Cell phones now come in child-sized versions, some in pink for girls, some with cartoon themes designed to appeal to boys and girls alike.
But before you buy a wireless phone for your child's next birthday, you should know that government agencies and expert panels in several European countries have cautioned against routine use of the phones by children because of health questions raised by recent studies.
Some experts say research conducted during the past decade indicates the world's 1.6 billion cell phone users are the equivalent of lab rats in a grand living laboratory and that children, with many years of cell phone use ahead of them, might be particularly vulnerable.
"There is evidence from the laboratory that isn't necessarily conclusive, but does point to a possible problem in the future," said Norbert Hankin, an environmental scientist in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, who has studied the effects of radio frequency/microwave radiation for 33 years. He says some of the research findings are "worrisome."
"Once people start using cell phones, they don't change," Hankin said. "Kids 10 years old are using cell phones. Is there going to be any kind of effect long term? We don't know."
Research about cell-phone use hasn't received the same media or public attention as other environmental health issues. But scientists are engaged in an escalating debate over the potential risks -- a debate that some researchers say parallels early public-health disputes about secondhand smoke and toxic chemicals.
Wireless phones emit low-level radio frequency/microwave radiation as they transmit a signal to a base station blocks or miles away. Research has shown that some of the radiation enters the user's head, and some researchers are concerned repeated exposures over time might pose serious health risks, including cancer and benign tumor growth.
Two U.S. agencies with authority to regulate the radiation emitted by the phones, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, have issued statements saying there is nothing to fear from the phones, and that they are safe for children.
Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Assocation -- the international group representing carriers, manufacturers and wireless Internet providers -- cites the FDA and FCC stances in saying the industry is offering a safe product to children and their parents.
"This is an issue that should be guided by science, period. And the evidence does not show a danger to users of wireless phones," Farren said. "What we constantly hear from parents is that they have a tremendous peace of mind when they give their child a phone."
Farren said some models for children allow parents to control the phone numbers their kids can call and block unwanted callers, as well as control the total number of talk minutes allowed, and the time of day the phone is operational.
Walt Disney Internet Group announced in July it had created Disney Mobile and is teaming with Sprint to provide cell phones for "the family mobile market" beginning next year. Disney withdrew cell phone faceplates featuring its Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters about six years ago when health concerns were raised by cell-phone research.
"The FDA has said that scientific evidence does not show a danger to users of wireless," said Disney spokeswoman Kim Kerscher.
But Hankin said it is not clear how protective current safety standards are because they are based on preventing the radiation from heating tissue and do not take into account research that has shown biological changes, such as DNA breaks, at much lower levels of exposure.
He also expressed concern about epidemiological studies that have linked long-term cell phone use to an increased risk of acoustic neuroma, a non-malignant tumor on a nerve that links the ear and brain.
Research findings Last fall researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden reported that people who had used cell phones for 10 years had almost a fourfold increase of these tumors on the side of the head where they most often held the phone, compared with the other side of the head.
A group of researchers from several European countries has found DNA damage in human and animal cells exposed to cell-phone radiation, and said mutations were passed on to the next generation of cells grown in the laboratory -- a process that can lead to cancer.
The research, led by Dr. Franz Adlkofer, of the Verum Foundation in Munich, Germany, was published in the June 6 issue of Mutation Research.
"We don't want to create a panic, but it is good to take precautions," Adlkofer said when the study was released. He and other health experts recommend using a landline phone whenever possible, and using a hands-free headset when talking on a cell phone.
Other studies also have linked radiation such as cell phones emit to DNA breaks, brain-cell death, leaks in the barrier that protects brain tissue from toxins in the bloodstream, increased risk of cancer of the eye, and memory and learning problems. Researchers who have tried to duplicate those studies, however, often get negative results.
Governmental, consumer and physician groups in England, Italy, Russia, Germany and France also have advised a precautionary approach. In the United Kingdom, which first advised cell-phone users in 2000 to keep calls short or use a hands-free earpiece, the National Radiological Protection Board said in January their latest review of the evidence indicates those precautions should continue because studies "suggest that [radio-frequency] fields can interfere with biological systems."
Soon after the January UK report was issued, however, the FDA and FCC posted this response on a joint Web site: "The scientific evidence does not show a danger to users of wireless communication devices including children."
In a phone interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the FDA's Howard Cyr said the statement was posted because cell phone emissions are not strong enough to cause a biological effect.
"Experts have looked at this and say it cannot happen," said Cyr, whose primary concentration was on sun lamp and tanning bed regulation before becoming lab leader of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health. "We regulate on the basis of science, and the science says there is no hard evidence of adverse effects at the levels that cell phones produce."
