Opposition Emerges to Proposed Cell Tower on Flathead High School

Local groups cite potential health risks in petitioning to stop the project; tower proposed as part of school's expansive renovation

By Myers Reece
Construction at Flathead High School on April 26. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Opponents of a proposed cellular tower on top of Flathead High School are gathering signatures to stop the project and inviting the public to multiple screenings of a documentary that explores potential dangers associated with radio frequencies from wireless technology.

The Kalispell public school district is currently accepting public comment on the cell tower proposal, with the school board scheduled to discuss the proposed contract with Verizon Wireless at its May 15 meeting.

Before the 6 p.m. meeting, the district will hold an hour-long public forum beginning at 5 p.m. dedicated specifically to the cell tower issue. School officials and Verizon representatives will be on-hand to provide information and answer questions. The forum will be at Kalispell Middle School’s library.

“We’d like to hear all points of view,” Kalispell Superintendent of Schools Mark Flatau said.

In recent weeks, the district has fielded comments expressing concern over the potential health risks from cell tower radiation, and two movements — one led by students and the other by community members — have merged to oppose the cell tower.

High school students started a Facebook page and a petition on Change.org with the message: “Stop a major source of radiation to our school children and downtown neighborhood!” The petition had garnered 118 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

The petition cites the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which since 2004 has formally opposed locating cell towers’ “commercial wireless infrastructure on fire department facilities.” The IAFF references a pilot study, conducted by Gunnar Heuser, a physician in Agoura Hills, California, that found firefighters who worked up to five years in stations with cell towers showed symptoms of “slowed reaction time, lack of focus, lack of impulse control, severe headaches, anesthesia-like sleep, sleep deprivation, depression, and tremors.”

Meanwhile, a group called the Committee for Responsible Information on the Health of Children and Cell Tower Exposure is speaking out against the tower. Committee members say their own petition received more than 200 signatures in the first few days.

The group has scheduled five showings of a documentary called “Generation Zapped,” which “investigates the potential dangers of prolonged exposure to Radio Frequencies (RF) from wireless technology,” according to its website. The website cites “links to breast and brain cancer,” “increased infertility and genetic mutations” and other maladies.

The website also references a World Health Organization press release from 2011 in which the International Agency for Research classified “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans … based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.”

Ming Lovejoy with the Committee for Responsible Information on the Health of Children and Cell Tower Exposure points to additional medical professionals and studies that have raised red flags, including research by David O. Carpenter, the director of Albany University’s Institute for Health and the Environment.

“Electromagnetic fields may be among the most serious and overlooked health issues today,” Carpenter wrote in a letter to the Department of Neuroscience at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet.

On its website, the Environmental Health Trust has a compilation of letters from neuroscientists and physicians expressing concern over locating cell towers near schools, including Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist and neuroscientist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.

“Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation from WiFi and cell towers can exert a disorganizing effect on the ability to learn and remember, and can also be destabilizing to immune and metabolic function,” Herbert wrote in a 2016 letter, adding: “There is clear and strong evidence that intensive use of cell phones increases the risk of brain cancer.”

However, numerous U.S. regulatory and scientific organizations say there’s no conclusive link between cell phones and cancer or other health problems, including the American Cancer Society, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Communications Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Cancer Institute.

Earlier this year, Otis W. Brawley, American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer, reiterated his long-held stance: “The evidence for an association between cell phones and cancer is weak, and so far, we have not seen a higher cancer risk in people.”

But Lovejoy says it’s telling that France and India have banned the construction of cell phone towers on school property.

“Maybe we have something to learn here; maybe erring on the side of caution would be a wise move,” she said. “We do think it’s unwise to put a cell tower on top of a high school where we have developing, immature brains.”

Flatau, Kalispell’s school superintendent, says the school board and officials are listening to all sides of the issue and trying to sort through the information.

“I think it’s important that any time you make a statement that it’s factual and not based on some misperception,” he said. “In a situation like this, that’s always challenging. Where exactly do the truth and the facts lie?”

The idea of constructing a cell tower arose during planning discussions for Flathead High School’s expansive renovation project. Representatives from Verizon approached school officials about including the tower in the remodel, which is currently in the demolition stages.

The “building and rooftop lease agreement” under consideration would grant “Gold Creek Cellular of Montana Limited Partnership d/b/a Verizon Wireless” the right to “install, maintain and operate communications equipment” at Flathead High School. The company would pay the school district an annual rental fee of $20,400.

Meagan Dorsch, spokesperson for Verizon, said the tower would “add capacity for our customers in that area.” She noted that the company has towers on other schools in Montana and operates in compliance with radiofrequency standards set by the Federal Communications Commission.

“Safety is a top priority for us as well,” Dorsch said.

Lovejoy praised Flatau and the school board for their willingness to consider the community’s concerns and noted that Flatau “has given us a voice and graciously offered” the district offices for two showings of “Generation Zapped,” scheduled for April 30 and May 7 at 3:30 p.m. at the district’s conference room at 233 First Ave. East.

The room is small, so the other three showings will be able to accommodate more viewers from the public and are set for May 3, 8 and 9 at 7 p.m. at the Flathead High School auditorium.

“I just want to commend (Flatau’s) and the school board’s transparency and openness,” she said. “All of us are looking to make the best decisions we can for our community and our future — our students.”

Comments can be mailed or hand-delivered to Beth Kornick at 233 First Ave. East in Kalispell, faxed to (406) 751-3416 or emailed to [email protected]. For more information, visit www.sd5.k12.mt.us.

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