Community members at Amity Creek Magnet School are opposing a proposed Verizon cell phone tower slated for construction at a downtown Bend church. Leaders at Trinity Episcopal Church will decide this month whether to let the wireless provider mount a faux bell tower in order to boost its 4G service to 5G. Critics, namely parents and neighbors near the church, say towers such as those can have negative health impacts, pointing to recent studies showing correlations between rare brain cancers and tumors.
Opponents of the tower also point to stricter legislation in European countries, which limit cell towers next to schools. Research into the potential health effects of towers is still ongoing, and more than a dozen cell towers are already hiding in plain sight throughout Bend.
A Changing Electromagnetic Landscape
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people are exposed to 100-million times more electromagnetic radiation than their grandparents' generations. With 95 percent of Americans now owning mobile phones, cell towers have increasingly crept into residential communities to meet demand. The towers, at times freestanding and other times mounted onto existing structures, are virtually everywhere.
Sometimes they're camouflaged; as is the case with a cell tower on top of the building at 1135 NW Galveston Ave., owned by Galveston Properties, LLC. That one, constructed in 2011, is disguised as a faux chimney. Towers are usually 50-200 feet high, holding electronic equipment and antennas which receive and transmit radiofrequency (RF) signals. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, funded by the World Health Organization, classified RF radiation in 2011 as a possible human carcinogen. Parents of the 180+ students at Amity Creek Magnet School, next to the church, are worried about the risk of that carcinogen.
"I can do a lot things to protect my children — I can put a helmet on their head or feed them the healthiest food," says Shawndi Stahl, a parent of two Amity Creek students, "but this is completely out of our hands and I feel hopeless that I can't limit their exposure to something that later on could be potentially proven to cause cancer." Stahl points to the lessons learned throughout history, namely the thought that lead, asbestos and even smoking were once considered non-harmful. Today, more than 30 studies have shown no correlations to cancers, while a handful of other studies show some direct dose–response relationships.
Stahl says that very few human studies have focused specifically on cellular phone towers and cancer risk, noting that it is still very much an area of active research. At very high levels, RF waves can heat up body tissues, much like how a microwave heats up food. A 2016, $25-million federally-backed study showed links between rare brain and heart cancers and chronic exposure to the type of radiation emitted from cell phones and wireless devices. A 2004 study showed increased levels of rare brain and heart cancers in rats that were exposed to RF radiation for nine hours each day.
Some European countries and municipalities such as Belgium and France have strict limits on electromagnetic waves, limiting the placement of Wi-Fi devices at schools. In some European districts, cell towers must be 1,500 feet away from schools.
The United States Federal Communications Commission says the amount of RF energy from towers at ground level is thousands of times less than the limits for safe exposure set by federal law. Still, critics point out that federal safety rules were put in place in 1996, when signals largely radiated from remote towers that were off limits to the public sphere. The FCC maintains that it would be highly unlikely to be exposed to RF levels in excess of these limits just by being near a cell phone tower, especially if antennas are mounted high above ground level and the signals are transmitted intermittently, rather than constantly.
City of Bend code lays out the general framework for the locations of these towers. Aaron Henson, the City's senior planner, says, "Regulations encourage cell service providers to locate new towers in commercial or industrial zones." He notes that although city code discourages new cell towers in residential zones, "Federal law prohibits the City from completely banning them from residential zones...(and) ultimately, the cell service providers determine where they want to put new towers." The tower on the building at 1135 Galveston, located in an area with both residential and commercial buildings, is also owned by Verizon.
Jeff Walkup, who lives 200 feet away from Trinity, is spearheading discussions with the congregation. He says: "For all of us concerned, the important question we are asking (the church) is this technology 100 percent safe? Will the children be 100 percent safe and is the church 100 percent sure?" He continues, "Is the church fully aware of the considerable disagreement within the scientific literature as to the long-term health impacts of RF radiation?"
Walkup, Stahl and other parents are petitioning the church to rethink letting Verizon place the tower at the church citing the unknown long-term health effects of non-ionizing radiation.
A Financial Decision
"This isn't a get rich quick scheme," says the Rev. Jed Holdorph of Trinity Episcopal. "Anytime you can increase revenue streams, you have to carefully consider them, whether they be private or nonprofit sector." Holdorph is quick to point out the church is a registered 501(c) nonprofit, and although he would not offer specifics on how the increased revenues would be spent, the church is known for hosting community-centered and homeless outreach services. "We're open and listening to the community," Holdorph says. "The matter is deciding whether or not cell phone towers impact health or not...and we will take all into consideration."
Walkup notes, "...from the perspective of some in the public, the partnership looks ethically questionable. Have you considered that by aligning the church with a commercial enterprise, with even the remotest possibility of causing long-term harm to a child, that the very sacredness, holiness and authority of the church itself is called into question?"
Verizon spokesperson Heidi Flato says the need for the tower is in reaction to feedback received from customers in the Old Bend area. "Service-related concerns ranging from slow data performance to dropped calls," were of primary concerns. She says that once completed, the site will "add additional network capacity, improved in-home coverage and increased data throughout." Flato also notes that the proposed tower will match the existing aesthetic of the existing 43' – 8" bell tower and will be camouflaged in.
While the Source was unable to verify revenues Trinity may receive, in the community of Pasadena, Calif., Verizon offered to build a 53-foot faux bell tower in a church's parking lot and offered a $2,000 monthly stipend. An ex-T-Mobile employee familiar with the issue notes that this amount is "considerably low, and that the rent allocated could be anywhere from $5,000-$7,500—even $10,000."
Stahl says that some parents have considered leaving Amity if the tower is approved. "I wouldn't feel comfortable dropping my children off each day, knowing they were being exposed." Stahl adds, "I'm not anti-cell phone and anti-technology, I just don't think we need to sacrifice potentially our children's health for upgrades from 4G to 5G."
Flato says that since 2010 Verizon has spent $122 billion in improvements across the U.S and does so to " continue to invest to be sure we stay ahead of the rapidly increasing demand for mobile data."
City of Bend's Henson notes, "With cell service providers upgrading from 4G to 5G, we expect to receive applications for several more cell towers in the near future, in addition to the proposed wireless facility in the Trinity Episcopal Church bell tower." Even if the church's board of directors approves the tower, it will still face city planning division reviews and need to meet development code criterias. Decisions can also be appealed to a hearings officer.
Stahl hopes that it doesn't come to that and that the church will listen to the pleas of its neighbors. "What the church needs to think about is whether they want to prioritize profit or prioritize the protection of our children and the residents next door."