FOLSOM (CBS13) - A new cell tower could put a Folsom preschool out of business as dozens of parents say they'll leave due to potential health concerns.
The industry and most U.S. Regulators say that there is no "known" health impact from cell towers, but fear of the "unknown" has sparked protests across the country. Now, health aside, the public perception of a cell tower nearby is hurting some, financially.
CONCERNS ABOUT THE "UNKNOWN"
From the parents to the teachers, by all accounts, Kids Inc. is more than a school. They consider themselves family. But their family may soon be torn apart by a cell tower that is being built about 40 feet away.
"We don't know how it affects growing bodies," said Mom, Nelie Lawsin. "But we don't want to take a chance."
Lawsin is among the 34 families who've given notice that they'll leave Kids Inc. if the cell tower is turned on as planned next month.
"Our kids are not guinea pigs," said Fatemeh Chini, a teacher and parent at Kids Inc. She's planning to leave too. "It's been very emotional for us to make this decision but unfortunately we might have to do it."
CBS13 spoke with at least a half-dozen parents from the preschool. Many point to an email from Verizon stating, in part: "equipment that complies with the safety standards poses no known health risks."
Parents say "known is the operative word" and stress that there are no long-term studies on the impact of cell towers this close to developing children.
"As adults, we have to take responsibility to make a choice. How can we knowingly voluntarily bring them here?" Lawsin said.
"These kids are still growing and developing; to have it so close to us...it's pretty cruel to do that," Chini added. "It's shocking that they allowed it to happen."
Preschool Owner Kelli Vacarro said she doesn't blame the parents for leaving.
"Their children spend eight to ten hours a day in this building," she said. "There hasn't been enough studies that it's safe, so bottom line is we don't know."
Though, if the 34 families leave, she says she'll be forced to close her doors. "We won't be able to survive, we're going to have to close down."
Vacarro said she had no idea when she signed her lease at the Palladio back in 2016 that the mall had already struck a deal with Verizon to build a cell tower just feet from her school. She only found out a few months ago when she asked about the construction.
"I said, 'Hey are you guys extending our playground just because...what else would go there?'" Vacarro said. She said she was devastated to learn it was a cell tower.
Engineering attorney Harry Lehmann says if there was a foreseeable financial impact, he believes Palladio management had an obligation to tell Vacarro about the tower before she signed the lease.
"Here we have a situation where it's certainly foreseeable that there's going to be a loss of business," said Lehmann.
He isn't representing Kids Inc. but points to the highly publicized backlash against cell towers near schools nationwide.
He notes that the rollout of 5G will require many more towers. As a result, this issue of unintended financial risk may soon impact more business and homeowners.
A study published by the National Association of Realtors found 94 percent of home buyers say they are less interested and would pay less for a property near a cell tower.
"As the science has become much more publicly known…people naturally have increased levels of concern," Lehmann said.
He believes that concern could have a foreseeable financial impact on businesses and homeowners.
"The greater the risk of financial harm, the greater the duty to disclose (a new cell tower)," he added.
DUTY TO DISCLOSE
Kelli says she would have never signed her lease back in 2016 if she had known the Palladio had already struck a deal with Verizon to erect a cell tower about 40 feet from the children.
"I think it's important for them to notify business owners (of a cell tower) if it's going to affect them economically or health-wise," Vacarro said.
Both Verizon and the City of Folsom say they had no obligation to notify the preschool of construction. They say they're only obligated to notify nearby property owners, not renters. In this case, the property owner was the one leasing the land to Verizon.
In an email, Verizon said:
"Notifying neighboring businesses prior to construction isn't common practice, unless we are required to do so, per the terms of our lease agreement or as directed by the local jurisdiction (the City of Folsom). In this case, we were not required to notify the mall tenants before construction began."
The city of Folsom did print the required Notice of Public Hearing in a local paper before approving the cell tower permit three years ago.
The city Planning Commission approved the cell tower in July 2016. Kelli signed her lease two months later in September 2016 after the previous tenants vacated the existing school.
CBS 13 asked Palladio Mall Management if they "notified Kids Inc. of the proposed/pending cell tower before presenting them with the lease."
Palladio declined to answer that question and several other questions.
Lehmann believes Verizon and the Palladio have an ethical obligation to either move the tower or the preschool.
"I think it would be all so much better if the people involved would try to do the right thing, and see that this particular installation was not next to [a] place where hundreds of children were going to be on a daylong basis," Lehmann said.
According to the city planning report, Verizon did propose other locations away from the school, but they were denied for various reasons. At least one was denied specifically due to aesthetics.