After the Sun-Sentinel sent Cyr a list of research studies that reported finding biological effects, Cyr sent back an e-mail co-authored by a colleague, Abiy Desta, a researcher in Cyr's lab, saying some studies that have found effects were poorly done.
"There are, however, a number of well-designed laboratory studies that have found biological effects after low levels of radio-frequency energy exposure similar to those emitted by wireless communication devices. These studies need to be independently verified," the e-mail said.
"I don't think you can say we are certain there is no effect," Desta said in a phone interview. "We will continue to monitor the science."
FCC mandate Ed Mantiply, a physical scientist in the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, said the FCC gets guidance from the FDA, which is charged by law with protecting the public from radiation emitted by electronic products.
"They can set performance standards, but they have chosen not to do so for cell phones. They've given us advice that the standards we are using are adequate," Mantiply said.
Jerry Phillips, a Colorado Springs researcher with a doctorate in biochemistry who has spent years studying the type of radiation emitted by cell phones, said the federal government has made "a number of unscientific statements" on such research.
"It's important for people to know that there is credible research to indicate that exposure to [radio frequency] fields from cellular telephones produces significant changes in living systems," said Phillips, whose studies at the Loma Linda School of Medicine in California found DNA breaks at low-level exposures. "And some of the changes can be associated with harmful outcomes."
George Carlo, who was in charge of the six-year research program in the 1990s paid for by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, and who concluded the phones may pose a health risk, said government agencies have been lax in addressing the issue.
"The watchdogs are not watching, or they're not barking. Whatever they're supposed to be doing, they're not doing it," said Carlo, an epidemiologist and chairman of Science and Public Policy Institute, a non-profit group aimed at bridging the gap between science and politics, in Washington.
Carlo said a significant body of science has accumulated. "The question that needs to be asked is if you had these findings [from recent studies] before the phones went on the market, would the government agencies ever have allowed these phones on the market, and the answer is no," Carlo said.
The FDA is overseeing some cell-phones health research that is being paid for by the cell phone industry to repeat studies that found biological effects during Carlo's research program. The agency also supports a taxpayer-funded cell-phone research effort getting under way at the U.S. National Toxicology Program, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
Sam Milham, a retired epidemiologist from the Washington state Department of Health, who spent years studying the effects of electromagnetic radiation and cancer, calls the marketing of cell phones to children "scurrilous."
Milham said cancer research has shown it can take 20 years or more for some tumors to develop to the point that they cause symptoms.
Advice for parents Researchers associated with the World Health Organization, writing in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics, said until more is known, pediatricians "could advise parents that their children's [radio-frequency radiation] exposure can be reduced by restricting the length of calls or by using hands-free devices to keep the phones away from the head and body."
The authors, including Michael Repacholi, who heads the WHO's Radiation and Environmental Health section based in Geneva, said: "Consistent epidemiologic evidence of an association between childhood leukemia and exposure to extremely low frequency magnetic fields has led to their classification by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a `possible human carcinogen.'
"Concerns about the potential vulnerability of children to radio-frequency fields have been raised because of the potentially greater susceptibility of their developing nervous systems. Their brain is more conductive, [radio-frequency radiation] penetration is greater relative to head size, and they will have a longer lifetime of exposure than adults." But the WHO is still studying the need for precautionary measures.
Petitions sent In late July, a diverse group of more than 30 children's advocates, including Nicholas Johnson, former Federal Communications Commission commissioner, and children's entertainer Raffi Cavoukian, signed petitions and sent letters to members of Congress asking them to investigate the marketing of cell phones to children, said Gary Ruskin, of Commercial Alert, a spokesman for the group.
That same month, Dr. Keith Black, one of the country's top neurosurgeons, told CNN that he believes some brain tumors may be linked to cell phones. Black, director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurological Institute at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, said the brain tumor that killed his friend and patient, attorney Johnnie Cochran, may have been related to his many years of cell phone use. The tumor occurred on the left side of Cochran's head, where he most often held the phone, Black said.
Yet despite the increased call for more research and governmental oversight of cell phone use, few federal employees are engaged in such studies. The EPA, which used to have more than 30 people assigned to health research related to electromagnetic fields from power lines and radio frequency/microwave radiation, now has one person, Hankin, who still works in the field.
Hankin said when the EPA's research program was dismantled, a wealth of knowledge was lost.
"Congress didn't appropriate the funds. None of those people are doing this kind of work anymore. I'm about the only one left," Hankin said. "There are some very small countries where the governments support this kind of research and it's hard to know how they can do it and the United States can't."
Nancy McVicar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4593.
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