The Fairfax County School Board's commercial venture to build cell towers at schools is an unwise policy that puts schoolchildren and staff at risk. In the long run, it may turn out to be a financial albatross, as well.

Antennas on cell towers emit radio-frequency radiation that research has shown to cause biological effects that can be linked to cancer and other diseases, often at power levels thousands of times below government exposure standards. Documented bio-effects from this technology include slowed motor skills and reaction time; deficits in memory and attention; white blood cell changes; compromise of the blood filtering system protecting the brain; impaired nervous system activity; increased heart rate and blood pressure; decreased immune system function; DNA damage in human blood cells; headaches, tinnitus and spatial disorientation; and stimulation of leukemia cell growth.

Already, the school system has placed cell towers at six schools, approved towers for eight more and quietly has begun zoning five more to receive them. Industry representatives under contract with the school system extol the financial benefits to school principals and PTAs without warning them about health risks. Under the contracts, every school is a candidate for a cell tower.

The revenue the school system receives is minuscule in comparison to the potential risks posed by this technology. In fact, if carefully analyzed, the school system may actually be losing money. Currently, the school system is grossing only a few tens of thousands of dollars under this arrangement -- less than $1 a child -- while it spends more than $10,000 a year to educate each child and has a $1.8 billion budget. There may be no profit at all after overhead costs are considered, including the cost of contract administration, emissions testing (which school officials only recently said they will do after parents applied pressure), potential liability costs and insurance costs.

Proponents of the deal claim that the radiation emissions are well under federal exposure standards. But U.S. exposure standards are the least protective in the world. Standards in other countries vary widely, reflecting the uncertainty in ascertaining the health risks based on current research. According to a July 2002 letter from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. exposure standards are not up to date with the latest research, and therefore cannot be characterized as fully protective of people. Many scientists have documented bio-effects at thousands of times below government exposure standards.

In August, the International Association of Firefighters voted for a moratorium on placing cell towers at fire stations until a study of health impacts can be done. This action came on the heels of a pilot study that found neurological changes in six firefighters living and working near cell towers for several years. If cell towers are too risky for firefighters -- who are paid to enter burning buildings and who are routinely exposed to toxic fumes -- then it makes no sense to put cell towers near schoolchildren.

As researchers continue battling over the extent to which radio-frequency radiation from cell towers may cause harm and how far they should be placed from people, it makes sense to take a cautious approach toward our children. These antennas have nothing to do with the schools' educational mission. It simply doesn't make sense to expose our kids to this kind of health and safety risk -- and it's time to put an end to it.

The Fairfax County school system has installed poles with cell phone antennas at six schools and one administrative building and is planning to add them at several more schools. Some parents say they are worried about the potential health risks from radio-frequency radiation. Karl Polzer of the Falls Church area is a health policy analyst, parent of children attending county schools and co-founder of Protect Schools, www.protectschools.org.