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Cell towers on Chicago Public Schools

Telecom companies call on schools to fill coverage holes.

Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki

On a blustery night in mid-February, a group of John C. Coonley Elementary parents gathered in the North Center school’s library to hash out a contentious issue. At a public meeting a few nights earlier, AT&T had proposed the installation of cell-phone antennas on the school’s smokestack. The telecom giant determined that antennas on Coonley could fill the south end of a coverage hole bordered by Irving Park Road, Ravenswood Avenue, Wilson Avenue and the Chicago River. AT&T put forward a 16-year lease, offering $24,000 annually for the first four years of the contract.

But safety, not money, was on the minds of the parents, some of whom fiddled with cell phones during the meeting. Would antennas beaming out radio-frequency waves be a danger to their developing children? “AT&T certainly didn’t sell me,” said Jeff Jenkins, a dog trainer who has two kids at Coonley. “The AT&T engineer said, ‘I’m not a medical professional, but there’s information online.’ For a billion-dollar company, I would’ve thought the burden was on them to make us feel good.”

AT&T spokesman Jim Kimberly referred our safety questions to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. It says the FCC, FDA, National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization have reviewed the research and determined there’s been no conclusive link between cell-antenna exposure and cancer. “Some people have expressed concern that living, working, or going to school near a cell phone tower [which houses antennas] might increase the risk of cancer or other health problems. At this time, there is very little evidence to support this idea,” the American Cancer Society website says. “The energy of RF waves given off by cell phone towers is not enough to break chemical bonds in DNA molecules,” which is how gamma rays, ultraviolet light and x-rays cause malignancy.

A cell antenna beams signals horizontally like a lighthouse. So being in the umbrella beneath the antennas, AT&T told Coonley, could expose its kids to less RF than if the antennas were placed a block up on St. Ben’s Parish, which the company indicated it was considering as a secondary site.

That didn’t ease concern among the parents, many of whom thought $24,000 a year wasn’t tempting enough to gamble on something that hasn’t been studied longitudinally. “My concern is 30 years from now: Will my child have a brain tumor or be infertile?” said James Louis Alford, an anesthesiologist whose wife is a pediatrician. “I talked to a neurosurgeon about this. He said, ‘Why would you build a cell tower in a brain-development zone?’ ”

For a wireless company keeping up with rapidly increasing service demands, a school looks like a fine location for cell antennas. “It’s a structure that already exists, usually with a high rooftop, and in a residential area, which isn’t conducive to a traditional cell tower,” says Gary Duchesne, a municipal consultant for the telecom industry based in suburban Geneva. “But a cell company will only go to a school if there are few alternatives. You have to go through a public hearing, and residents show up concerned about the RF signals.”

Major cellular carriers have erected 136 towers or antenna structures on 97 of the 681 Chicago Public Schools. Cash-strapped schools see the deals as easy funding for books and computers. A handful of CPS schools, however, have declined. “There was nothing really conclusive about the health risks, so we look for alternative ways to fund-raise,” says Nilsa Alvarez, assistant principal at Thomas J. Waters Elementary, which rejected a cell company’s offer. At Edgebrook Elementary, parents who lobbied to turn down an antenna lease started a foundation for capital improvements. “And we have terrible cell-phone reception in the building,” principal Janice Kepka says. “But kids come first.”

At the Coonley meeting, one father wondered aloud to the group, “Do RF waves go through buildings?” Fellow dad Dan Lukas, a radio enthusiast and the most vocal proponent of the AT&T deal, held up his phone. “I’ve got four bars,” he said with a smile. “It goes through buildings, and no one’s running for the door.”

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