The Risk of Radiation: Cell Phone Use and Children
By John Briley
Here's a question: How many times have you handed your cell phone to your child to say hi to your partner, make a call, or play a game? How often would you have made that hand-off if you knew that passing your child a cell phone was, effectively, similar to giving him or her a lit cigarette and saying, "Here, take a drag"?
An increasing body of evidence suggests that cell phone use—specifically the radiation from the radiofrequency waves cell phones emit—is raising our risk of brain tumors. Researchers are particularly concerned about the threat to children because their brains and protective cranial tissue and bone are not yet fully formed.
First, a word of moderation: While some studies show a major increase in brain tumor risk from heavy cell phone use other research shows no elevated risk. Also, even most scientists who believe the risk is real acknowledge that brain tumors are rare and would remain so even with a doubling of risk, which is what the most foreboding studies show.
Now, back to the scary stuff. Cell phones are essentially a form of two-wave radio that send and receive electromagnetic waves. The radiation emitted by a phone’s antenna while it communicates with the nearest cell tower pulses outward in all directions. The cordless phones and WiFi routers that are used in millions of U.S. households also emit radiofrequency waves and have been tied in at least one recent study to heart irregularities. (1)
‘But,’ you might be thinking, ‘cell phones have been in wide use for over a decade. Wouldn’t we know by now if they were harmful?’ Maybe not: It can take 10 years or more for brain tumors to show up in scans, and many of the long-term studies that were started in the late 1990s have only recently been published. And some of that research shows a clear cause for concern: A major study published in the journal Surgical Neurology in January 2009 (13) shows a doubling of the risk of two types of brain tumor – glioma and acoustic neuroma – in people who used cell phones for more than 10 years. (The risk was limited to people who had used their phones mostly on one side of the head – what’s called ipsilateral use.)
A 2006 Israeli study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology (14) showed a 1.65-fold increase in parotid gland tumor risk in people who had used cell phones heavily for 10 or more years. Risk was greatest for users in rural areas, which researchers suspected was because phones must work harder—i.e. transmit more radiation—than in urban areas to gain clear signals. Despite the shown risk, the authors wrote that the electromagnetic fields emitted by cell phones are insufficient to break chemical bonds or damage DNA, and thus are unlikely to initiate a tumor.
A study by the Swedish National Institute for Working Life (15), published in 2006 in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, also indicated elevated risk of brain tumor for heavy, ipsilateral cell phone users. That study included 4,400 subjects and concluded that people who had logged more than 2,000 hours of use (which equates to about an hour a day for nearly six years) had a 240-percent increased risk of a malignant tumor on the side of the head where they used their phones.
Since 2005, Russian researchers have been following two groups of children age 5 to 12; one group uses cell phones and the other does not. The cell phone group has shown decreased capacity to work, increased fatigue, drop in attention and semantic memory, and significant loss of the ability to discern the difference between sounds. The cell phone users also have a host of behavioral and functional problems that are not seen in the non-phone group.
Most recently, a Danish study published online in December in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (16) found that the more a pregnant mother used a cell phone, the higher the likelihood that her child would have behavioral problems—including hyperactivity, problems paying attention and trouble getting along with others.
The study, which collected data via survey from mothers of 28,000 seven-year-olds, also showed an even higher risk of behavioral issues if the children themselves began using mobile phones early in life.
Children who were exposed to mobile phones only while in the womb—but did not use the phones as kids—were 40 percent more likely to have behavioral problems; children who were not exposed to cell phones at all in the womb but were exposed to them after birth were 20 percent more likely than zero-exposure children to have issues.
But the largest and most extensive study to date on the cell phones and health effects—a 13-country, $25 million project known as Interphone—is mired in controversy. Officially the study found no link between cell phone use and cancer risk but some researchers who were involved in the project say the results omitted key data that showed a clear cell phone-brain cancer association. (5)
David Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, says it is “absolutely obscene” that the data in question did not appear in the final Interphone report.(12)
“It’s totally irresponsible to deny that there is a risk with ipsilateral use,” Carpenter says. “The majority of data have demonstrated” a health risk from cell phone radiation—a risk, he says, that is greatest in children.
Carpenter points to a study published in 2009 in the International Journal of Oncology that shows people who start using cell phones before age 20 face up to five times higher risk of brain tumor than those who start later in life. (17) “Radio frequency penetrates the brain of a child far easier than an adult,” Carpenter says.
