Head south on Highway 17 through West Ashley and hang a left at the IHOP. Follow the winding road through a few office complexes and you'll find yourself at the 150-student Charles Towne Montessori School. For 35 years, the unimposing building has churned out eccentric young minds while development encroaches from all sides. The most recent neighbor, a Suncom cell tower looming 160 feet over the school, went up last week only 10 yards away, leaving parents in a tizzy over whether or not their children are safe.
Clyde Hiers and his wife Jill own the building and land that the school sits on, and also make up half of the school's four-member board of directors. "Basically, there is no threat to the children," says Hiers. "Compared to televisions and microwaves, cell tower radiation is miniscule."
Many parents disagree. After learning of the plans this September, they formed a parent's association to research and determine a course of action. Doe Jenkins, a parent and an MUSC associate professor of pediatrics in neonatology, assembled a synopsis of the research surrounding EMF and RF radiation. "Power lines are the best studied, and show a pretty consistent association with childhood leukemia, but the problem is, we just don't know anything about mobile base towers."
In the U.S., cellular companies actively pursue schools as prime placement for their towers, providing extra funding in exchange for usage of a small piece of land, an apparent win-win situation. Landowner Hiers cites the 76 towers atop schools in Chicago as proof of their safety and acceptance, and is confident enough that he hired engineers to take a baseline test of radiation at the school that can be compared to levels once the tower is turned on sometime this week.
"The parent's association admits that they have no proof that the tower causes cancer, and in their exact words they're 'just being cautious,'" says Hiers. "Virtually every parent there has a cell phone strapped to their waist. They believe in the technology, just not the tower."
Parent's association co-chair Eric Dobson admits caution, but feels the issue involves a breach of trust because parents were unaware of the tower until the fall semester. "Ground was broken in April. At the very least, the Hiers had a fiduciary obligation when they issued contracts to disclose that the tower was going in. If you Google 'cell-health-tower' it comes up with half a dozen studies saying there are dangers."
Hiers sees it differently. "I considered it something that was not the school's concern. Had I thought there was a danger to the children I never would have allowed the tower to go in. I just didn't think they needed to be informed."
Montessori parents can somewhat accurately be coined an environmental, open-minded crowd. When workers began felling trees at the site, students reportedly stood on the fence yelling, "Don't cut down the trees!" A survey of parents found that 90 percent are "concerned" about the tower, 60 percent of those "extremely." About 30 percent say they will remove their children from the school when the tower goes live this week. Because parents pay tuition in whole or in contractual installments, many face significant losses if they re-enroll elsewhere.
Throughout the discourse, the school itself remained somewhat stale on the issue, stating "although the construction has created controversy among the CTMS family, the administration, faculty, and staff will continue to offer our children the finest Montessori education possible."
If the parents, board, and school agree on anything, it's that the school is a priceless institution that needs to be saved. "There's no way to relocate overnight," says Dobson, but they've acquired a lawyer to obtain the school's financial records and explore their options. Hiers points out that the rent he charges is far below the going rate per foot.
"I rescued this school from bankruptcy in 1999," he claims. "I bought the land, bought the building, and leased it back to the school. There were times when the school owed me over $200,000 and went 10 months without paying rent. For them to question my loyalty and devotion to the school really pisses me off."
With the district relocating students to rebuild several West Ashley schools over the next few years, physical space for education will indeed be at a premium. Hiers points out that the rent he charges is around half the going rate for a comparable space. "If I need to, I've got a contract to sell the land in my file and all I have to do sign it," says Hiers. "Renting to the school is not a good investment."
The lack of research on the effects of RF radiation provides the greatest frustration to both sides of this struggle. The few existing studies were funded by the telecommunications industry, "like saying to tobacco companies 'Give us your best information on nicotine addiction,'" laments parent Warren Redman-Gress.
Neither the dangers nor the safety of cell towers can be proven, but due to lower bone density and developing tissues, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends caution. "I'm not taking any chances with my son," says Redman-Gress. "How would I live with myself six years from now if my kid got leukemia?"
Frustration overflows from all sides of this embroilment, but convictions are strong enough that the school will face a small exodus if the tower is turned on this week. Pediatrician Jenkins sums it up well: "In science there is almost never absolute consensus. The Hippocratic oath states, 'First, do no harm.' I have to manage my child's risk until she's at an age to manage her own. Although the research is inconclusive and doesn't meet any standard of grave evidence, it is incorrect and even irresponsible to state that RF and EMF from these towers is 'safe.'"