Cell tower

This is a cell tower located on the property of Edmondson High School in west Baltimore. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun / October 22, 2013)

For a school system in an era of bare-bones budgets, building cellphone towers on school properties can mean easy money. But for some parents, the towers pose health and safety risks for their children.

Anne Arundel County is the latest to become locked in this debate.

The county's school system hopes to erect at least 40 towers, which can hold antennas from up to five cellphone carriers, for payments totaling $5 million through 2021. The first tower is already under construction at Broadneck High School on the Broadneck Peninsula.

But the fledgling program has run into opposition from parents who say the towers pose a health hazard because of radio frequencies as well as the possibility of collapse or fires. The County Council is considering whether to restrict cell towers at schools, by requiring at least a football field's distance between the tower and any other structures on school property.

The towers can be lucrative for school systems. Baltimore City schools collected nearly $678,000 by allowing more than a dozen cellphone towers on school property this year. And Montgomery County will make nearly $832,000 from cell towers this year — though the school system allows parents to vote on whether they want the towers.

"If a school does not want a cell tower located on their property, it is not placed there," Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.

Cellphone companies seek to place towers at schools because they often are in the middle of huge residential areas where there aren't other places for these structures.

"The wireless networks that serve residential communities cannot keep pace with demand," said Len Forkas, president of Milestone Communications, the company that has contracted with Anne Arundel schools. "Many school sites offer the best opportunity to conceal the tower so it blends in with the environment."

Forkas said the council bill being considered in Anne Arundel, "eliminates or significantly restricts that opportunity."

Several Baltimore area school districts don't have cell towers. Harford County has considered the idea, said schools spokeswoman Lindsay B. Bilodeau, and years ago the county government put a group together to establish approval procedures.

"We've been approached in the past by companies, but we have not been able to work out a deal that would be beneficial to both parties," Bilodeau said. "We may consider any viable options that may present themselves in the future."

Opposition to cell towers formed quickly in Anne Arundel, led by parents and residents near Piney Orchard Elementary School in Odenton, the second site being considered for a cell tower in the county after Broadneck.

The group formed Anne Arundel County Against Cell Towers at Schools, an organization that has a website, a Facebook group, a flier distribution effort and a signature color for its cause — red — which advocates wear to meetings.

Jen Beers, a Piney Orchard parent, acknowledged studies of health risks associated with cell tower radio waves are inconclusive. Still, she said if a tower is built at Piney Orchard, she'll worry.

"I do not feel good about 'inconclusive,'" she told members of the County Council during a recent meeting on the proposal to ban towers at schools.

Dr. Donald Milton, director of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland, said parents should not be worried about radio frequency emissions from cellphone towers at schools.

Milton said if there's any risk of such emissions contributing to cancer or health problems — "and that's a big if," he said — than cellphones and cordless phones should be more of a concern than towers.

"If you're concerned about radio frequency exposure, it's the transmitter in your pocket that you hold up next to your head that you should be concerned about," he said. "You get about 100 times more exposure from that than your tower."

Officials with Milestone Communications cite studies conducted in Fairfax County, Va., where 31 towers are located at 25 school sites. The county studied radio frequency emissions at the behest of its school board, and the study found schools with cell towers had radio frequency emissions 121,793 times lower than federal safety standards, according to the school system.

The Federal Communications Commission also has said cellphone towers generally operate well below safety limits for such emissions.