Cell Phones May Pose a Risk to Children

Children may be more vulnerable than adults to the potential health risks of using mobile phones, according to a U.K. study released this week, which urged that nonessential phone use by children be discouraged.

Though no conclusive evidence currently exists that mobile phones are harmful, a cautious approach of risk management, especially in relation to children, should be taken by the government, according to the study, published by the U.K.'s National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB).

The study is a follow-up to a similar study issued four years ago. Little has changed during that time in terms of being able to assure the safety of mobile phone use on the public's health, the board says.

Follow Up

In May 2000, the U.K.'s Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, also called the Stewart Report after the group's then chairman, William Stewart, singled out mobile phone use by children, the elderly, and the infirm as cause for concern. The study warned that children may be more vulnerable to radio frequency (RF) radiation exposure because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head, and a longer lifetime of exposure.

The NRPB's study issued this week, entitled "Mobile Phones and Health," uses similar wording to the one it follows up on.

"The Board believes that the main conclusions reached in the Stewart Report in 2000 still apply today and that a precautionary approach to the use of mobile technologies should continue to be adopted," the NRPB study says. Stewart is now chairman of the NRPB, whose members are appointed by U.K. health ministers, and he again urged that the use of mobile phones by children for nonessential calls should be discouraged.

As with the 2000 study, the NRPB did not set out guidelines for how many minutes per day would be considered safe for a child to use a mobile phone, nor did the group give its age definition of a "child."

Increased Usage

What has changed since the 2000 study is the growth of mobile phone use. There are currently around 50 million mobile phones being used in the U.K. compared with about 25 million in 2000 and 4.5 million in 1995, according to the study. These mobile phones are supported by around 35,000 base stations, the majority of which operate under the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard.

In addition, the number of children between 7 and 10 years old using a mobile phone has doubled since 2001, to one in four, according to the study.

Mobile phone networks and the base stations needed to support them are expected to grow with the implementation of 3G technology, and the NRPB study recommends that "monitoring of potential exposures from 3G base stations should be concomitant with the roll out of the network."

The public also faces ever-increasing RF exposure from wireless LANs, Bluetooth, UWB (ultrawideband), and RFID (RF identification) technologies. "The issue of signal characteristics, in particular the nature and extent to which they exhibit pulsing, remains a subject of public concern," the NRPB study says.

Despite the concerns raised, the mobile phone industry, as represented by the Mobile Operators Association (MOA), welcomed the study, stressing that "the key point of the NRPB advice is that there is no hard information linking the use of mobile telephony with adverse health effects."

The MOA was established to represent the five U.K. mobile phone network operators (Vodafone Group, Orange, T-Mobile, mmO2, and Hutchison 3G UK) on radio frequency health and planning issues.

Still, the NRPB study takes pains to point out that the lack of hard evidence does not mean that mobile phones do not pose a public safety risk. "The widespread use of mobile phone technologies is still fairly recent and technologies are continuing to develop at a pace that is outstripping analyses of any potential impact on health," the study says.

According to the NRPB, data exists that suggests RF fields can interfere with biological systems. The study also pointed to Swedish research that found an increase in the risk of acoustic neuromas, a type of benign tumor, in people who used mobile phones for over 10 years.

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