Concerned parents begged Palladio and Verizon to reconsider moving the tower. In an email response, Verizon assured parents that the tower was safe adding:
"(A)ll other locations were rejected on various grounds. As a result, we are unable to change the location of the cell tower, as doing so will render the antenna incapable of providing the service customers need."
"I was hoping that it would stop construction but that's not happening," Kelli said. "My next thing is if they could find a suitable location and move us, maybe they would delay turning on the tower until we can get relocated."
Palladio declined CBS13's interview requests and Verizon has refused to answer the written questions we sent 10 times. Additionally, the wireless industry association, CTIA, did not respond to repeated email requests for comment on the issue.
Verizon won't say whether it considers the financial impact to neighboring homes and businesses when choosing a cell tower location. It also wouldn't say if it would consider waiting to activate this tower until Kelli finds a new location for the preschool.
CBS 13 also asked Palladio if it would be willing to move Kelli to another location on its campus farther away from the school. Palladio did not answer the question stating, "discussions regarding relocation are premature."
FOLSOM PERMIT PROBLEMS
CBS13 learned that Verizon built much of the tower without a valid permit. It expired back in 2017.
City inspectors allowed construction to continue and visited the site eight times this year without citing Verizon for working without a permit.
It wasn't until the day parents took photos of the work site – concerned about construction near the kids – that inspectors finally issued a stop work order.
The city renewed Verizon's permit five days later without a fine.
"How could the City of Folsom allow construction like this to go up on an expired permit," Kelli asked. "And for them to be able to just walk right in and renew their permit?"
Parents say the city of Folsom has a reputation for strict permitting regulations, noting the recent headlines about a local family who was forced to move an unpermitted treehouse.
Some parents believe Verizon is getting special treatment in Folsom, pointing to the quick permit renewal and the fact Verizon didn't have to pay a fine.
A city spokesperson said that fines are issued at the discretion of the inspector but says the city doesn't know how many fines they've issued to others this year because, according to the city, they don't keep records of fines.
The chief building official said he recalls issuing fines "once or twice over the past year."
CBS13 also found omissions in the 2016 city staff report that recommended the planning commission approve the tower permit.
It details the area surrounding the tower, including the movie theater, delivery driveway, retail shopping, and surgery center, but makes no mention of the preschool just feet away.
A mock-up photo in the report clearly shows the preschool slide feet away from the proposed tower, yet under the "Hazards and Hazardous Materials" section of the Environmental Evaluation, the report claims the nearest school is more than a half mile away.
The Evaluation details that the tower "would emit (RF) energy" and notes that the project "also involves the storage of a 132-gallon diesel fuel tank" and that during construction, "hazardous substances used to maintain and operate construction equipment could be present."
However, the report says:
"the project would not emit hazardous emissions or handle hazardous... material, substances or waste within one quarter mile of a school" claiming that "the school nearest to the project site is Gold Ridge Elementary, located approximately 0.6 mile to the west."
Radiation aside, parents told CBS13 they've also been worried about their kids' exposure to dust, debris, and generator exhaust as they play outside next to the ongoing construction in the summer heat.
"They were doing construction while our children were playing here…that was another safety concern," Vacarro said.
The city of Folsom says the preschool omissions in the report are irrelevant because they are not required to consider hazards for this project. Stating:
"For any environmental impact review, schools are listed as part of a standardized check list required by CEQA. For this project, the environmental review was only required due to the aesthetic impact of the 80-foot-tall structure"
"The location/proximity of Kids Inc. was not—and could not be -- a factor when the City was considering the project."
The city points to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which states that local governments can't consider "the environmental effects of RF," including health, when regulating the placement of a cell tower.
WHAT ABOUT RIPON?
Health aside, Kelli believes the Palladio and Verizon should know that the public perception of a cell tower near a preschool would be bad for business.
"It was just on the news about the cell tower in Ripon, California," she said.
She points to the highly publicized cell tower fight at Weston Elementary as one example of the growing stigma against cell towers near schools.
Sprint recently agreed to remove a cell tower on campus there after several students and teachers there got sick and parents protested the tower, arguing that it may have contributed to their cancers.
Sprint insisted the tower there was safe, but Kelli says her parents aren't convinced.
Neither are some researchers.
"Parents have a right to be concerned," said Joel Moskowitz, Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the UC Berkeley's School of Public Health.
Moskowitz says he has reviewed more than 50 studies that found DNA damage from the RF Radiation emitted from cell phones and towers. He says published literature suggests the type of RF from cell towers could potentially speed up tumor growth in people with other risk factors - like exposure to chemical toxins.
He points to the recent CBS13 investigation into the contaminated water in Ripon. Many believe the water may have also contributed to the cancers at the school.
