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Wake wants to get more money from new cell towers at schools. Are they a health risk?

Cellphone antennas are attached to a light stand at the Sanderson High School football stadium in Raleigh. Wake County Schools get $213,000 a year for leasing the space for the antennas and towers at three different schools. The school board has signed a contract for a company to solicit getting more cell towers at schools.
Cellphone antennas are attached to a light stand at the Sanderson High School football stadium in Raleigh. Wake County Schools get $213,000 a year for leasing the space for the antennas and towers at three different schools. The school board has signed a contract for a company to solicit getting more cell towers at schools. khui@newsobserver.com

New cell towers could be added to the campuses of 20 Wake County schools to help raise money. School leaders are preparing to tell families that the towers won’t pose health risks for students and staff.

The Wake County school board recently approved a 10-year exclusive contract with Raleigh-based APC-EDGE to market, manage and develop new commercial telecommunications sites at schools. Betty Parker, the district’s senior director of real estate services, said the company has identified about 20 schools it is interested in looking at for new towers that could each potentially generate $3.6 million in revenue for the school system over a 30-year period.

“Over time it’s a revenue generator for a very small bit of land that we’re not using for other purposes,” Parker told school board members at a committee meeting in August.

The list of sites where there’s interest in placing new cell towers was not immediately available. The district currently gets $213,513 a year in rent from towers at three Raleigh schools — Daniels Middle School and Sanderson and Wakefield high schools.

Wake would be the first school district in North Carolina to enter into a management contract to market sites for new commercial cell towers, according to Parker.

The potential expansion of cell towers at schools comes amid an international debate over whether the radiation from radio frequency waves poses a health risk. Parents have blocked the placement of new cell towers in some communities.

“Do we want to play roulette with our children’s health and our teachers’ health?” said Dr. Devra Davis, president of the Wyoming-based Environmental Health Trust. “It’s not a scientific question. It’s a moral question. Do you want to err on the side of public safety or on the side of generating money?”

But Parker told school board members that the health concerns are a “non-starter.” She presented data saying that people get less daily exposure from RF energy from cell towers than they do from wifi routers, baby monitors or cell phones.



Parker also pointed to how the Federal Communications Commission says that “there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students.” The towers would comply with FCC requirements on radio frequency emissions, Parker said.

“This is one of those situations where the fear is often greater than the reality, but we want to be sure to get out ahead of that,” Parker told the board.

That’s the position of CTIA, the telecom industry trade group.

“Following numerous scientific studies conducted over several decades, the FCC, the FDA, the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society and numerous other international and U.S. organizations and health experts have concluded that the scientific evidence shows no known health risk to humans due to the RF energy emitted by cellphones,” a CTIA spokesman said in a statement. “The evidence includes analysis of official federal brain tumor statistics showing that since the introduction of cellphones in the mid-1980s, the rate of brain tumors in the United States has decreased.”

But critics question whether the FCC limits are safe and point to research such as the findings of the National Toxicology Program, which conducted a federally funded study of the effects of exposure to cellphone emissions. As the News & Observer previously reported, a national science panel meeting in March in Research Triangle Park announced that the study had decisively linked cellphone radio-frequency waves to cancer in rats.

“This could be a huge disaster,” said Desiree Jaworski, executive director for the Virginia-based Center for Safer Wireless. “Parents should have a right to say that my child shouldn’t be exposed to this toxin. They should have to prove to us that this is safe.”

Wake school board members appear to be comfortable that the towers won’t be a safety issue. The contract was unanimously approved at the Aug. 21 school board meeting.

“I really would like to move forward with this because I think this is well thought out,” school board member Roxie Cash said at the August committee meeting where the contact was recommended for approval.

Representatives from APC-EDGE, which is a partnership of APC Telecom and Wireless EDGE Consultants, did not immediately return requests for comment. APC beat out two other companies for the contract, including one that had first approached Wake in 2016 about getting more cell tower deals.

Under the contract, APC-EDGE will negotiate lease deals for new towers, with the school board making the final decision on whether to approve them. Parker said it made more sense to use a company that has contacts with wireless carriers than to use district staff.

Parker said it’s unlikely that all 20 potential new cell towers would be built at the same time. She said it could be as few as one or two new towers a year depending on the demand.

APC-EDGE would be paid from a share of the lease revenues from any new towers. The company would also be in charge of maintaining the towers.

At a time when school leaders complain they’re not getting funding, the prospect of new revenue from more cell towers was welcomed.

“It’s 20 towers now, but we have 187 schools so the growth potential for that contract could be very beneficial,” said school board member Lindsay Mahaffey.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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