He also cites a Korean study, published in 2007 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, that found leukemia risk more than doubled in children living within 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles) of an AM radio transmitter compared with those living more than 20 km away. (18)
Louis Slesin, editor of Microwave News, an online publication covering electromagnetic radiation, says that Interphone “does show dose-response in the highest-use group, in terms of years of use, minutes used and years since first use. If this was a drug, people might be talking about taking it off the market.” (4) (Interphone’s final word: “The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.”)
Carpenter argues that, despite the lack of indisputable cause-and-effect evidence the government should act now to impose consumer protection policies.
In June 2010, San Francisco did just that, passing a law requiring cell phone retailers to display what’s called the specific absorption rate (SAR), a measure of how much radiation a person is likely to absorb from a phone. That policy raised some eyebrows, along with the ire of the cell phone industry, which is suing San Francisco on the grounds that the city is unconstitutionally usurping what should be a federal role.
John Walls, a spokesman for CTIA, a trade association representing cell phone manufacturers, says San Francisco officials are “trying to drive purchasing decisions based on science that experts have said is insignificant. They don’t say what an SAR is. What’s the difference between [a phone with a rating of] 0.8 and 1.2? The FCC says both are safe.” (9)
But why, then, do cell-phone user manuals include warnings like this one, for the Blackberry Torch 9800:
“Use a RIM approved holster with an integrated belt clip or maintain a distance of 0.98 in. (25 mm) between your BlackBerry device and your body while the BlackBerry device is transmitting.” Otherwise the device might “exceed radio frequency (RF) exposure standards [and] the long term effects of exceeding RF exposure standards might present a risk of serious harm.”
The Apple iPhone manual carries a similar warning, as do user’s guides for most phones, although the warnings are not prominent in the manuals.
Walls calls the warnings “a liability issue. These products were tested for use with a brand-approved holster. They were not tested in the pants pocket or the lapel pocket. The inclination [in the manual] is to be as specific as possible.”
Asked if manufacturers should include holsters with every phone sale, Walls answers that CTIA does not “recommend how our members do business. Every device must be compliant with FCC standards. There is no ‘safer’ or ‘safest.’ Just safe.” The FCC states on its Web site that there is no scientific evidence of a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the safety of radiation-emitting devices, says on its Web site, “The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems.”
Many experts accuse the FCC of foot dragging on the issue. Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy organization, notes that the FCC SAR limit of 1.6 watts per kilogram of body weight was based on calculations done on a model of a 6’2” adult male, weighing more than 200 pounds, with an 11-pound head. The standards also assumed a maximum of six minutes of phone use a day, far less than many people use their phones today. (10)
SARs are “all we have now” to let people make an informed choice about how much added radiation they want from a phone, Naidenko says.
Naidenko, Carpenter and other experts liken phone makers’ resistance to consumer awareness laws, like the San Francisco point-of-sale SAR notices, to the stonewall strategy the tobacco industry employed for decades to forestall warning labels on cigarettes.
Those experts also say children are likely getting a level of radiation much higher than the published SAR for a given phone due to the comparative thinness of children’s skulls. “The Swiss, German and UK governments all recommend lower SAR phones to help minimize exposure.” EWG has a full list of cell phone SARs on its Web site. (6)
EWG challenges numerous FCC positions, including the agency’s claim that approved cell phones “would never exceed” federal limits for radiation emission.
EWG points to research by France Telecom that concluded that the brain of a child between the ages of 5 and 8 could absorb up to twice as much radiation as an adult man.
The group also blasts the FCC’s assertion that comparing SAR values is unreliable because phones rarely operate at maximum power. EWG contends that a 2008 study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that cell phones “operate at maximum power up to half the use time.”
In her book, "Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family," author Devra Davis says that the amount of radio frequency that any biological tissue can take in depends on four things, including the amount of fluid or fat that makes up the tissue. Thus the elevated risk to children: Their brains contain more fluid than do adult brains (one reason, incidentally, why shaking a child is so harmful), plus children’s skulls and bone marrow are thinner and more absorptive than are those of adults. (2)
In testimony to Congress in 2009, Davis, using a plastic model of a human brain, showed how cell phone radiation could penetrate around two inches into an adult brain, and much further into the brain of a 5-year-old.