"The cell tower could play a role in promoting the tumors that were initially caused by the water pollution," Moskowitz said.
However, he notes that there is no way to know what caused the cancer cases in Ripon and says there may be a variety of contributors.
Moskowitz stresses, in most cases, cancer is not the primary health concern related to cell towers and children.
STUDIES ON KIDS
Moskowitz cites a half-dozen studies specific to children that indicate cell tower RF has the the potential to lead to developmental and cognitive issues.
"(Parents') concerns may be misplaced," Moskowitz warned, "It may not be cancer, but there's a lot of evidence which suggests that low level RF exposure from cell towers can have a negative impact on cognitive or behavior development in children," he said. "They have a right to be concerned."
Moskowitz listed findings from studies that concluded children with higher exposure to cell towers, "had worse sleep duration, delayed fine gross motor skills, concentration difficulties, hand-eye coordination, and other health effects. "
The International Association of Firefighters successfully lobbied against cell towers on firehouses in California after a pilot study linked firefighters at stations with cell towers to increased memory loss and confusion.
Studies show kids' brains can absorb up to 10 times more radiation than adults and the American Academy of Pediatrics has been been asking the FCC for years to reassess radiation standards specific to children.
The AAP points to some of the same studies that Moskowitz cites, which indicate an "increased risk of developing headaches, memory problems, dizziness, and depression and sleep problems" in people living near cell towers. The group is calling on regulators to do more to protect children stating "larger studies over longer periods are needed to help understand who is at risk."
However, the American Cancer Society says, "At this time, there is very little evidence to support (the) idea that cell towers can cause cancer." They note " "Very few human studies have focused specifically on cellular phone towers and cancer risk."
Most U.S. government agencies insist the technology is safe.
"the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has developed safety standards for human exposure to radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic fields in consultation with numerous other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration."
"radio frequency emissions from antennas used for cellular and PCS transmissions result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits.…Therefore, there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students."
Health advocates, including Moskowitz and the AAP, argue that those limits were set back in the 90's, based on the understanding that RF radiation was only harmful if powerful enough to heat human tissue. Since then, a multi-year, multi-million-dollar government study found "clear evidence of tumors in rats exposed to RF radiation" indicating the possibility of harm from RF at lower, non-thermal, levels.
Though, it is important to note that the mice were exposed to RF at higher levels than what most humans are typically exposed to.
In a lawsuit filed this month, a county in Maryland is suing the FCC arguing that the current RF limits set in the 90's are outdated and should be reassessed based on the new government research.
CELL PHONES V. CELL TOWERS
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified RF fields as "possibly carcinogenic to humans. "
However, the IARC also notes that exposure to the brain from cell towers "is less than 1/100th the exposure to the brain from mobile devices such as cell phones."
"So, it's somewhat hypocritical to be a heavy cell phone user and not want cell towers," Moskowitz pointed out. "It may actually be doing more harm than good."
He notes, the farther the tower, the weaker the cell phone signal, the more RF your cell phone will emit.
"People need to be focused not just on the cell tower but all the sources of wireless radiation in the environment," he said.
Though, he pointed out that parents can control wireless devices in their homes, they can't control cell towers.
While the City of Folsom says it can't consider parents' health concerns due to the federal law, a growing number of other cities are enacting regulations that keep cell towers away from schools.
Proposed legislation in San Diego would prohibit cell towers "within 1,000 feet of schools."
In Walnut City California, regulations specify towers may not be "within 1,500 feet of any school."
Regulations in Hempstead, NY discourage cell towers near schools and other sensitive areas by requiring wireless companies to consider "more preferred" areas first. But instead of focusing on environmental concerns, lawmakers there cite "adverse economic... and quality of life impacts" as the reason for the restrictions.
Vacarro, for one, says this tower in Folsom is impacting her "quality of life." Right now, she can't afford to stay or leave.
"Who has a quarter-million dollars sitting there?" she asked.
That's how much it would cost to buy out the rest of her lease if Palladio doesn't agree to let her move.
"I have children that walk in here and ask me, 'If you close down. Where are we going to go? Are we going to see you?'" she said. "How do I look at a child in the face and answer that question? Especially because I don't know."
She is hoping the Palladio will relocate her somewhere else on the property, and she's asked Verizon to postpone activating the tower until she can move.
Both Palladio and Verizon say they won't discuss helping Kelli until she meets with Verizon to discuss cell tower safety.
Kelli agreed but says it's irrelevant what she thinks about cell tower safety because it's the public perception of a cell tower next to a preschool that is forcing her to move.
She's requested a group meeting so parents can be there too, with the hope that it happens before the tower is set to be turned on in July.
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