Toronto

Parents fear cell phone towers are too close to their children's elementary school

Some parents in Toronto's west end are worried that two large cell towers are too close to their children's elementary school, and might have a negative effect on their health.

Health Canada's radiofrequency regulations are outdated, some experts say

The cell phone towers, far right, are less than 100 metres away from St. Gregory Elementary School, seen on the left. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC)

Some parents in Toronto's west end are worried that two large cell towers are too close to their children's elementary school, and might have a negative effect on their health.

A group of women initially thought the two towers, located in front of St. Gregory's Parish near Kipling Avenue and Rathburn Road in Etobicoke, were flagpoles because they have flags at the top.

It was only recently that they found out that they were something else entirely. 

"I legitimately thought they were flagpoles because that's what they look like," said Mandy Kulic, one of the parents. 

"The main concern is the location, it's within 50 to 70 metres of an elementary school ... It's in too close proximity to growing children," said Michelle Laborde, whose three children attend St. Gregory's Elementary School, which is right behind the church. 

Cellphone towers have to follow Safety Code 6, which is the radiofrequency exposure guidelines for humans determined by Health Canada.

Parents say they don't want the towers close to St. Gregory Elementary School turned on. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC )

"Health Canada has established and maintains a general public exposure limit that incorporates a wide safety margin and is therefore far below the threshold for potentially adverse health effects," the agency's site says. 

The Canadian Cancer Society, meanwhile, says current evidence doesn't show any short-term or long-term health effects related to cell phone towers. However, on its website states that "ongoing research is still looking at the relationship between cancer and radiofrequency exposure from all sources."

Both Health Canada and the Canadian Cancer Society say there's an ongoing review of published scientific studies.

But parents like Kulic and Laborde are still upset, saying they weren't notified about the planned towers until after the deal was done.

The towers are currently owned by Freedom Mobile, who leased the land from the church. They're not active just yet, as they're still going through the regulatory process, and both the church and Freedom Mobile say the cell towers follow the guidelines laid out by Health Canada so there's no cause for concern. 

Kids 'so much more sensitive'

The challenge though, as Laborde and Kulic found out, is that researchers' findings on the safety of cell phone towers vary, with some suggesting the towers could still pose a threat to human health.

Both woman say they know their children are surrounded by things like Wi-Fi throughout the day, but that they now try to limit their children's exposure when they can. 

"We need to have a say to what happens in the environment our children are working in," said Kulic. 

Michelle Laborde is one of several parents concerned that the cellphone towers are unsafe for growing children. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC )

"The towers need to move," said Laborde.

"Our telecommunication partners need to work closer with the communities and industry to have the right policies in place that these towers are not in such high sensitive locations."   

Magda Havas, a professor emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., has spent decades studying how electromagnetic frequencies affect living things and agrees with the women. 

"Health Canada's guideline is so outdated, it's a decade outdated," said Havas, adding she doesn't believe Health Canada is using the latest research available when it's making decisions.

Health Canada denies that, saying on its website that its scientists monitor the studies on this issue on an ongoing basis.

While Health Canada sets the limits, it doesn't monitor or approve towers. That's left to another government agency, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED).

When it comes to the location of cell towers, the ISED explained in an email to CBC Toronto that any new towers have to take "into account the combined effects of all towers within the vicinity" and compliance with Safety Code 6 is "required at all times and in all circumstances, regardless of proximity to specific types of institutions or residential areas." 

But Havas says the government should be looking at proximity to schools and residential areas when making decisions. She says the parties involved should rethink putting two cell phone towers next to St Gregory's Elementary school.  

"Elementary kids are so much more sensitive to any kind of pollutant in the environment, much more so than adults," said Havas. 

Other countries have stricter guidelines 

Frank Clegg, a former president of Microsoft Canada, agrees.

He's currently the CEO of Canadians for Safe Technology, a non-profit organization that aims to educate people about the dangers of unsafe levels of radiation from technology. 

Health Canada's regulations haven't seen significant changes since the mid-80s, whereas other countries like China, Russia, Italy, and Switzerland have implemented stricter guidelines, according to Clegg.

"It took decades to make changes about smoking ... and this is the same situation," said Clegg.

Health Canada is in agreement with the World Health Organization that additional research on the topic is warranted. 

The City of Toronto also plays a role in where cell phone towers are constructed.

It has stricter guidelines to radiofrequency emissions than Health Canada and is going through a public consultation process with the ISED and Freedom Mobile.

The city received a petition against the towers from parents in the area and will present its opinion to the ISED in a few weeks. However, the city doesn't have the power to stop the towers from being activated.

That decision is entirely up to the ISED. 

About the Author

Natalie Nanowski

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Natalie is a storyteller who spent the last few years in Montreal covering everything from politics to corruption and student protests. Now that she’s back in her hometown of Toronto, she is eagerly rediscovering what makes this city tick, and has a personal interest in real estate and investigative journalism. When she’s not reporting you can find her at a yoga studio or exploring Queen St. Contact Natalie: natalie.nanowski@cbc.ca

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