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Ripon parents upset about one cell tower. What about 200? Here comes 5G

Parents pick up their children after school at Weston Elementary in Ripon, CA, on Thursday, March 14, 2019. Ripon Unified School District is working with Sprint to move a cellular phone tower, seen in the center background, after four students were diagnosed with cancer and parents voiced their concerns.
Parents pick up their children after school at Weston Elementary in Ripon, CA, on Thursday, March 14, 2019. Ripon Unified School District is working with Sprint to move a cellular phone tower, seen in the center background, after four students were diagnosed with cancer and parents voiced their concerns. jfarrow@modbee.com

Even with apparent movement to relocate a cell phone tower at a Ripon school, a public debate over the potentially harmful effects of wireless service radiation might just be beginning in cities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

A spokeswoman for Sprint said Friday a company representative was in Ripon earlier this week, talking to the school district and considering where to move the Weston Elementary School tower that’s created an uproar.

“We are definitely moving forward on that,” Sprint Spokeswoman Adrienne Norton said. She didn’t have a time estimate on relocating the cell site. “We work with a lot of different communities on concerns they might have,” Norton said.

Parents whose children attend Weston School suspect the cell phone tower on campus is related to seven cancer cases among students and teachers. The cases include four students diagnosed with different forms of cancer in the last three years and three teachers.

In addition, The Modesto Bee confirmed a 4-year-old boy, who lives a block from the school, was treated for a malignant tumor and is in remission. Another preschool-age child living near the school has leukemia, parents said. A Modesto family says a 22-year-old family member, who was a Weston student for three years, is in long-term care after surgery last year for a brain tumor.

Frank Jerome, chief operations officer for Ripon Unified, said in an email Friday: “We have been working with Sprint to address the concerns of our families and relocate the cell site as quickly as possible. We are hopeful that a resolution is close.”

Ripon Mayor Leo Zuber said Thursday city staff members had not been contacted about any new location for the tower. Moving the equipment to public property or right-of-way could require city approval.

“We will do what we legally have to do to make sure (a new location) is within safety parameters,” the mayor said.

Zuber was the superintendent of Ripon Unified in 2008 when a wireless carrier approached the district about possible locations for cell towers at school sites. Zuber said the primary interest for the carrier was coverage needs for good service. The school district didn’t try to make money from the arrangement but thought it should be compensated, he said.

RUSD receives $23,484 in annual payments for the cell tower at Weston and $17,280 for a tower on Pine Street near Ripon High School, the district said.

“The cell phone company had to bring in studies,” Zuber recalled. “We hired a consultant to look at it. We did the due diligence. Permission was given based on what was known at the time.”

The school district and Sprint cite independent tests by engineers showing radio frequency waves or radiation from the Weston tower are well below the federal guidelines for safe human exposure.

Hundreds of scientific studies on the safety of cell-phone use have not been definitive on whether it can cause cancer, though scientists and medical professionals express concern.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has advised parents to limit the amount of time children and teenagers use cell phones. It repeated the recommendation after a U.S. National Toxicology Program study released in 2016 showed that tumors developed in rats exposed to cell phone radiation.

Last year, a study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health reported the incidence of malignant brain tumors had doubled in England over a 10-year period. As reported by CNN, the researchers suggested a likely cause of the glioblastoma tumors was cell phone use, though the study had not tried to prove cell phones as a cause.

Ripon and many other cities are preparing for the wireless industry’s conversion to 5G technology, designed to provide highspeed Internet service for smartphones. The rollout involves the installation of hundreds, if not thousands, of “small cell” devices that will expose people to radiofrequency waves in cities.

Because the 5G technology for wireless carriers will use “millimeter” waves that travel short distances, around 200 small cell antennas may be needed in a city of Ripon’s size, while the estimate for San Jose is more than 4,000. Some of the 5G equipment are box-shaped devices fixed to street-light poles, traffic signals and buildings.

An FCC order in the fall limited cities’ ability to control where the small cell equipment is placed and the federal agency slapped limits on access fees, prompting a lawsuit by Los Angeles and other cities.

This month, the Ripon City Council adopted a wireless service ordinance with preferences for placing the new wireless equipment at least 500 feet away from a school or homes. Existing or replacement equipment can be within 130 feet of dwellings on a major traffic artery.

Under the ordinance, the city can assess a $270 annual fee on each device.

Spokespeople for Modesto and Turlock said that Stanislaus County’s two largest cities have not begun to discuss regulations for 5G technology.

Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley, said 236 scientists in different countries signed a petition stating the 5G conversion will greatly boost exposure to radiofrequency radiation in the general population. The petition calls for a moratorium on introducing 5G services until there’s more study on potential health hazards.

Moskowitz said the FCC guidelines for cell phone radiation adopted in 1996 are outdated and were mostly based on work done by industry-paid scientists. “Our government really has been flying blind since the 90s,” Moskowitz said. “The few experts in the (Environmental Protection Agency) and health agencies have retired because the government stopped funding the research they were doing.”

The CTIA, a wireless industry group, says the 5G networks will emit less energy. The exposure to the small cell devices attached to utility poles is similar to that of Bluetooth devices and baby monitors, the association says.

In October, Verizon introduced 5G wireless broadband to parts of Sacramento, which joined Houston, Indianapolis and Los Angeles as the first U.S. cities with access, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Norton said Sprint will launch mobile 5G in New York and eight other large cities in the first half of this year. It is seeking a merger with T-Mobile to provide resources for bringing the highspeed services to smaller markets, she said.

In time, the developing 5G networks could support self-driving cars. “The industry is seeing a big increase in demand for data and the amount of data people are consuming,” Norton said. “The 5G will provide more broadband and allow business and new technology to evolve on that platform.”

Norton said Sprint’s highspeed wireless services won’t use the short-distance millimeter waves. The company will place units on existing cellular sites to support its highspeed service for smartphones.

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