San Marino Parents Raise Concerns To Harmful Levels of Radiation

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School district to reveal study results from two cellphone towers Tuesday.

Worried that cellphone towers on school grounds could expose children to harmful levels of radiation, a group of parents is fighting to have the two towers dismantled.

A tower designed to look like a tall pine tree was installed between Valentine Elementary and Huntington Middle schools in 2006. Another went up behind San Marino High School shortly thereafter.

School board members approved both and signed off on decades-long lease agreements with cellular companies that earn the public schools about $48,000 each year, San Marino Assistant Supt. Julie Boucher said.

Then along came Ming Jiang, a former Motorola engineer who in August noticed a strange-looking tree while dropping her son off at Valentine. Jiang has organized a group of about a dozen parents and others calling for the tower’s removal.

The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that radio frequency emissions from cellphone towers are not powerful enough to cause cancer and prohibits local agencies from denying tower permits over health concerns.

World Health Organization reports have found no conclusive link between cellphone towers and cancer.

But Jiang and her allies aren’t convinced.

“It’s always been difficult to prove the link between any physical agent and cancer,” said Valentine parent Mike Chen, a neurosurgeon at City of Hope hospital who specializes in brain tumors. “How many years did it take for us to figure out that tobacco causes cancer? That Agent Orange is dangerous? We should be cautious if we can.”

Chen said several studies suggest that radiation from cellphones and towers might interfere with DNA reproduction and impact the human brain. Conclusive proof, no, but “sufficient scientific evidence to raise a warning,” he said.

In response to parent pressure, San Marino school board members voted Sept. 18 to hire a biophysicist to measure radio frequency emissions from campus cell towers. The board also hired the Planning Center, a Santa Ana consulting firm, to analyze those readouts.

Officials are expected to announce results of those studies on Tuesday, and are organizing an Oct. 23 forum on cellphone towers.

Meanwhile, the threat of legal action already hangs over the district.

“We’re monitoring the situation and hoping the school district does the right thing,” said Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos, who sent a lawyer from his firm to attend the Sept. 18 board meeting. “Otherwise, we might have to get involved in a more formal way.”

The tower near Valentine and Huntington schools is owned by Verizon Wireless. The one behind San Marino High belongs to Global Tower Partners, which leases it to Verizon, MetroPCS, Clearwire and AT&T, according to Boucher.

Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said all of the company’s towers operate well below FCC radio frequency emission limits. Verizon has commissioned its own third-party study of tower emissions near Valentine, Flato said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District banned cellphone towers from school property in 2000, a move Jiang is hoping San Marino schools will emulate.

But moving cellphone towers could be costly — “as expensive or more than building a brand new tower,” said Jackie McCarthy, a Cellular Telephone Industry Assn. representative.

San Marino school board member Jeng Yen, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer, said parents and school officials should review hard data before making up their minds.

Yen said radiation-sensitive equipment he used four years ago during a robotics project at Huntington Middle School did not pick up evidence of radiation in classrooms.

“As a scientist, I think to take some measurements is a necessary step,” said Yen. “It’s not a definite threat or an immediate hazard.”

But parent Cindy Yung, a pharmacist, said any uncertainty is enough to prompt caution.

“A lack of conclusive proof [of danger] does not mean there is no risk, and these are our children we’re talking about,” said Yung.

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