Heartbreak in Ripon, California, over five current and former students of the city’s Weston Elementary School and three of the school’s teachers who have cancer has led many in the community to ask that Sprint remove a cell tower from the school grounds that the wireless carrier placed there 10 years ago. The point is probably familiar to you, if you have participated in the wireless infrastructure business for a while: It is the matter of whether radio-frequency (RF) energy at the level emanated from cell towers can cause cancer.
The American Cancer Society states via its website that there is little evidence that RF from cell towers causes cancer. Long ago, the FCC considered the question and set what it says are highly conservative limits in an effort to protect members of the public.
The conclusions drawn by the American Cancer Society and the FCC provide little solace, and indeed are not convincing, to many of the cancer victims, their families, friends, classmates, colleagues and neighbors. The situation simply is too personal, too horrible and too grave for reassurances to be persuasive or consolatory.
Although Sprint’s contract for the tower with the school district has another 15 years to run, a Sprint spokeswoman’s remarks made to the Modesto Beeindicate that it is possible the company may take steps. “We very much hear what the community is saying, we understand their concerns and we’re working to come up with alternative solutions as quickly as we can,” Adrienne Norton said.
I will not be surprised if Sprint finds a way to construct a nearby tower to take over the wireless traffic and then removes the tower from the school. But then, how will people who live or work near the other tower react? Will Sprint be opening the door to more objections to towers and other wireless facilities everywhere with what may be perceived as an acknowledgement of cancer risk stemming from its towers — and, by extension, from all wireless carriers’ towers?
I won’t blame Sprint if it yields to calls for the removal of its tower. Cancer. In eight people. It is unimaginably horrible. And all too often deadly. Yet, by most of the available scientific evidence, the cancer in Ripon has nothing to do with a cell tower.
What, then, should be the response to people with lesser health problems — nevertheless highly important to them — when they point to nearby wireless facilities as what, in their minds, are most certainly the cause?
Compassion and science do not always go hand in hand. When and where a balance must be struck becomes more difficult to decide when consequences can be tragic.
ADDENDUM – After Don penned this missive for the April issue of AGL Magazine, Sprint announced that it would indeed remove the tower. The families of those who fell ill with cancer breathed a sigh of relief, according to the Modesto Bee. Sprint officials said they wanted to be “good neighbors” and respect the views of the community. However, carrier officials did not appear to be convinced the tower caused the cancer, noting that it operated at hundreds of times below federal limits. Some may say that the de-commissioning of the tower sets a bad precedent for the public perception that cell towers cause cancer. Others may say Sprint’s action was based not on the cancer threat but on an aversion to bad press as the carrier undergoes increased regulatory scrutiny because of its pending merger with T-Mobile. One question will remain, if the the cell tower is not at fault, will more Weston students develop cancer?