Cellphone towers on school grounds worry some Detroit parents

Students and their teacher balance their notebooks on their heads during class on the first day of school.
A debate over the potential health risks of cell phone towers is taking place in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, where in recent years the district has installed several dozen towers on or near school grounds. (Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press)

Some Detroit parents and community members are pushing district officials and school board members to remove dozens of cellphone towers placed on school grounds, claiming that the radio waves emanating from the antennas could have unforeseen health effects on children and staff.

The health risks are not scientifically proven, but concern over cell towers at schools has bubbled up in districts both locally and nationally. The superintendent of Wyandotte Public Schools resigned in early April following backlash from numerous parents over the lease of a T-Mobile 5G tower at a district elementary school.

In Detroit, where many residents live with a legacy of utility, infrastructure, and economic development projects that have proceeded with limited public input, the school district is under growing pressure to respond to public concerns while it considers whether to keep the towers or give up the revenue that comes with them. 

“I’m shaking because I’m so angry,” parent Karla Mitchell said during a Detroit Public Schools Community District school board meeting on April 18. “I find you to be grossly negligent in the installation of cell towers at the Detroit public schools. I wasn’t notified. I just found out (recently), and my son has been sitting in the school for two years.”

DPSCD currently has 29 cell towers placed on school grounds and buildings across the city, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, with multi-year lease agreements signed with telecommunications companies such as T-Mobile and Crown Castle. They provide revenue for the district, and more seamless voice and data connectivity across the city.

Some of those agreements predate Vitti’s tenure, having been approved by emergency managers dating back to 2014, he said at the April board meeting.

“I have no knowledge that there is concrete evidence that the cell towers harm children or staff,” Vitti said. 

Serious health effects on humans aren’t proven

Amid rising demand for high-speed cellular data connections, telecommunications providers have sought to place more cellphone towers and antennas in both residential and commercial areas to increase the capacity of their wireless networks. (Technologies like 5G require more antennas, because their high-frequency waves don’t travel as far.) Placing them on school buildings or on school grounds gives providers a way to add connections in residential areas without encountering aesthetic objections from neighbors.

But the health-related complaints are growing, even though the science isn’t clear on whether there is a real health risk. 

The antennas atop cell towers work by emitting radiofrequency waves that transmit data signals. Those waves can cause biological effects, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates cellphone companies and technology. But they are unlikely to cause serious health hazards to humans, the agency says.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says that “no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies.

The American Cancer Society states that currently there is no strong evidence that exposure to radiofrequency waves from cell phone towers causes any noticeable health effects. 

But it adds: “This does not mean that the RF waves from cell phone towers have been proven to be absolutely safe. Most expert organizations agree that more research is needed to help clarify this, especially for any possible long-term effects.”

FCC is urged to take a closer look

Indeed, some of the new complaints reflect concerns that the research on the health effects is not complete, updated, or conclusive.

Some independent scientists and medical experts wonder about the potential health risks that radiofrequency waves or electromagnetic radiation can pose to children even at low levels. Others point out that the FCC’s regulations for safe levels of exposure to wireless radiation from towers and cellphones have not been updated since 1996

In a 2013 letter to the FCC, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote that the agency’s exposure limits “do not account for the unique vulnerability and use patterns specific to pregnant women and children.”

“This is a child — as well as a teacher and staff — health issue,” said Theodora Scarato, executive director of nonprofit Environmental Health Trust, who spoke at the April 18 school board meeting.

In 2021, a U.S. Appeals Court judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit by Scarato’s organization against the FCC, finding in part that the commission failed “to provide a reasoned explanation for brushing off record evidence addressing non-cancer-related health effects arising from the impact of (radiofrequency) radiation on children.” In its ruling, the judge ordered the FCC to “address the impacts of RF radiation on children.”

“The FCC was ordered to address those issues and more and it’s been nearly two years. And they have not responded,” Scarato said. The FCC did not reply to a request for comment.

District faces a decision on towers

School board member Misha Stallworth West said during an April 26 committee meeting that misinformation may be feeding public concern about cell towers. Toward the beginning of the COVID pandemic, a conspiracy theory emerged on social media linking the health effects of COVID-19 to the placement of 5G wireless towers across the globe in 2019 and 2020. The World Health Organization quickly dismissed the theory in April 2020.

“We’re in the era of misinformation, and the experience that everyone had with COVID I think, rightfully put a lot of folks on edge, especially in Black communities,” she said.

As a solution, Stallworth West suggested the district update its website to provide parents and community members with links to accurate information.

Vitti said that in the coming weeks he will provide board members with options on how to proceed with the cell towers. “The board can decide what path they want to take with renewing, or discontinuing and dealing with the legal challenges and financial challenges of discontinuing,” he said.

In 2014, while the district was under emergency management, 15 cell towers were placed on school properties. Those contracts, according to Vitti, have a no termination clause, locking the district into a 55-year agreement to keep those towers until 2067. The district could be liable to pay back the $6.8 million received at that time if the deal is terminated. 

Since those initial lease agreements in 2014, the district placed an additional 14 towers under short-term leases, Vitti said.  The newer leases provide the district with roughly $2,000 a month for each tower. Some of that revenue, he added, has helped cover meals for district staff and family events.

But many parents are still concerned that the district’s lease agreements with telecommunication companies circumvented community input.

“Why are we risking our children’s health for revenue?” said parent Tiffany Williams.

“You all couldn’t come up with anything else different, to come up with another plan. The implementation of these towers has great health concerns pertaining to our children’s safety.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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