By Caroline Eastham
Aesthetics seemed to have gotten more discussion than health risks when Albemarle County approved a cell tower at Western Albemarle High last fall. The tower will provide sorely needed cell service to Crozet and internet access to over 400 homes and businesses, yet some say the health risks outweigh the connectivity benefit.
There’s plenty of research about the harmful effects that the community needs to know about, says Barbara Cruickshank, a retired nurse for the county school system.
“You don’t need to have a Ph.D. in electrical engineering or biochemistry,” she says. “The science is overwhelming that human health is being negatively impacted by the radiation that they are being exposed to.”
Theodora Scarato, executive director of the Environmental Health Trust, says hundreds of studies document adverse effects from radiation from cell towers, even at very low levels. “Scientists say the current evidence is that radiofrequency radiation meets criteria to be a human carcinogen,” she says.
When the Albemarle Board of Supervisors voted for the tower at Western Albemarle in September, the board addressed community concerns about the aesthetics of a 145-foot tower by limiting the height to 80 feet.
Supervisor Ann Mallek was in the minority. “Having 3,000 children bathing in the emissions from the tower did not seem like the right thing to do,” she says.
Even a small risk was enough for Albemarle County School Board member David Oberg to oppose the tower. “What we do in our peculiar positions impacts our kids,” says the attorney. “I wouldn’t put my child at risk. I can’t put other children at risk. My colleagues don’t agree with the risk.”
Supervisor Rick Randolph voted in support of the WAHS tower because it would fill in gaps in cell coverage in the locality. “It’s completely safe according to the physics, and certainly the federal government has not deemed the towers to be a risk to public health and safety,” he says.
The current lack of service widens the equal educational opportunity gap, says Albemarle schools spokesman Phil Giaramita. “Cell towers that meet federal safety and environmental standards can narrow this gap by improving the availability, quality, and reliability of school and community access.”
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 says essentially that safety concerns about the close proximity of the towers cannot be used to prevent them from being built.
Mallek claims this law is dated and impacts the ability of local government to provide for the health and safety of its citizens, “which is what our number one charter job is.”
She was the only opposing voted in 2016, too, when the construction of the Albemarle High School cell tower was approved.
Both towers are part of a partnership with Milestone Communications, which grants the schools $25,000 per pole and an additional $5,000 for each carrier that sets up service on the pole. Revenue from the towers will go to the school system’s general fund.
Proponents say the towers increase safety in emergency situations. The Emergency Communications Center falls in the gap of coverage that the cell towers could fill, says Randolph.
Oberg can see the argument for extending internet access to students who don’t otherwise have it. “It’s not wrong, but for me it is not a significant enough benefit.”
Opponents claim that near similar access can be obtained with safe-use techniques for technology. “We can do everything that we want to do safely because technology is not inherently bad. Technology has helped us enormously, but it has to be safe,” says Cruickshank.
The Environmental Health Trust is not a fan of wireless, and recommends corded or wired connections to reduce overall radiation exposure. “Most of the time, the internet needs of the school are met by internal networks, not by the cell tower,” says Scarato. Wired connections are also faster, she says.
Choosing not to retrofit the school properly neglects a potential compromise that would provide more access with fewer emissions, says Mallek. “We have every capability to do this in the fiber. We can do it right and I’m very much in favor of doing it right and putting the fiber in where it needs to go.”
No timeline has been set for breaking ground.
Clarification July 15 on Theodora Scarato’s comments about scientific evidence on radiofrequency radiation.