None of the experts interviewed for this story advocate a return to the pre-wireless era. But they all recommend that consumers consider using corded—not wireless—headsets. Bluetooth headsets transmit radiation that, while weaker than the phone’s SAR, could be flowing more continuously.
Other risk-reducing measures recommend by EWG and confirmed by other experts include:
Hold the phone away from you when you're talking (with headset or speaker), not against your ear, in a pocket, or on your belt where soft body tissues absorb radiation. “If you hold the phone an inch away from your head during a call,” says Slesin, “your risk goes down considerably. Every millimeter counts.”
Text more, talk less. Phones use less radiation to send text than voice. And unlike when you speak with the phone at your ear, texting keeps radiation away from your head.
Poor signal? Stay off the phone: A weaker signal means the phone emits more radiation to communicate with the tower. Make and take calls when your phone has a strong signal.
Limit children’s phone use: Young children’s brains absorb twice the cell phone radiation as an adult’s.
Skip the “radiation shield”: Radiation shields such as antenna caps or keypad covers reduce the connection quality and force the phone to transmit at a higher power with higher radiation.
Regarding how the body responds to long-term exposure to cell phone radiation, Carpenter says “the smoking-lung cancer analogy is a good one: The greater and longer-term exposure is the worst. We have every reason to encourage people to amend their ways. And you can do that without greatly disrupting your life.”
It appears unlikely that any new research will clear the air soon: A handful of long-term epidemiological studies have started recently but will take years to complete. But that’s no reason for complacency, says Davis. “The Israeli, French and Finnish governments have all acted on this,” she says, by moving to limit children’s use of phones and otherwise lower consumer radiation exposure.
If the U.S. government fails to act to protect consumers, Davis says, “My fear is that we will have an epidemic from which we cannot recover. If you want to give your child an electronic device, for God’s sake disable the wireless.” (3)
Originally published May 30, 2011
1. Interview with Joel Moskowitz, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Family and Community Health in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley
2. The book Disconnect by Devra Davis, Ph.D.
3. Interview with Devra Davis, Ph.D.
4. Interview with Louis Slesin, editor of http://www.microwavenews.com
5. Cellular Phones, Cordless Phones, and the Risks of Glioma and Meningioma (Interphone Study Group, Germany): http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/163/6/512.abstract
6. Environmental Working Group on cell phone radiation: http://www.ewg.org/cellphoneradiation/executivesummary
7. Study of cordless phones and heart irregularities, European Journal of Oncology: http://electromagnetichealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Havas_HRV_Ramazzini1.pdf
8. Study: Increased risk of brain tumor with cell phone use greater than 10 years: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17409179
9. Interview with John Walls, spokesman for CTIA, the trade association representing the cell phone industry.
10. Interview with Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group
11. EWG list of cell phone radiation emitting levels: http://www.ewg.org/cellphoneradiation/Get-a-Safer-Phone?allavailable=1
12. Interview with David Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany
13. Study: Health risks of cell phone technology, from Surgical Neurology (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6TCB-4VY6FPF-1&_user=10&_coverDate=10%2F31%2F2009&_alid=1758774270&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_zone=rslt_list_item&_cdi=5166&_sort=r&_st=13&_docanchor=&view=c&_ct=2&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=f35d46ea7397448a0f70e52f83fe0a91&searchtype=a)
14: Study: increased risk of parotid gland tumor from cell phone use (http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/164/7/637.full?sid=fdd3a65c-41a9-4a57-9e9e-05430a6ef002)
15. Study: Swedish National Institute for Working Life (http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2006/03/6502.ars)
16. Study: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health – pregnant women’s use of cell phones linked to behavioral problems in kids (http://group.bmj.com/group/media/7%20December%202010%20-%20EPIDEMIOLOGY%20AND%20COMMUNITY%20HEALTH%20Exposure%20to%20mobile%20phones%20before%20and%20after%20birth%20linked%20to%20kids2019%20behavioural%20problems.pdf)
17. Study: International Journal of Oncology. Mobile Phones, Cordless Phones and Risk for Brain Tumor (http://www.nutrimaxorganic.com/mobile_cancers.pdf)
18. Study: American Journal of Epidemiology - Radio-Frequency Radiation Exposure from AM Radio Transmitters and Childhood Leukemia and Brain Cancer (http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/166/3/270.full)