June 9, 2011

Several residents on Old Glebe Road are against a proposal to replace cellphone antennas in the steeple of a neighborhood church.

The community members say the potential health risks and reductions in their property values should be enough for the Arlington County Board to reject the application by AT&T to replace three antennas and add three more to the inside of Walker Chapel United Methodist Church’s steeple. The board is scheduled to discuss the issue on June 11.

The antenna upgrades are to add capacity for AT&T’s new 4G service and meet all federal requirements, AT&T representatives said.

The World Health Organization recently added cellphones to its list of possible carcinogenic products, and many health and government organizations have said the long-term effects of cellphone use warrant a study.

“The issue is, for me, there is an element of doubt. The technology is relatively new,” said Hamish Flett, who lives on the same block as the church.

Flett said that when he was buying his home, he made sure to find a house far from cellphone towers because he feared the radio frequency emissions might harm him and his family. He was shocked to learn the church up the street had antennas hidden in its steeple.

“If you are a church, should you really be gambling with the lives of children in the community for $12,000 a year?” said Flett, who was referring to the amount AT&T pays the church to house the antennas.

The Walker Chapel steeple has housed antennas since 1996 for about $1,100 a month. The church leadership signed a lease that does not end until 2016. James Wright, a lay leader at the church, said there was nothing in the 1996 application that showed community dissent.

“I don’t accept the argument that there is any gambling involved here,” said Wright, who stressed AT&T studies showing that the emissions are 30 times lower than the federal government’s threshold. “I’m far more concerned about an airplane falling out of the air on an approach to Reagan [National Airport] than I am about any harmful effects from cellphone towers,” he said.

Wright said that if AT&T approached the church today and there was this type of community concern, more thorough discussions would be held as they considered the lease.

“I can tell you without equivocation that we take your concerns seriously,” he told the Old Glebe Road Civic Association on June 1.

Ed Donohue, an AT&T representative, told the association that the World Health Organization list concerns cellphones, which are held next to the brain.

“A cell tower is a whole different matter,” he said.

The towers emit less than 5 percent of the rates allowed by the Federal Communications Commission, Donohue said. More radiation comes from a baby monitor than the cell towers, he said.

He said that what is emitted dissipates into the atmosphere so quickly that it is impossible to measure the cumulative effect of all the towers in the area. Churches and schools are common locations for the antennas, he said.

There are nearly 900 towers and antennas near the Old Glebe Road neighborhood, according to AntennaSearch.com.

Several residents said that without further study, they worry about the risk to their children.

“As a mother, I do whatever I can for my kids,” said Sara Maria, who is thinking about removing her children from the church’s preschool. “I just feel like it is not worth it.”

Colleen P. Avis agrees that more information and study is needed; however, she said she isn’t worried about her son attending the preschool.

“Where are you going to move? Next to the radio towers on George Mason?” said Avis, noting that antennas and towers are everywhere in the community.

Arlington County planners have recommended approval of the antenna project. Because the emissions are below federal standards, the Arlington County Board cannot deny the application based on health standards, according to federal law, said Marco Rivero, a county planner.

Flett and other residents are aware of this rule and plan to challenge AT&T’s reports to the county, saying there was insufficient time for community comment, among other points, in order to win a denial by the board.

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