On Cell Phones, Kids, and Radiation

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Cell phone radiation concerns come and go, right? But can we afford to be so nonchalant when the long-term stats aren't yet in for our children?

Global Warning?

• Three years ago: The European Environment Agency said, “Cell phone technology could lead to a health crisis similar to those caused by asbestos, smoking and lead.”

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• 2008:  As reported in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Ministry of Health suggested parents postpone or restrict children’s use of cell phones and make sure they use wired, not wireless, headsets. Officials were particularly concerned about children’s use of cell phones, due to their heightened risk for developing tumors as a result of exposure to radiation, and because children can expect many more years of cell-phone use in comparison to adults.

• 2009:  The French Education Ministry banned the use of cell phones in primary schools and required manufacturers to make models that only allow texting.

• Today: The Austrian Medical Association is trying to get Wi-Fi systems banned from schools to protect children from the potential long-term consequences of radiation.  In Canada, the official government stance is for teenagers to keep calls shorter than 10 minutes; Russian scientists suggest banning cell phones for anyone younger than 18; the British government says parents shouldn’t let children younger than 16 use a mobile phone.

My 9-year-old daughter wants a cell phone. Very, very badly. In the fourth grade a cell phone makes you cool. It’s a status symbol. A one-way ticket to popularity. A number of her elementary school friends have their own phones, and they’re not alone. Right now about 22 percent of young children (ages 6 – 9) carry cell phones and 60 percent of older kids (ages 10 – 14) own a phone. Market research by the Yankee Group shows that more than half of kids ages 8 – 12 will have a cell phone in the next three years. Alas, my young one won’t be one of the lucky ones for a few more years.

Why? One reason is because we’re part of a dying breed of old-fashioned parents who believe privileges should come with responsibilities. That means if you want to chat on a cell, you’ll need to pay for it with money earned babysitting, mowing lawns or walking dogs. We’re also hesitant because we’ve already seen our daughter’s peers use their cell phones to make crank calls, send inappropriate texts and make secretive calls to so-called boyfriends, then lie to their parents about it.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that nearly half of young cell phone users lie about their location and about the identity of the person on the other end of the line. But money and sexting pale in comparison to the big worry. Cancer.

Mounting Evidence

A rapidly growing and increasingly vocal group of physicians, scientists and legislators in the United States and around the world believe that radio-frequency (RF) radiation emitted by cellular phones can greatly increase your risk of developing cancer, specifically cancer of the salivary glands and brain. They cite studies showing that individuals who have used cell phones for more than a decade have double the risk of developing a deadly form of brain cancer called glioma.

Interestingly, the tumors show up on the side of the head where the victims hold their phones. Since children have thinner skulls and absorb far more radiation than adults, these physicians say they are particularly vulnerable to its damaging affects. What’s really worrisome for scientists studying this problem is that most adults have only been heavy cell phone users (defined by a person who uses a cell for 30 minutes a day) for the last few years, while a child who gets a cell phone this year will rack up 15 years of cell phone use by the time they’re only 25.

The environmental health expert leading the call to action is epidemiologist and toxicologist Devra Davis, Ph.D., MPH, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer (Basic Books; $12.89 on Amazon), a Newsweek magazine pick, and of the recently published Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation (Dutton; $16.89 on Amazon), a Time magazine top pick of 2010, Davis says, “Cell phones aren’t going away. But unless we change the way we use them, we could see a global epidemic of brain cancer in 20 years.”

That’s a scary thought. So frightening that Senator Arlen Spector (D-PA), a brain tumor survivor, held congressional hearings a little over a year ago to investigate the issue. Six months ago, Maine State Representative Andrea Boland submitted a bill that would require a warning label on cell phones sold in her state reading, “This device emits electromagnetic radiation – exposure which may cause brain cancer. Users – especially children and pregnant women – should keep the device away from the head and body.” Six months ago, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom pushed for similar warnings, and the city’s Board of Supervisors voted to require companies to print each cellular device’s SAR (specific absorption rate) radiation rating on the package right next to the price.

Reality Check

Perhaps it’s time to actually read the fine print. Phone manufacturers are putting radiation warnings on the devices they sell now. For example, Apple’s iPhone safety manual includes: “When using iPhone near your body for voice calls or for wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 5/8 inch away from the body.”

Research in Motion’s BlackBerry 9000 warns users against carrying their phones within .98 inches of their body. The Motorola W180 manual states, “If you do not use a body-worn accessory supplied or approved by Motorola – or if you hang your mobile device from a lanyard around your neck – keep the mobile device and its antenna at least one inch from your body when transmitting.

When using any data feature of the mobile device, with or without an accessory cable, position the mobile device and its antenna at least 2.5 centimeters (one inch) from your body.”

Who does that? And why are so many people concerned?

Cell phones communicate through waves of RF radiation. This type of energy isn’t as strong as X-rays, but at high levels, RF waves can heat up body tissues. That’s how a microwave oven cooks food. Davis explains, “The microwave and the cell phone use the same frequency. While the microwave uses 1,000 watts of power and the cell uses less than 1 watt, we only use the microwave for a few minutes a day and we don’t hold it next to our heads. We use a phone for hours each day, year after year after year.”

She and other scientists compare the risks to smoking. One cigarette won’t kill you. But the cumulative effect of exposing your lungs to carcinogens over the course of 20 years can be deadly. “Brain cancer can take 40 years to develop. We protect our children with seat belts and bike helmets, so we have to think of all the ways to protect their brains,” Davis says.

