Cell Towers Hiding in Church Bell Towers

Many people want excellent cell phone service, but few like seeing steel towers everywhere. That’s why cell phone towers are increasingly being disguised as trees, cactuses, clock towers, and even lighthouses to blend in with their surroundings. Frequently, churches are offered generous sums to tuck cell antennas into their towers or steeples.

It can seem like a win-win proposition to a church struggling to meet budget obligations. The antenna doesn’t interfere with ministry, and the church receives $1,000 to $2,000 a month. What’s the problem?

Radio Waves Can Be Risky

The primary concern comes when a volunteer or contractor works too close to a hidden cellular antenna.

The power density of a transmitting antenna is far stronger near the antenna than at ground level, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Consequently, normal ground-level exposure is much less than the exposure that might be encountered if one were very close to the antenna and in its main transmitted beam.

A person working on the roof could stay close to the transmitter long enough to absorb unsafe levels of radio frequency radiation. Exposure to high levels of radio frequency energy can rapidly increase a person’s body temperature and lead to tissue damage, according to the FCC.

Other human effects of exposure to radio frequency emissions are being debated in the scientific community. Some claim that long-term exposure to radio frequency emissions can lead to physical and cognitive problems, such as memory loss, mood disorders, sleep disorders, and depression. A link to cancer is also being explored. By their nature, such injuries can be invisible and may not be diagnosed for an extended period of time.

Guidelines Against Overexposure

The Federal Communications Commission has adopted guidelines designed to prevent human overexposure to radio frequency radiation, but people who are unaware of the danger cannot protect themselves from it.

Some people likely to face unintended exposure from a church-installed antenna could include maintenance workers, church volunteers, painters, insurance inspectors, roofers, and HVAC installers. That’s because they work in attics or on roofs, where radio frequency waves from antennas could exceed the exposure levels the FCC considers safe.

High levels should only be an issue for people working very close to or directly in front of the antennas for several minutes or more, according to the FCC. The federal agency says that people working inside a building hosting an antenna are not at risk.

Exposure Risk Rising?

Accidental exposure to maintenance workers could become more likely as the number of antennas swells. Twenty-five years ago, you would find cell towers located in remote areas, surrounded by fences, and clearly marked with warning signs. Only trained telecommunication workers could get within the range at which radio frequency exposure might be hazardous. Today, an estimated 500,000 operational cell antennas dot building tops, water towers, church steeples and other places in America’s cities and towns, with nary a warning in sight. If warnings exist, they may be posted away from the exposure zone.

Contracts May Not Protect

Because church leaders have nothing to do with the tower’s operation, they might assume that a “hold harmless” agreement in the telecom company’s lease shields them from liability if anyone were to be injured by the antenna’s operation. Many lease agreements contain language in which both sides agree to protect, defend, and hold the other harmless from any claims that arise from the use of the building as a cell antenna site.

Instead of clarifying which party is responsible for the risk, this type of agreement could promote litigation between both sides. The cell company could argue that the church allowed a worker to access the antenna site, and that it couldn’t possibly be aware of all activities at the site, 24 hours a day. The church could argue that the cell company’s operation was the direct cause of a worker’s injury.

Some experts predict a liability problem on the horizon that could engulf cell companies and those providing space for their transmitting antenna that could lead to costly lawsuits. Churches that host antennas could become involved, if this prediction comes true.

What to do?

If your ministry hosts a cell tower (or plans to), make others aware of the risks involved with them to help prevent anyone from being exposed to radio frequency waves near the source.

Steps to Take

Here are three steps ministries can take:

  • Call an attorney. Ask a local attorney to review any proposed cell tower lease before signing one. (Brotherhood Mutual’s Legal Assist attorneys would be happy to help ministries identify particularly challenging issues that should be addressed by a church’s attorney.)
  • Study the rules. Learn about the FCC’s regulations on exposure to radio frequency emissions.
  • Keep people away from antenna. Prevent volunteers, contractors, and others from working on the roof, in the attic, or the antenna site until the cell company has either turned off or appropriately reduced power to the radio transmitter.

With the number of cell towers increasing nationwide, it's important that ministry leaders and staff understand the associated risks that a cell tower on ministry property creates.