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Resistance against cell phone towers at schools rises in Hillsborough

TAMPA — Mary Meckley buys organic food. She doesn't have a microwave and uses a land line for all but urgent calls.

When a cell phone rings, she puts it on speaker mode and orders her two boys to hold it away from their heads.

But her choices were upended when her son's New Tampa school, Pride Elementary, raised a cell phone tower near the cafeteria.

"To someone like me, it's unthinkable," Meckley said. Now she's helping to organize the grass roots People Against Cell Towers at Schools, which is rallying concerned parents from all corners of Hillsborough County.

The issue has forged an unlikely coalition of environmentally conscious parents and NIMBY homeowners, who claim the potential health risks aren't worth the money that schools make leasing space to cell carriers.

Never mind that federal regulations deem the towers safe. The parents point out that the technology is still new. Research can't be conclusive.

But for school leaders, who pride themselves on student safety, the arguments could just as easily apply to something as benign as recess.

"On the one hand, we know the importance of having our kids outside in the sun playing," said School Board member Doretha Edgecomb. "But on the other hand, we also know that overexposure to sun can cause cancer."

"And yet parents will say our kids don't have enough time to play outside."

• • •

In recent years, cell towers have risen at more than a dozen Hillsborough schools with relatively little attention. Schools welcomed the extra cash, which can range into the thousands.

Then a tower proposal for South Tampa's Coleman Middle ignited protests in the community, prompting the principal to back away. That inspired parents at Pride Elementary, who complain they weren't given enough notification before a cell tower went up in the summer.

A recent meeting to organize opposition drew parents from seven schools across the county. A Valrico mother took tips from South Tampa parents, who shared their talking points on a PowerPoint presentation.

The campaign has the attention of the County Commission, which agreed last week to take another look at a land use change that made it easier to raise cell phone towers at schools without public hearings.

The next stop is the School Board, where opponents hope to fill the boardroom at Tuesday's meeting with orange "No Towers at Schools" T-shirts. While some board members said they are open to revisiting the policy on cell towers, they do not believe the carriers pose a health threat.

"If these parents are so concerned, why aren't they asking that every antenna in the city of Tampa be removed and everyone stop using their cell phones?" said Stacy Frank, president of Collier Enterprises II, which has exclusive rights to broker deals between Hillsborough schools and cell phone companies.

"That's the only logical conclusion you can draw if you believe that they are correct in what they're saying."

• • •

No one should be more fearful of cancer than R. Waide Weaver, an oncologist who every day sees cancer patients being told they have just months to live.

He urges parents not to drive themselves crazy over unknowns, but to focus instead on behaviors that make a difference. Eat right. Exercise. Don't smoke.

For some, that's easier said than done.

"It's pounded into our heads that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," said Weaver, noting that there aren't many cancers that doctors can cure once they appear.

Yet the physician at Tampa's Gulfcoast Oncology doesn't lose sleep over his daughter breathing car fumes in the pickup line outside her school, or whether he should keep microwaving leftovers in plastic containers.

"At some point, we have to strike a balance between public health and prosperity, and day-to-day functioning," he said.

But that doesn't mean what is normal today couldn't be considered harmful in the future.

Meckley, the Pride Elementary mother, avoids toxic household cleaners. She grows as much of her own produce as possible. Her family takes off shoes indoors to preserve air quality.

She knows some people might consider the lifestyle extreme, but she has lived in places where such choices are mainstream.

When it comes to cell towers at schools, she knows many children will be just fine. She and her siblings didn't suffer because her mother smoked during pregnancy, but other children did.

Her parents also thought it was safe to give baby aspirin to a younger sister, who she says died of Reye's syndrome, which has been linked to aspirin in children recovering from a viral infection. Meckley, 4 at the time, grew up in the shadow of that loss.

"It took so many years and so many deaths to find out," Meckley said. "I just don't want to take that chance."

Times staff writer Rodney Thrash contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Resistance against cell phone towers at schools rises in Hillsborough 02/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 8, 2009 7:29am]
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