Are Kids at Risk? Scores of Chicago-Area Schools Allow Cell Towers on Their Buildings, Grounds

Parents, citing unknown risks, want more testing on potentially-harmful radiation levels in classrooms

Dozens of schools across the Chicago area are leasing their property to telecom companies to erect cellular towers and antennas on school buildings and grounds, NBC5 Investigates has discovered. Until now, radiation from cell towers has not been considered a risk to children, but a recent study raises new questions about possible long-term, harmful effects.

Terrence Fagan says he will never forget the day he walked his son into kindergarten for the first time at Sutherland Elementary.

“I looked up and I saw these two towers that I’d never seen before,” he said.

The towers in question were cell phone antennas, mounted on the building’s smokestack. Fagan says he immediately started doing research, hoping that he would find that scientists had conclusively proven that phone towers pose no risk.

“I tried to prove the other side of this argument,” he said. “The proof that’s been offered does not equate to safety, in our estimation.” 

Fagan quickly learned that he was not alone with his concerns. Parents from Sutherland and a second school in the Beverly neighborhood, Mount Greenwood, had mounted a petition asking for answers about potential risks from the phone towers.

“I don’t feel that I got the reception as far as taking the issue more seriously,” parent Jeff Simms said. “I believe the parents deserve the right to limit the amount of radiation in the classrooms.”

NBC5 Investigates filed Freedom of Information Act requests with 409 public school districts across the Chicago area, and found that 139 local schools rent space on their grounds, buildings and smokestacks for cellular antennas. Over 90 of those are Chicago Public Schools – most of them elementary-level -- where kids may attend for as many as nine years. CPS reaps about $5 million in rental fees from those towers every year.

Both the American Cancer Society and the Federal Communications Commission have stated that so-called RF radiation from cell towers does not pose a risk to people on the ground, because the transmissions are line-of-sight from the antennas, which are traditionally mounted high in the air. But NBC5 Investigates spotted many antennas mounted far lower, close to the roof line and even the windows of some CPS buildings.

Fagan questions what scientists know about living in even lower levels of RF, below the towers, for long periods of time.

“Our kids are sitting in these classrooms for seven hours a day for nine years, 180 days every school year,” he notes. “Nobody knows what happens if you get a very low dose for nine years.”

The Beverly parents were especially alarmed by news of a recent study from the National Toxicology Program, which seemed to show a direct link between cell phone RF and cancer. Fagan said no parent would allow a Starbucks to be located in the school offering free coffee, if it would mean constant exposure to caffeine.

“Parents would descend on that school with torches and pitchforks,” he said. “I don’t know why microwave radiation gets a free pass when there’s way more evidence to support that it causes disease than caffeine does.” 

It turns out the National Toxicology Study was done in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology. And its findings were reported worldwide.

“This is by far the largest study that’s ever been done in the world by at least a factor of three on cell phone radiation,” said Dr. David McCormick, who ran that project. “We built a special laboratory for the program, at a cost of about $10 million.”

During the study some 3,000 rats and mice were continuously exposed to high levels of RF for two years. McCormick says about 8 percent of the animals developed brain tumors and other complications. 

“I think this is a signal,” McCormick said. “I don’t think this study is definitive in saying yes we have a smoking gun here. However, it’s a signal that something may be going on.”

And the concerns of the Chicago parents?

“I don’t blame the parents for being concerned,” he said. “My first question would be, does your child use a cell phone? Because if your child uses a cell phone, the exposure is very likely to be substantially larger than the exposure from the cell tower.”

That said, McCormick said his research would seem to indicate that the location of the antenna should be given careful consideration, noting that RF radiation drops off dramatically the further one gets from the tower.

“If this is at the level of the roof that antenna could be pointing more or less directly into a classroom or an occupied space,” he said. “You know, 25 feet from the tower is an awful lot different than if it’s 100 feet or 200 feet away from the tower.”

The Beverly parents are hardly alone in their concerns. School systems ranging from south-suburban Tinley Park and west-suburban Naperville, to the entire Los Angeles Unified School District, have said no to cell towers because of similar worries over long term exposure to RF. And the International Association of Fire Fighters has long opposed the mounting of cell antennas and towers at its members’ fire stations, citing similar concerns about low-intensity RF radiation.

More than anything, the Sutherland and Mount Greenwood parents say they are frustrated by a lack of response from the Chicago Public Schools. Fagan says one CPS staffer, in fact, told him he should “call 3-1-1.” And when NBC5 made an inquiry, a CPS spokesman refused – repeatedly -- to provide anyone for an interview, issuing only a written statement:

“National health and communication experts, including the American Cancer Society and the FCC, have said there is no credible health threat posed by cellular equipment,” the statement said. “And CPS allows Local School Councils to lease space if it meets the needs of their school community.”

When NBC5 asked why CPS was not willing to have a more thorough discussion about the issue of cell towers at its schools, on-camera, the CPS spokesman repeatedly refused to comment.

NBC5 Investigates has compiled both a list and an interactive map, showing all of the schools that we found, throughout Chicago and the suburbs, that have cellular antennas on their property. Click here to see if your child’s school made the list.

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