Concerns over Cancer Cells
More than once, Meg Gamble’s 9-year-old daughter has asked for a cell phone. So far the answer has been no. “She doesn’t need one as far as I’m concerned,” said Gamble, a mother of two in San Rafael.
The reasons for and against giving a child a cell phone are many. Regardless, the trend is clear: More and more parents are allowing their children mobile phones. As Gamble’s daughter has pointed out to her mom, several of her friends have one.
Now some in the medical and scientific communities are warning parents to put that plan on hold.
The fear that cell phones could cause cancer has long been mulled, but most often dismissed. Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have stated that there is no danger to adults or children using cell phones. No concrete scientific link has been found between using a cell phone and an increasing risk of developing brain cancer.
But studies are ongoing, and a growing body of evidence suggests that maybe the concern shouldn’t be so quickly brushed aside, especially for children.
Direct line to cancer?
“There’s enough alarming science that it is important to take precautions when it comes to children,” says Leeann Brown, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group, which published a report this fall on cell phone radiation and called on the government to update its recommendation on cell phone standards.
Simply put, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“Our kids are going to be using cell phones for their entire lifetime,” says Dr. Cara Natterson, a mother, pediatrician and author of Dangerous or Safe?, a book that examines 25 controversial health issues, including cell phone safety. “Their exposure will be greater, so if we know they will be exposed, let’s figure out how to use them safely.”
Certainly, cell phones have changed our lives regarding how we keep in touch. In the United States, some 280 million people own a cell phone, according to CTIA, the wireless industry trade group.
Teenagers ages 12 to 17 are among a fast growing demographic. More than 71 percent owned a cell phone last year, up from 45 percent in 2004, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Specifically, more than half of 12-to 13-year-olds said they owned a cell phone. For 17-year-old teenagers, more than 80 percent said they owned a cell phone. And more than half of the teenagers who owned cell phones talked on them with their friends daily.
Cell phone companies have also marketed heavily to parents, offering mobile phones as a safety device for children. Consider Sprint’s family locator feature, for instance, which uses the phone’s GPS technology to monitor the location of a child. For $5 a month, parents can keep an eye on where their child is located via an interactive satellite map and can track where their child has been for the past week.
But should parents be handing a cell phone to their kids?
That’s debatable, at least on the health front. Cell phones – and to a smaller degree, cordless phones – emit radio frequency waves through its antenna to transmit the conversation. The fear comes from holding the phone up to the ear for long periods of time, and that the frequent exposure could damage the DNA of a brain cell and trigger a tumor.
Studies across the globe have both refuted and supported this concern. It’s been hard to measure since cell phone use only started to become mainstream about a decade ago and more long-term research is needed.
For now, though, an increasing number of experts are sounding the alarm for children because they’re the most vulnerable. A child’s skull is still growing and isn’t as thick as an adult skull. That means that the radio frequency waves emitted by cell phones are more likely to penetrate to the brain – and at a greater amount. “It’s like shining a light through a window,” says Dr. Miles Varn, chief medical officer for PinnacleCare, a private health advisory. “With a thicker pane, less light goes through.”
The cell phone industry has maintained that cell phone use is safe. “The peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk for adults or children,” CTIA said in a statement. “That is why the leading global heath organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration all have concurred that wireless devices are not a public health risk.”
And no one is suggesting that consumers put down their cell phone. Instead, experts suggest taking certain precautions, such as using a headset or speaker phone instead of holding the phone directly against the ear. Text messaging is also better than calling. And when you’re buying a new cell phone, you can check its emission levels online, since some are much lower than others. The Motorola RAZR V8, offered by CellularONE, for instance, is rated as one of the best, while the Blackberry Bold and Blackberry Curve had among the highest levels. The iPhone wasn’t named one of the worst offenders, though its levels scale toward the high end.
You can count on more attention being paid to the issue. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) held a hearing in Washington in the fall to address the concern and went as far as comparing cell phones to cigarettes in that it took years before cigarettes were acknowledged to cause cancer.
Natterson’s 4- and 6-year-old daughters haven’t started begging for a cell phone – yet. But if and when she gives them one, she plans to program it so that it can only dial a limited number of people and deter them from making unnecessary calls. “I feel sorry for my kids,” she jokes.
Gamble, the mother of a 9-year-old and 4-year-old, has a simpler reason for keeping a cell phone away from her children. “I’m more concerned about being obsessed with technology,” she said. “I want my kids to be in the 21st century, and at some point I will get her a cell phone. But if I can keep her younger longer, I will.”
Ellen Lee covers technology for Bay Area Parent. She has a 17-month-old daughter.
Tips for Cell Phone Use
Text message instead of calling.
Use a headset. Wired ones are best, as Bluetooth headsets also emit radiation, though less so than a cell phone. Any headset is better than no headset, said Brown.
Hold the phone away from your body. If you don’t have a headset handy, use the speaker phone instead of holding it up to your ear.
For children, limit cell phone calls except for emergencies.
Purchase a phone with low radiation emissions. You can look up your phone’s emissions at ewg.org/cellphoneradiation/Get-a-Safer-Phone.