters such as its visibility impact on the surrounding area.

Current science notwithstanding, the perceived health risks of cellphones and wireless cell towers have been a longstanding topic, locally and nationally. The concern is whether radio waves, known as non-ionizing radiation, can affect people’s health.

The American Cancer Society says there’s very little evidence to suggest that cell towers definitively cause adverse health effects, including increased risk of cancer. The society states that non-ionizing radiation is not strong enough to cause the same disruption at the molecular level as ionizing radiation, such as X-rays and gamma rays. Because non-ionizing radiation doesn’t emit enough energy to damage DNA or other molecules, the society’s website states that it cannot directly damage the DNA inside of cells.

But studies are still being conducted worldwide to test if the radiation can be linked to cancer or other health concerns, including a recent report from the National Institutes of Health in which researchers exposed rats to various levels of the radiation with very few instances of cancer. The study’s results, which came out in May, are based on partial findings, and the full report won’t be released until 2017.

Barbara Cruickshank, a retired nurse whose area of interest is in children’s environmental health, is opposed to the cell tower at Albemarle High and has spoken at several public meetings about the proposal. She said she believes public officials should wait until more research is out before any final decisions are made to put cell towers at schools.

Jason Inofuentes, a former technology writer who now advises local officials on technology issues, disagrees.

“There is zero risk involved with putting them anywhere near a school, anywhere near a residential area, and it all comes down to basic physics,” he said.

Scott Barker, an electrical engineer at the University of Virginia, has been involved in past cell tower proposals with the county schools, providing information about radiation. He also has met with the division’s health advisory board on the current proposal.

“I don’t think that this proposed cell tower presents any health issue that I’m concerned about,” he said. “My children will be attending Albemarle High School in a year or two and I’m not concerned about it at all.”

Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for the county schools, said he has helped to put up cell towers at schools when he was employed in Fairfax County, working with Milestone on some of those projects.

“If public educators believed there’s a health hazard, they wouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “I’m not going to jeopardize kids’ health to make a couple bucks or to serve the interest of telecommunication carriers.”

As the proposal makes its way to the Board of Supervisors, it is still subject to debate about its merits, design and placement. Supervisors Ann H. Mallek and Diantha McKeel both said the visibility issue will be a large topic of conversation.

Portions of the monopole and antenna array at the top of the tower do protrude above the existing tree line, based on simulated images provided by county staff and Milestone. The tower would be more visible from the ground level at some angles than from others.

But Len Forkas, president of Milestone Communications, said the company tries to use concealment techniques such as placing monopoles around similar structures — in this case, around the light poles at the high school’s athletic fields.

“We believe that it’s a really good solution from a visual impact standpoint because you’ve already got vertical elements in the landscape, just as if we were to put it next to a power line where there are tall transmission structures,” he said.

The public hearing on the proposed cell tower is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in Lane Auditorium at the County Office Building-McIntire. More information on the proposal can be found at albemarlehswireless.com.

Michael Bragg is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7265, mbragg@dailyprogress.com or @braggmichaelc on Twitter.

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