Not So Fast

On the other hand, there are many physicians and scientists like Matthew Pearson, M.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who believe that long term use of cell phones near the head is harmless. “Yes children’s skulls are thinner,” Pearson says. “But cellular phones don’t produce harmful radiation. Parents should be a lot more concerned about older kids using cell phones while driving. To me, that’s the big health and safety issue. An analysis of world literature showed no association of mobile phone use with brain tumors, except a select group of studies,” Pearson explains.

And that’s where things get really complicated; research done to date has produced mixed results.

For instance, separate studies conducted in England and Germany showed that people who have used cells for more than a decade had twice the incidence of brain cancer than non-cell users. A Swedish study found that early cell phone adopters (people who have used a mobile phone for 15 years) developed acoustic neuromas, non-cancerous brain tumors, four times as often as infrequent cell users. On the other hand, a long-term study of 420,000 users in Denmark found no link to cell phone use and any type of cancer.

Award-winning cancer expert and neurosurgeon Vini Khurana, M.D., has published dozens of research papers and reviewed more than 100 studies of mobile phone radiation and its effects. He says, “Mobile phones could have health consequences far greater than asbestos or smoking.” Yet for every physician or scientist like Khurana who see a brain cancer epidemic on the horizon, there are just as many experts like Pearson who say, “I’d be completely flabbergasted,” if there was a worldwide increase in brain tumors in 20 years.

Last year, researchers reviewed 101 scientific publications on the potential danger of RF electromagnetic fields. Slightly more than half of them concluded that cell phone radiation could have harmful health effects, while the other half found no danger at all. To try and put the matter to rest, the International Agency for Research on Cancer conducted a huge 10-year cell phone study called Interphone. It included 14,000 participants from 13 countries. The results? Contradictory.

As reported in Science News magazine, Inter-phone researcher Siegal Sadetzki said, “If you look at the overall evidence, this study did not confirm or dismiss the possible association between cell phones and brain tumors. That’s the bottom line.” However, she added, “We see a few indications of risk. And these indications appear among people who were exposed for the longest duration. We do have some suspicions.”

Concurrently, major heath organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said there’s not enough evidence to conclusively prove a link between cell phone use and cancer.

“Although some studies have raised concerns, the scientific research, when taken together, does not indicate a significant association between cell phone use and health effects,” reported the CDC.

So why are phones coming out with warnings to keep the devices away from your head? “I think that has way more to do with litigation than science,” Pearson theorizes.

“There’s a similarity here to the debunked link between vaccines and autism. It doesn’t take much to cause fear in parents, but large companies have to be concerned about litigation even though it doesn’t make sense.”

Not so, says Olga Naidenko, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group and author of a recent paper about cell phone radiation. Naidenko is convinced that our global love affair with phones is making us blind to the obvious: “We all wish we’d heeded the early warnings about cigarettes,” she says. “We think cell phones are similar.”

Here at Home …

With all of the debate in the scientific community, warnings in cell phone safety manuals and cell phone use restrictions for kids in Europe, why are so many American parents still in the dark about this issue?

Heather Cornett, a local mother of two in Franklin, says she was unaware of any safety concerns with her cell phone, but adds, “I’m not surprised. I have a hard time believing something can transmit electromagnetic radiation so close to your head and not have an effect.”

One of the reasons the issue is still relatively unknown in the United States is because the government hasn’t seen enough conclusive evidence to issue a warning.

“That’s because they are focusing on the narrow question of dead bodies,” says Davis, “proof of harm.”

The wireless industry is also working hard to make sure parents aren’t spooked by their products. The telecom industry actually funds cell phone radiation studies to diminish consumer fears. Interestingly, only 25 percent of the wireless industry studies showed proof of harm, while 75 percent of similar studies by independent researchers found reason to be concerned.

Here’s the bottom line: No matter what the studies show or what the government recommends, cell phones are here to stay. “People would rather leave the house without underwear than without their phone,” says Davis.

So what are cautious parents to do when it comes to their children and the unavoidable fact that they’ll own a cell phone before they reach high school?

Radiation lowering devices like Radiation Armor are a possible option. It’s a jelly bean sized chip that sticks onto the back of your phone. Created by Green Planet Innovations, Inc., CEO Mark Mathes explains, “When radiation from the phone hits the Radiation Armor polymer, it oscillates to create a sound wave that attaches itself to the radio wave, so when it goes into the body, it’s a safer wave. The result is a lower SARS rating. A seatbelt doesn’t prevent you from being killed in a car wreck and sunscreen doesn’t completely prevent skin cancer “¦ but they sure do reduce the risk. So does this product.”

Another company, Pong Research, sells a cell phone case designed to channel radiation waves away from the user’s head. Time magazine reports that Alfred Wong, Pong’s lead scientist and professor of physics at UCLA, sums it up when he says, “I think it’s best to avoid as much of the risk as possible until the verdict is in.”

Cell Phone Safety Tips

  • Know that distance is the key to safety.
  • Limit phone use to texting or use wired headsets or the speaker function when talking.
  • Avoid carrying phones next to your body.
  • Avoid sleeping with cell phones. In 2010, AARP magazine reported that 78 percent of 12- to 13-year-olds have gone to sleep with their phones on their pillow and 86 percent of kids older than 14 have done so.Explore radiation lowering devices such as Radiation Armor (radiationarmor.com; $39.95 for a single cell chip pack) or the Case-Mate by Pong Research (case-mate.com/pong; various prices depending on the case).

Deborah Bohn is a frequent contributor to this publication. She lives in Franklin with her family.

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