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Healthy Children

with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Are cell phones safe for kids?

A few days ago, two unrelated events converged for me.

First, I read of a newly published study, “Do cell phones ‘excite’ your brain?” (Answer: yes, but that doesn’t mean they are harmful).

Next, I spent some time in a local mall and was blown away at the percentage of young people who were chatting, chatting, chatting away on cell phones as they rambled from Starbucks to Gap.

Cell phones – like the Internet, like e-mail – have become such an integral part of 21st century life that we often take their use for granted. But these two experiences made me wonder whether I had taken this new phenomenon seriously enough, whether I needed to become more educated about cell phone use, and whether doing so might affect my advice to parents.

It has. Here’s what I’ve learned since then.

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Cell phone use and exposure
Cell phone usage has achieved unbelievable popularity. Consider that in the U.S. in 2005:

  • There were over 200 million cell phone subscribers.
  • Cell phones generated $113 billion in revenues.
  • 113 trillion minutes of cell phone chat time was logged.
  • How do cell phones work?
    A cell phone converts your voice into radiofrequency energy (RF or radio waves), which travel through the antenna/transmitter to the local base station of your cell phone provider. The base station then sends out these radio waves back to a receiver in the called phone, which converts it to the sound of a voice.

    Here’s the key point. These radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, much like the energy that heats your microwave oven or is used for radar. Sounds worrisome, but the good news is that RF radiation is different (“non-ionizing”) than the radiation from x-rays (which is “ionizing”). Unlike x-rays, non-ionizing radiation does not damage DNA and is not felt to harm living tissues at the levels of heat induced by a cell phone.

    • To gauge the RF radiation emitted, each cell phone has a “specific absorption rate” (SAR), which is the amount of RF energy absorbed from the phone into the user’s local tissues. The upper limit of SAR currently allowed is 1.6 watts per kilogram (W/kg) of body weight, which is felt to be safe. (You can find your phone’s SAR at the FCC website.

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    Are cell phones safe for kids?
    The good news is that – at least at this early stage of imperfect research – the link between cell phone use and adverse health issues is inconsistent and weak, interpreted by most experts as non-existent. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states: “The available scientific evidence does not show any health problems are associated with using wireless phones.”

    That’s reassuring, but the safety issue is far from resolved. The FDA goes on to say, “There is no proof, however, that wireless phones are absolutely safe.” No surprise that: cell phones haven’t been around that long. It’s possible that chronic exposure could cause a problem that won’t show up for another decade or two. (Of course, it’s possible – even likely – that nothing will show up. Who knows? No one. Therein lies our dilemma.)

    Additionally, as a developmental pediatrician I’m paranoid about potential environmental risks to a child’s developing brain. Although many scientists feel it doesn’t matter in this case, the brains of children are more active, more changeable, and often more susceptible to toxins than are the sluggish brains of us adults. I have to wonder: could early and prolonged exposure starting in childhood have unanticipated consequences, not yet studied and not seen in those who started as adults?

    Really, I have no idea. Alas, neither does anyone else. Certainly there is no cause for panic: even if there is a risk, it seems likely to be small, based on what we know so far. I encourage you to follow this research yourself and see what conclusions you draw, now and in the future.

    • As always on the Internet, beware the inevitable conspiracy theorists who claim there is a huge risk knowingly being kept under wraps by the evil cell phone companies in cahoots with Uncle Sam. And beware the alarmists who, by the way, just happen to have a device that blocks the deadly radiation from melting your brain. (In case you’re tempted, the FDA says these “do not work as advertised.” Big surprise.)

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    The dilemma
    So here is my dilemma (and your dilemma): what should you do – if anything – when the early scientific data are reassuring, but the late returns are not in? Should I, as a pediatrician, recommend you change your child’s cell phone behaviors to lessen an unknown, perhaps non-existent, risk? Should you as a parent do the same?

    I vote yes. Even if there turns out to be no risk, the steps to lessen exposure to cell phone radiation are pretty easy and pretty simple – we’re not talking major lifestyle changes or sacrifice here and, considering how many hours of exposure your chatty child will log in over his/her lifetime… :

    • Use a “hands-free” device so the antenna/transmitter is far away from the brain. However, keeping it close to some other part of the body simply changes the area of exposure, so it’s important to position the phone as far from the body as possible and to move it around [e.g., on the belt] to lessen exposure to any one area.
    • In the car, use a cell phone with an outside antenna (of course, the real and present danger is talking on a cell phone while driving, which you should absolutely forbid your children to do. In fact, forget this advice. Just don’t use a cell phone in a moving car, period.)
    • Check the SAR in your phone and consider purchasing one with a lower number.
    • Use a conventional phone whenever possible, especially for long conversations.
    • Let your child pick the coolest, most rad, most socially acceptable hands-off device to be sure s/he will actually use it. Use bribery if necessary.

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    I’m an old-fashioned guy and don’t use my cell phone all that much. But I’m headed off to find an ear bud, “hands-free” thingie which, if it doesn’t make me look cool (frankly, kind of hopeless at this stage), is the least dorky-looking for a middle-aged guy at the Mall as he answers his patients’ calls. Better safe than sorry, eh?

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    Resources cited:

    American Cancer Society

    CTIA – Cellular Telecommunications IndustryAssociation

    National Cancer Institute

    Related Topics: Driving + Cell Phones = Big Road Risk, No Cell Phones Outside in a Storm?

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    Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 1:24 pm

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