TAMPA — Every decade or so, some product sparks debate, stirs health concerns and raises scientific quandaries.
In the 1960s, it was cigarettes. In the 1970s, it was lead-based paint. In the 1990s, it was irradiated food.
Now cell phone towers are stoking controversies in school districts across the country.
Towers, or base stations as they are also called, are not new; the Federal Communications Commission, which licenses cell phone companies, has authorized construction of towers since the late 1980s. But in recent years, the towers have moved from mountaintops and downtown rooftops to back yards and schoolyards, where customer demand is greatest and outrage is loudest.
And even though most public health agencies agree that radiofrequency levels produced by towers are significantly lower than those produced by cell phones, long-term exposure to towers has produced greater concern.
Look no further than Hillsborough County schools.
Parents unsuccessfully asked the County Commission for a moratorium on towers last week.
The issue has driven a wedge between administrators who are looking for alternative sources of cash as the district's budget shrinks and parents who don't want towers anywhere near schools until more scientific research is done.
It also has divided the scientific community, domestically and abroad.
• • •
Google "cell phone tower," and you'll find studies that lend credence to opponents' fears and ones that bolster Hillsborough's claims that they're safe.
"It's a daunting task to cull through what's there," said Bill Cook, the South Tampa dad who has become the public face for the parents group People Against Cell Towers at Schools. "Every day, we uncover more information."
The agencies that determine if something causes cancer — the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Toxicology Program and the Environmental Protection Agency — have not issued findings on cellular phone towers.
But the American Cancer Society reported that towers are unlikely to cause cancer or any other health problems, a position shared by at least seven other public health agencies.
The Food and Drug Administration took measurements near cellular towers and found that ground-level exposures are typically thousands of times less than FCC limits.
And the World Health Organization said in 2007 that the human body absorbs five times as much radiofrequency energy from televisions and FM radios than cell towers.
"Our best scientific understanding indicates that there are no health consequences of base station RF exposure," the study noted.
It also showed that "most public health agencies continue to favor additional research."
• • •
Hillsborough parents rattle off studies and experts of their own:
• Dr. Ronald Herberman, the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, issued an advisory to 3,000 colleagues about the possible health risks associated with cellular phone use in July.
• Dr. David Carpenter, the director of the Institute of Health and Environment at the University of Albany, testified before Congress in September that cell phones can cause cancer and affect children more than adults.
He based his findings, in part, on a Swedish study that found the chances of developing brain cancer go up if children use cell phones before the age of 20.
• Dr. George Carlo, a former chief scientist of the Wireless Technology Research program, dismissed a Denmark study that showed no link between cell phone use and cancer.
"The jury is out," Cook said. "We don't know that it's safe."
• • •
Demands for proof that exposure to cell phone towers is safe may never be satisfied, public health officials say.
"Scientific inquiry can test for harmful effects," the 2007 WHO report concluded, "but it can never prove that something is safe."
As the debate between scientists and the wireless industry rages on, Cook and other parents plan to work with the county to amend the land-use code so that schools at least hold public meetings before towers rise. The process could take months.
"This isn't going to happen overnight," Cook said. "We're not going to get the master stroke. It may take any number of things to change."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5303.