The letter arrived in Camas resident Chris Lowe’s mailbox just a few weeks before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Verizon was planning to build a 120-foot cell tower near Lowe’s house, the letter stated, in a spot about 300 feet from the elementary school Lowe’s 6-year-old grandchild attends.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” Lowe said of the moment she learned about the proposed cell tower. “And I was worried about the health risks.”
Lowe’s daughter, Ashley Grossman, lives just up the street from her mother but had not received the same letter. As Lowe and Grossman would learn, the company was required to alert neighbors within a one-fourth-mile radius of the tower site, which meant only a handful of the hundreds of families with children at Woodburn Elementary School would have received the letter.
Like her mother, Grossman worried about possible health risks associated with RF radiation coming from the tower, so she posted her mother’s letter to a Facebook group and asked if any other Woodburn Elementary parents knew about the proposed cell tower.
As it turned out, the two women were not alone in their concerns about the cell tower plan.
Within days, dozens of other Woodburn parents, many of whom live in the Hills at Round Lake developments off Northeast Woodburn Drive overlooking the Camas elementary school, had come together online to discuss potential health risks associated with cell towers and to try to figure out if they could impact Verizon’s decision.
James and Abigail Jang were two such parents. The couple had recently moved to Camas with their kindergartener and preschooler from their former home in Maryland, where James worked for the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ medical research agency.
It didn’t take long for James to dig up evidence-based research showing the safety of cell towers has not been proven and that some studies conducted in Germany and Israel have shown an increased risk of cancer for children who attend schools within 1,500 feet of a cell tower.
After the Jangs shared several research studies published in peer-reviewed journals, other Woodburn parents started to question the safety of the proposed cell tower.
Emanuel and Susan Konstantaras live in the neighborhood closest to Woodburn Elementary and have three young children, including a second-grader and first-grader at Woodburn. The couple feels very strongly that Verizon should not be placing a cell tower so close to an elementary school.
“There are studies saying it could be harmful,” Emanuel said. “And there are a lot of holes in the studies (showing no health risks). It’s inconclusive and needs more study.”
Until then, Susan said, the Konstantarases are not willing to allow their children to be used as “guinea pigs.”
“I don’t want to wait until my kids have been exposed for 10 years to see if it’s harmful,” Susan said. “If they build the tower, I will protest and send my children to another school.”
Other Woodburn parents agree.
“We need to protect our children,” Abigail Jang said. “There is unknown data … and we can’t undo exposure once it’s done.”
Some Woodburn parents upset over the tower said they chose their homes specifically because Woodburn, unlike two other Camas elementary schools, did not have a cell tower close by.
Tanya Ligouri, a mother of three with two children at Woodburn Elementary, said she and her husband considered another Camas home before finding her home in the Woodburn neighborhood, but was put off by the home’s close proximity to a cell tower.
“I think the property values will be impacted if the build the tower here,” Ligouri said.
At a late November meeting held at the Camas Public Library, the families met with representatives from Acom Consulting, Inc., which represents Verizon, and the property owner, Ken Navidi, to better understand the proposal and to ask if another location further from Woodburn Elementary had been considered.
The meeting lasted about an hour, with 30 minutes for Acom to discuss the plan to build a 120-foot “stealth” tower designed to look like a pine tree. The tower will have no lights or generator to reduce impacts to the immediate neighborhood, Acom’s representatives told the parents in attendance.
The company’s representatives also said the Navidi’s site was not Verizon’s “ideal site radius,” and, according to notes on the meeting taken by James Jang, that the cell company had asked several other property owners with land further from the elementary school if they would consider entering into a lease with Verizon but had been turned down.
Ken Navidi, who owns the popular downtown Camas business, Navidi’s Oils, with his wife, Gabrielle Navidi, said Verizon approached his family more than four years ago with a proposal to put a cell tower on the Navidis’ Clark County property, which is zoned for “business park” use and within Washougal’s urban growth boundary.
Ken Navidi said he only recently heard about the Woodburn parents’ opposition.
“There was a neighborhood meeting two years ago, where there was not much opposition to the tower,” Ken Navidi told the Post-Record. “The first I heard of opposition was when the community meeting was announced (in November).”
James Jang said he spoke to Ken Navidi after the November meeting and that “he seemed like a reasonable man.”
“I got the sense he genuinely wants to do what’s best for the community,” James Jang said.
When Ken Navidi and other supporters of the tower said at the November meeting that they could not find conclusive evidence pointing to cell towers’ adverse health impacts, James Jang gave them a fact sheet showing the results of a 10-year, $30 million NIH study released in 2018 showing “clear evidence” of tumors in the hearts of male rats, and “some evidence” of malignant tumors in the brains of male rats that had high exposure to radiofrequency radiation used by cell phones and coming from cell towers.
Ken Navidi said he has read a number of articles on cell towers and their safety “and the data comes up inconclusive.”
“I have not seen any articles yet that prove cell towers cause harm,” he told the Post-Record. “If there was a study that showed cell towers to be more harmful than the cell phones we carry in our pockets, then maybe I would reconsider putting (the tower) on my property.”
Pointing out that there are other cell towers near Camas schools, including Grass Valley Elementary and Liberty Middle School, Ken Navidi said he recommends the parents reach out to Verizon, as the company is “ultimately responsible for the tower’s location.”
The parents aren’t giving up their quest to see the tower relocated. They are staying organized on social media sites like Facebook, reaching out to local media organizations and writing letters to county and city officials. On Dec. 9, a group of concerned Woodburn parents approached the Camas School Board with their concerns over having a tower so close to Woodburn Elementary. And, as of Tuesday, more than 400 people have signed a Change.org petition created by the Woodburn parents calling for Verizon to relocate the cell tower to a site at least 1,500 feet from the elementary school.
The parents say they don’t consider themselves social activists and are trying to be respectful of the Navidis’ private property rights. They also say they aren’t anti-cell phones. They all use cell phones and would love to see their neighborhood have better cell reception. But when they don’t want their children exposed to what they see as harmful effects of cell phones, they can turn them off. With a cell tower, they can’t control the amount of radiofrequency radiation coming into their homes or their children’s school.
“Best case scenario?” said Susan Konstantaras, “They move the tower at least 1,500 feet away from the school. Our goal is to have the cell tower further from our students.”
As of this newspaper’s press deadlines, representatives from the Camas School District and Acom Consulting had not yet responded to the Post-Record’s requests for comment.