Lakewood Parents Nix School-Roof Cell Tower, But Their Cell Phones Are the Bigger Danger

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Congrats to the concerned parents of Lakewood Elementary. Seriously. You guys piled into a public meeting and shot down a Dallas ISD proposal to stick a Verizon cell tower on the school's roof. That's how democracy's supposed to work. Good on DISD, too, which has the bureaucratic heft to plow through community opposition much like a big rig might plow through a squirrel and yet listened to the concerns of parents.

DISD spokesman Andre Riley confirmed it on Tuesday: The Lakewood Elementary cell tower (which, he took pains to point out, isn't a tower at all but an unobtrusive antenna that would have been attached to the smokestack and handsomely disguised by faux brick) is dead.

The two news stations that covered the parent outcry presented it in the standard concerned-citizens-vs.-government template: worried mom frets about her kids being dosed with radiation; district rep says there's little danger and that the money from the lease will help students; an uneasy stalemate is reached.

See also: Sick of Waiting on DISD, Lakewood Elementary Parents Are Raising $15 Million for Expansion

It's clear from the stories that the parents are concerned. It's less clear whether they should be concerned, which is probably the more important question given that DISD is already dosing thousands of students with emissions from the 15 cell towers currently located on district campuses.

Lucky for those thousands of students, the scientific consensus is no.

It's true that cell towers emit radiofrequency (RF) radiation and that, in high enough doses, this radiation can be harmful. Think putting a hamster inside a microwave.

But the amount of RF radiation emitted from a cell tower is tiny. John Moulder, a researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin, says a person standing near one will, on average, be getting a dose of that is only about one percent of the safe-exposure standard established by the FCC government regulators after a thorough review of the current science.

If there is a danger -- and most research says that, at the levels of radiation people are exposed do, there's probably not -- it's from cell phones, not cell towers.

"In a typical environment, you get more [RF radiation] exposure from people using the phone" than from a cell tower, Moulder says. "I'm not saying using [the phone]. I'm saying wandering around other people using it."

Put another way, a kid is exposed to considerably more radiation playing Candy Crush in the backseat en route to school than from a Verizon antenna at his school.

"Health agencies are incredibly unanimous in saying the same thing: There's no clear evidence that these exposures are dangerous," says Kenneth Foster, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "But they also say more study is needed."

The additional research is needed not to discover whether exposure to cell-tower radiation is dangerous (the general consensus is that it's not) but to tease out whether pressing a cell phone to one's head for years and years could be bad.

Some research has linked heavy mobile-phone use with brain cancer, but both Foster and Moulder agree that the evidence presented by existing studies is inconclusive and that no solid epidemiological studies have been done, due largely to the practical impossibility of tracking the RF-radiation exposure of a group of subjects over a sufficiently long period of time. "Calling it a 'connection' is a little strong," Moulder says.

Foster chalks the drumbeat of alarmism surrounding cell towers and RF radiation -- which is by no means limited to Lakewood parents -- to the often illogical way humans evaluate risk, having an outsize fear of things they can't see and feel they can't control. People are less likely to be scared of using a cell phone while driving, a situation they feel they can control, than they are of getting cancer from cell towers even though the former is demonstrably more dangerous.

He thinks back to his first research job with the Navy in 1971. "Back then, the public was worried about RF from military communication equipment." Four decades later, "nothing's changed" -- except, of course, for the ubiquity of wireless technology. People now are bombarded with cell signals and WiFi and all sorts of RF radiation that wasn't around in the '70s. People concerned about the placement of a cell tower, Foster says, "they've lost the battle."

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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