Montgomery County town testing cell towers for health risk

May 7, 2013

Cell phone towers perched on top of the Poolesville water tower have brought more than $1 million in rental fees into the town’s coffers, but town officials now want to make sure they aren’t posing a health risk to residents.

The Poolesville Town Commission voted unanimously Monday night to hire the Kansas company Radiofrequency Safety International Inc. to conduct a hazard assessment monitoring of the towers and check for hot zones where radiofrequency levels are unusually high.

Thomas Carr lives directly across the street from the water tower on Wootton Avenue. He said he’s been pushing for a safety evaluation for more than a decade.

“My belief it that water tower is a cash cow,” Carr said. “They made well more than a $1 million on the space so there is not a lot of interest in one man’s health concerns when you are raking in that kind of money. It has clouded their vision so to speak.”

Four carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint/Nextel pay the town a total of $167,000 a year to have their antennas on the Poolesville water tower, Town Manager Wade Yost said. Cell towers have been on the water tower for about 15 years, he said.

In mid-June KSI is expected to monitor the towers and produce a report to determine if there is a violation of RF levels, Yost said. The report is costing the town $4,000.

“It is something we contemplated doing for some time. We have no indication to believe anything is unsafe. We believe they are safe,” said Jim Brown, president of the Poolesville Town Commission.

He said the commission recently reassessed the safety of the tower when an infrastructure issue caused a leak at the water tower. The cell towers are another component of that safety assessment, he said. “We might as well give it a look-see.”

Greg Kechter, general manager of KSI, said the reports can be produced in as little as a half hour to as long as a week. He said his company will use special instrumentation to take RF readings around the site and evaluate those readings to be sure they meet the Federal Communications Commission’s standards for environmental regulations.

KSI also makes mitigation recommendations for those sites out of compliance including moving antenna and changing antenna types, he said.

He said he has never done a study that required changes to cellular antenna on water towers.

“I’ve seen water towers with as few as two antennas and I have done some with as many as 60 antennas,” Kechter said. “I have not had a water tower with issues due to cellular equipment. All I talk about in terms of health is what the regulations are.”

Brown said what the cellular companies pay the town is “nothing to sneeze at,” but the money is not the town’s top priority.

“Money doesn’t matter when it comes to anything health related, that is number one. Number two, and a distant number two, is we recognize cell providers provide valuable service to our residents. Services and money come number three.”

Orr’s son who was living with him and his wife in their Poolesville home was diagnosed with testicular cancer three years ago at the age of 25. Their cat now has an inoperable tumor.

“I feel like we are being cooked particularly now that the cat got cancer,” Orr said.

According to the American Cancer Society Web site, cell phone towers “are unlikely to cause cancer.”

Orr admits much of the research does not point to cell towers as cancer-causing agents.

“I don’t know if they are harmful. I’ve been asking for the town to monitor the cell towers for about 15 years since they were first put up. I expressed my concern and then wouldn’t you know my kid would get (cancer),” Orr said. “God darn here I have been preaching about this and trying to get answers and my kid got cancer.”

Orr said he was “kind of surprised” by the town’s decision to hire KSI to do the study.

“It is a step in the right direction,” he said.

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