Cel phone towers in Sweetwater schools questioned

Otay Ranch High School in Sweetwater school district houses five cell phone towers.
  • Otay Ranch High School in Sweetwater school district houses five cell phone towers.

Is the Sweetwater Union High School District playing roulette with students’ health? The district has signed lucrative contracts with communication companies that allow them to place 32 cell phone towers on campuses throughout the southernmost part of the county. Otay Ranch High School, located on the east side of Chula Vista, has 5 towers arrayed around its football field. San Ysidro High has 4 on campus, and two of the district’s middle schools have towers. If cell phone towers pose no health risks, why does the European Union recommend they be kept clear of schools? And why does the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country, ban them?

In a time of budget shortfalls, contracts with communication companies are an enticement. Many school districts in the county have been lured by the siren sound of cash. AT&T, Verizon, Clear Wireless, and others pay half a million dollars annually into Sweetwater’s general fund. Just last year the Poway Unified School District, despite parental opposition, decided to permit towers on campuses. But the argument that Los Angeles Unified and the European Union make is a cautionary one: the facts are not in yet; let’s wait and see.

The wait-and-see argument was also advanced by the International Association of Fire Fighters in 2004, when they declared a moratorium on cell towers mounted on fire stations. They insist on the moratorium “until a study with the highest scientific merit and integrity on health effects of exposure to low-intensity [radio frequency/microwave] radiation is conducted and it is proven that such sitings are not hazardous to the health of our members,” according to their position paper.

The paper goes on to cite myriad international studies that have found possible health risks, including increased growth of brain cancer cells; a doubling of the rate of lymphoma in mice; changes in tumor growth in rats; an increase in childhood leukemia; changes in sleep patterns; headaches; and decreased memory, decreased attention, and slower reaction time in schoolchildren.

The BioInitiative Working Group, an international team of scientists and public health experts, released a 650-page document in 2007 “citing more than 2000 studies that document health effects of [electromagnetic fields] from all sources.”

A sampling of excerpts or titles from the peer-reviewed studies offers a glimpse of the research: “Two ecological studies of cancer in the vicinity of base stations…“(Kundi and Hutter 2009); “Long-term exposure to magnetic fields and the risks of Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer” (Davinipour and Sobel 2009); “Electromagnetic fields and DNA damage” (Phillips, Singh, and Lai 2009); “Disturbance of the immune system by electromagnetic fields — A potentially underlying cause for cellular damage and tissue repair and reduction…” (Johansson 2009); “Electromagnetic pollution from phone masts — Effects on wildlife” (Balmori 2009).

Risk of adverse health effects from cell towers is uncertain.

Risk of adverse health effects from cell towers is uncertain.

When asked if the cell phone towers in the Sweetwater Union High School District are safe, Paul Woods, the director of planning and construction for the district, wrote that the district “requires that all cell towers (and cumulative effects of multiple towers) operate with the safe limits for effective radiated power level as prescribed by the [Federal Communications Commission].” Woods says that the vendor is responsible for an emissions test after the tower is installed and every five years thereafter.

Each cell phone tower brings the district between $2000 and $2500, according to Woods. The money goes into the general fund, not to the school where the tower is sited. Several contracts include yearly increases, varying from 3 to 15 percent. Most include a onetime fee, sometimes called a deposit, which Woods said “went to the school site(s) for their use.” A chart prepared by the district shows these onetime fees add up to $211,600.

Sweetwater campuses receive fresh batches of students each year. Asked how the new students and their parents are notified of the presence of cell towers, Woods answered, “Other than 2 sites, all cell antennas are clearly visible on buildings or poles. Two sites have flag pole or light pole antennas that may not be readily recognized as antennas.”

On Friday, April 8, I interviewed ten parents or grandparents at Otay Ranch High School while they waited to pick up students. None was aware of the five towers around the football field.

One parent, Mrs. Fernandez, said she doesn’t believe the towers should be located on the high school campus. “It’s not safe,” she said.

Curtis Johnson said he believes that the money should go to the school rather than the general fund.

“If the district wants the money,” said a parent named Lisa, who preferred not to give her last name, “then the district should have the towers on their office buildings,”

On the other hand, Edwin Sicat said, “It should be like our system — innocent till proven guilty. Let the towers stay until there is proof against them.”

Signals from cell phone towers, the Federal Communications Commission’s website says, are “essentially directed toward the horizon in a relatively narrow pattern in the vertical plane.… As with all forms of electromagnetic energy, the power density from a…transmitter decreases rapidly (according to an inverse square law) as one moves away from the antenna. Consequently, normal ground-level exposure is much less than exposures that might be encountered if one were very close to the antenna and in its main transmitted beam.”

