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Schools Are Signing Cell Tower Deals — Without Telling Parents

Telecom companies are approaching school boards across the U.S., offering to install wireless towers in exchange for what initially appears as a lucrative income stream for the often cash-strapped schools. But the deals often favor the telecom companies, and the towers can pose health risks, experts say.

Published in The Defender May 22, 2024 by Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D.

Big Telecom companies are approaching school boards across the U.S., offering to install wireless towers at schools in exchange for what initially appears as a lucrative income stream for the often cash-strapped schools.

But are these deals as good as advertised or do they contain risks for schools — and children?

On this week’s “Defender In-Depth,” Suzanne Burdick, Ph.D., and Jenny DeMarco, who has a master’s in education, told host Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D., that cell tower contracts, far from offering “easy money,” often lock in school boards for decades at unfavorable terms.

Burdick, a reporter for The Defender, is writing a series of investigative articles on wireless exposure at schools.

DeMarco is communications director for Virginians for Safe Technology and co-founder of the National Call for Safe Technology.

Burdick said legal wireless radiofrequency (RF) exposure limits are outdated.

They added that school districts often fail to inform parents before signing such contracts, while environmental impact studies are typically not conducted.

They also said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ignored a court order to review its RF exposure limits, enacted in 1996 and unchanged since then. Children’s Health Defense (CHD) launched a legal challenge against the FCC.

Big Telecom ‘taking advantage of school boards and school leaders’

Burdick said “a perfect storm” is brewing, due to the combination of rapid technological advancement and a “telecom industry wanting to cash in on those advancements” by “ramping up its efforts to roll out its infrastructure.”

However, “in doing so, it’s really been targeting, and I might say, taking advantage of, school boards and school leaders,” Burdick said.

Burdick said schools looking for new income streams see tower installation as a way to generate passive income.

Yet, what “appears at first glance as a no-brainer to school leaders” comes at the cost of not “realizing the implications of this in terms of how long the contracts are, the possible health ramifications and how little proper government oversight there is on the industry,” Burdick said.

DeMarco has advocated against such contracts at her children’s private school and other schools in her area. She said a local high school signed a 35-year tower contract, which contains an initial 10-year term and five-year renewable terms.

“The renewable terms are only renewable on the side of the telecom or the tower company. There’s no escape clause for the school,” DeMarco said. “It’s almost like tobacco science, where they may know that the dam of denial is going to break at some point and they don’t want it to affect their revenue when it does.”

“Many times the contracts allow the telecom companies to modify the towers, maintain them or change them,” Burdick said. This could mean that an initial placement of one antenna could later unilaterally be converted to “a whole bunch of 5G antennas.”

Burdick noted instances of contracts that allowed telecom companies to provide a mere 48 hours’ notice before adding to their tower sites, or where school boards approved cell tower contracts after “48 seconds of discussion.”

In the latter case, parents in Wyandotte, Michigan, “grew really understandably irate” because the school board didn’t consult them before signing the contract. The parents sued T-Mobile and obtained a restraining order blocking the activation of the antennas.

However, on appeal their case was dismissed and the antennas were activated. Parents are now appealing. “It’s very much torn that community apart in that many parents pulled their kids out of the school,” Burdick said. “It’s been a real mess.”

DeMarco noted that despite contract terms that initially appear enticing, Big Telecom contracts often provide schools with only limited financial benefits, as other than a relatively large upfront payment when the contract is signed, annual lease rates are low and are often split among all schools in the district — and the tower company.

“It’s a tiny drop in the bucket,” for which “you’re putting people at risk,” DeMarco said.

School board democratic processes often ‘lacking’ as parents are shut out

DeMarco and Burdick both said school boards often ignore parents’ and students’ concerns about safety and the contract terms.

“It just goes in one ear and out the other,” DeMarco said, along with a lack of informed consent. “Parents aren’t notified that this is happening. You can’t even get to that point of saying anything because you don’t know that it’s happening.”

Once a tower is sited, approved and under construction, it’s “very, very — if not impossible, very difficult to get that reversed or taken down,” DeMarco said.

DeMarco said tower companies target schools because they don’t have as much red tape as counties or cities. Processes involving schools are usually “quick,” while often, “educators aren’t educated on this specific topic and it’s an easy sell.”

‘Safety’ as reason to build wireless towers — but safety risks ignored

According to DeMarco, some tower companies sign “master leases with school boards or with counties,” including the Virginia county where she resides — which she said used emergency powers enacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to rush through such contracts with little oversight or review.

“COVID powers gave one man in our county the ability to sign off on any cellphone infrastructure within the county,” she said. “It didn’t have to go through the planning process … any public notice, none of it.”

DeMarco also said school boards typically don’t conduct environmental impact studies before signing off on contracts or before the construction of wireless towers. “They basically just sign off … and that’s it.”

Burdick and DeMarco said school boards often cite safety concerns, such as an expanded ability to call 911, to justify the placement of wireless towers at schools.

DeMarco said that while doing that, school boards tend to conceal the possible adverse health effects of the radiation emitted by wireless towers, noting that her local school authorities “omitted it from the conversation as if it doesn’t exist” or have claimed that such health dangers were never proven to exist.

In conversations with tower company owners, DeMarco said she’s been told these companies only “have to worry about compliance” with FCC regulations, but “don’t have to worry about safety.”

Burdick said the FCC’s RF exposure limits were set in 1996, based on studies conducted in the 1970s and 80s. They look only at one possible mechanism of harm — thermal effects, or whether the RF creates heating in human cells, but “turn a blind eye to any other biological effect that might occur” or long-term harms.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency used to have an entire division on radiation protection, but it was defunded, Burdick said.

Following a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office urging the FCC to review its 1996 limits, the FCC launched a multi-year inquiry. According to Burdick, scientists submitted “thousands of pages of evidence” that found “biological effects” even at levels below those that cause heating.

Yet, in December 2019, the FCC determined there was “no appropriate basis” to amend its RF exposure limits and closed its inquiry. CHD and other organizations filed lawsuits against the FCC in 2020, challenging this determination.

In 2021, a federal appeals court ruled the FCC failed to consider all of the scientific evidence regarding the adverse health effects of wireless technology, and required it to conduct a new review of the evidence. Yet, the FCC has so far defied the ruling.

Burdick noted that CHD “has continued to put pressure on the FCC to act,” petitioning the FCC last year and planning a new legal filing in the coming months. She cited several recent studies finding potentially serious health risks connected to RF exposure, including in elementary school students and adolescents.

FCC rules also “don’t take into consideration the cumulative effects” and long-term impacts of RF exposure, DeMarco said, noting that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prevents state and county authorities from making decisions on wireless tower applications based on “environmental effects,” which includes health impacts.

“We should be using the precautionary principle, specifically when dealing with children,” DeMarco said.

Burdick said CHD is “leading the way” in challenging the FCC’s rules, including through online resources for the public and legal cases — one in New Jersey, others citing the Americans with Disabilities Act concerning the possible harms of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

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Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D., based in Athens, Greece, is a senior reporter for The Defender and part of the rotation of hosts for CHD.TV’s “Good Morning CHD.”

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