Cell phones and children

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Are cell phones safe enough to be used by children? Should governments warn parents about potential hazards even if the jury is still out?

Whether or not the radiation from cell phones is safe is an ongoing controversy that is dividing the scientific community. Much research suggests that cell phones are perfectly safe, and that we have nothing to be worried about, but some of the longer studies are beginning to tell a different story. The big concern is that the radiation emitted from cell phones may cause brain cancer on the side of the head that the cell phone is used. We may not know for sure whether or not this is true for many years to come, as there is a latency period from the beginning of exposure to the time cancer may develop, and that latency period is most likely greater than ten years.

The radiation the cell phones emit is between 1 and 3 Watts, in the microwave range, and that radiation DOES get absorbed by the head, or whatever body part is nearest the phone. Initially the concern was that this radiation heated the cells causing damage, but from the resources I’ve looked at, it looks like the body is able to dispel the heat quite easily.

However, the radiation emitted from the phone is pulsed, and apparently very similar to the electrical oscillations sent within the brain (alpha and delta brain waves). Our body is a very sensitive electrochemical system, so it seems reasonable that radio waves from external sources at similar frequencies to our internal frequencies may interfere with our bioelectrical systems, in much the same way that cell phones interfere with airplane controls and hospital equipment. So it is the similarity to the frequencies commonly used within the body, confusing the body which may be problematic. One of the frequencies used by cell phones seems to be similar to one that induces cell division in the body, perhaps explaining the links between cell-phone use and brain cancer.

Children have thinner skulls, and their brain tissue is less dense, which allows the radiation to penetrate much further into the brain, potentially increasing their risk. Dr. Devra Davis, a professor of epidemiology and the director of the Centre for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute suggests that phone radiation can penetrate more than half way through the brain of a 5 year old. Because children are still growing and their brains are still developing, genetic damage to cells in the brain may cause functional damage. The blood brain barrier may be compromised making the child more susceptible to toxins. A Spanish study showed that a two minute cell phone conversation altered electrical activity in the brain for up to an hour, compromising the ability to learn. Furthermore, if first exposure to cell phone radiation is while in childhood or as a teen, it is likely that that child or teen will be using the technology for many decades to come, increasing the potential risk even further.

Many countries, like Britain, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Israel, India and Russia are putting out warnings suggesting that children should either not use cell phones at all, or only very minimally, because they feel there is enough research suggesting that there may be a problem to warn the public of the potential danger. France is making it illegal for cell phone manufactures to market cell phones to kids under the age of 12. In Canada, that certainly is not the case – special cell phones specifically designed for kids are actively marketed to kids and their parents. Should this be happening at all, if other countries are putting out warnings?

Even though the City of Toronto's department of public health did put out an advisory in the summer of 2008 that children under 8 should only use cell phones for emergencies, and teens should limit calls to under 10 minutes, Health Canada does not feel there is any need to warn parents about the potential dangers to children, and I don't think US government agencies are putting out warnings either. Kind of reminds one of the smoking issue of yesteryear. So, as a parent would you prefer to be told of a potential problem so you can make up your own mind on how to deal with the issue, or do you trust that government agencies are doing enough to protect you and your children? I think transparency is important. I want to be in control of my health and the health of my family, and I want to know if something might be problematic, so I can do my research and make a choice. If my choice is taken away from me because I am not told, then I have no way of controlling my health. My philosophy has always been to apply the precautionary principle. It may take 30 years before we really know the truth about safety of cell phones, so in the mean time it makes sense to me to keep cell phones out of the hands of kids as long as possible, and if they have one, allow them to use it only for emergencies, text messaging, or with a headset (not bluetooth as that kind magnifies the radiation). These suggestions obviously apply to the rest of us too!

To check the the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) (the quantity of radiofrequency energy that is absorbed by your body) of your cell phone, click here.

For more on the topic of cell phones and kids, watch this CBC production of
Marketplace.

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Copyright 2009 Vreni Gurd

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