Cell phones, cordless phones, and Wi-Fi systems operate in the microwave range. Collectively, radio waves and microwaves are referred to as radio frequency.

The communications commission calls the evidence that radio frequency radiation produces harmful biological effects “ambiguous and unproven,” but its website states, “It is generally agreed that further research is needed to determine the generality of such effects and their possible relevance, if any, to human health.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency began studying radio frequency radiation, and after finding cause for concern in the results of laboratory animal research, it undertook to establish guidelines to protect the public. But the agency ran into opposition, and in 1995, the Senate Committee on Appropriations cut the program’s budget and stated, “The committee believes [the Environmental Protection Agency] should not engage in [electromagnetic field] activities.”

The following year, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The act set the standards for emissions and included Section 704 (a), which made it illegal for any community to consider health or environment in regulating cell towers. Los Angeles Unified School District is demanding that section of the law be revised.

“Thanks to Clinton and the Telecommunications Act, you are not allowed to discuss the health risks, only the devaluation of real estate,” said Dr. Dan Harper in a recent interview, speaking about Section 704 (a). Harper, whose medical practice is based in Solana Beach, has appeared before several local city councils to speak against proposed cell towers. He has amassed hundreds of studies on the harmful effects of radio frequency exposure. According to testing he has done with his own meter, “radiation exposure levels in San Diego have increased over 2 million times since l990.” Harper says San Diego is second only to Washington, D.C., in radiation levels.

The Sweetwater schools that have cell phone towers are Castle Park High (4), Chula Vista High (3), Eastlake High (2), Hilltop High (2), Mar Vista High (1), Montgomery High (3), Olympian High (1), Otay Ranch High (5), Palomar High (1), Rancho Del Rey Middle School (2), San Ysidro High (4), Southwest High (2), National City Middle (1), as well as Imperial Beach Adult (1).

Though the risk of adverse health effects from exposure to cell phone towers on campuses is uncertain, the cash they generate each year for the district’s 42,000 students can be calculated: about $12 per student.

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The fact that it is illegal to consider health or environment when regulating cell towers is absurd, and the idea that the towers should stay until they're proven unsafe sounds a lot like the line tobacco and asbestos companies fed the public for years. Bravo to the Los Angeles Unified School District! Unfortunately, our Sweetwater Union High School District chooses to put the health of students and employees at risk to make twelve bucks per student a year. But then again, since it goes into their unmonitored general fund, maybe it will be spent on golf or at Hooters instead.

It is not "illegal" to consider health or the environment. It simply already has been considered, and standards have been set by the FCC at the federal government. Those standards are based on sound science, and in no way put anyone's lives at risk. And mentioning tobacco and asbestos is scaremongering and faulty logic. It takes the case of matters known to have bad effects then assumes cell phones will have the same. One cannot make that assumption.

Many of those school sites are excellent locations for cell phone towers. It isn't so easy to find spots for the towers in existing city development. So, where to put them?

If you treasure your cell phone service, just as I do, please keep in mind that there's no perfect spot for such a tower. When there can be no cell phone stations on or near schools, what other sorts of places will be OK? Good mobile telephone service cannot be taken for granted, and covering much of the US is very costly. As to whether those transmissions are harmful I do not know. There is no model for radio transmissions to damage living tissues as there is for higher-energy parts of the spectrum (X-rays and gamma rays.) Those are harmful, very much so.

Do I support that school district? Never! It is probably the second worse run district in the county (saying a lot) after the SD City Schools. Anything to make a buck, anything to fake out a parent, anything to fool an accrediting agency.

Oh, where's my credit card? I need to pay for lunch today.


I read in The Economist how some European communication companies share the expense of building cell phone masts and base stations and share the masts as carriers. I've also read how some U.S. cities are calling for master plans for cell tower placement, as opposed to random or clustering.

As for schools and senior centers and such, there is enough science to support a cautious attitude.

Sweetwater does seem to be reaching the boiling point.

The precautionary principle does not suggest that all risk should be avoided, but it does say that when there is a question about safety, the burden does not fall on proving that something is unsafe, but that it is safe. (NOTE: This is a common-sense version, not a "scientific" one, so nit-pickers will please be specific in their criticisms.)

Thanks Twister, I read so many things in preparation for this article and I have been scratching my head trying to remember what I read about the European Union and this concept.

From Wikepedia:

The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

Apparently 3% of people suffer some degree of Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. Genetic damage, reproductive defects, cancer, neurological degeneration and nervous system dysfunction, immune system dysfunction, cognitive effects, protein and peptide damage, kidney damage, and developmental effects have all been reported in the peer‐reviewed scientific literature, also the effects of electromagnetic frequencies satisfy Hill's criteria on causality note the American Academy of Environmental Medicine in an April 12 2012 position paper. It's a free country - look it up yourself!

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