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Kids at Risk?
Toronto Star, July 9, 2005
by Tyler Hamilton and
young girl with a cellphone pressed to her ear can't feel the plume of
radio frequencies penetrating her brain.
it's there. And like any child, her thinner skull, growing brain and
developing nervous system make her more vulnerable than adults to the
interaction of wireless signals with the body.
potential long-term impact of that interaction remains a scientific
mystery that may not be answered for decades.
It's an uncertainty that isn't stopping some wireless companies in
North America from aggressively targeting children with an array of
cartoonish phones featuring the images of Barbie and Mickey Mouse or
video clips of Bugs Bunny.
Disney Co., which backed off plans to sell cartoon character-branded
cellphones in 2000 amid public concerns about potential risks for young
bodies, snagged headlines across North America this week after
announcing a new line of cellphones aimed at children as young as 8.
Parents like the idea of being able to stay in touch with their
children at all times. Pre-teens see the phones as status symbols. And
the wireless industry, facing slowing sales to adults, sees children as
a lucrative, untapped market.
scientists say those pressures are triggering a leap into the unknown.
are using cellphones at a younger age than any previous generation.
They'll be exposed for more years — and spend more time each day with
the phones pressed to their heads — than anyone before.
some scientists are raising serious questions about biological changes
caused by cellphone frequencies. The worry is that these changes could
lead to physiological problems ranging from headaches to cancer to
degenerative brain diseases — problems that could take many years to
prove or disprove.
scientists dismiss such concerns, pointing to research that shows no
reason for worry.
Canada acknowledges unease about potential cellphone effects in
internal documents obtained by the Toronto Star. But publicly, it has
contrast, health officials and experts in several European countries
have issued public warnings to parents urging caution about kids and
cellphones, backed by a growing body of scientists who fear that if
health effects are eventually shown, the results could be disastrous.
are rational reasons to implicate a potential risk," says Dr. Ab Guha,
a prominent Toronto neurosurgeon and co-director of brain tumour
research at the Hospital for Sick Children.
we can avoid finding out 15 or 20 years later that we have a whole
bunch of adults that have developed a variety of tumours, it makes good
sense (to urge caution)."
scientists point to public health tragedies such as tobacco and
asbestos, deadly threats that were only proven after generations of
disturbs me that kids are the marketing target for devices that are
dressed up to look as innocuous and friendly as possible, and yet may
have longer-term health implications attached to them that we're not
fully aware of," says Dr. Sheela Basrur, Ontario's chief medical
officer of health and mother of a 14-year-old daughter whose repeated
requests for a cellphone have been denied.
falls on government and industry to provide this information in a
readily accessible, easily understood fashion so you don't need a
post-doctorate degree in radiation physics to realize that the jury is
$120 billion North American industry is quick to dismiss any concerns,
insisting that science has not drawn a conclusive link between the
devices and health impacts.
are no indications that there are demonstrated public health risks in
using cellphones," says Peter Barnes, president and CEO of the Canadian
Wireless Telecommunications Association.
can never test every final, last, infinite possibility out there. The
more there are studies made, the more certainty there can be to the
statement of no demonstrated public health risk."
Barnes' comments were echoed by the U.S. Cellular Telecommunications
and Internet Association.
issue is less clear-cut inside Health Canada.
years worth of internal Health Canada documents, obtained through
access to information requests, reveal concerns about cellphone
frequencies and potential — but unproven — links to "childhood
leukemia, brain and other cancers of the head and neck, memory
problems, stress and migraine/neurological ailment."
document plainly states: "Children are at the highest risk from (radio
Canadians who visit the agency's website are simply instructed to
decide for themselves whether they can live with the "possibility of an
unknown risk from cellphone use."
experts and health authorities in Europe see it differently.
- In 2000, the German Academy of Paediatrics warned parents to
limit their children's calls. That message was repeated a year later by
the head of Germany's radiation protection agency, which said links to
leukemia and eye cancer couldn't be ruled out.
- Seven French scientists released an in-depth report in 2001
urging parents to restrict their children's cellphone use.
- In 2001, a committee with the Russian radiation protection
bureau advised pregnant women and children under the age of 16 to avoid
- British health officials have arguably been the most
proactive, twice urging the nation's wireless industry to refrain from
promoting cellphones to children and publicly discouraging children
from using them for "non-essential" calls.
have been no such public cautions in Canada or the U.S.
Robert Bradley, head of the radiation protection department of Health
Canada, says his agency has issued no public statements about risks to
children from cellphones.
don't have a particular piece of advice on the (agency's) website and
it's one I think we should be developing."
Canada has maintained a quiet public approach despite internal concerns
dating back to at least the late 1990s.
1998 memo cites "significant evidence" that frequencies similar to
those emitted by cellphones could allow carcinogens and other toxins to
seep into the brain. And recommendations for aggressive research
funding in this area — including studies aimed at children — have been
ignored, documents show.
"If there are health risks, even if small, the economic impact in terms
of health-care costs is expected to be great because of the prevalence
of (radio frequency) exposure in our daily lives," says a 1999 internal
Health Canada document.
document from the same year concedes that Canada "lags significantly
behind efforts (of) other G-7 countries" on research into radio
frequency effects and says "Inspection and enforcement is very weak or
document called for a 10-year, $11.5 million research program to "allow
relevant risk management options to be proposed."
research funding never materialized.
year later, another Health Canada proposal argued that studying
cellphone effects on children's brains and eyes was necessary for "risk
assessment," would help reduce "the possibility that acute health
effects will develop in children" and would provide the knowledge
needed to ensure that the department's regulatory approach would
"adequately protect children."
calculated cost for such research was $700,000 a year.
It never came.
the agency's financial commitment to cellphone emissions research is
$150,000 a year — the same as it was five years ago.
a drop in the bucket compared to many European countries. The British,
for example, have devoted $15 million (U.S.) over four years and are in
the process of earmarking more.
studies over the past five years have been done in Europe. And while
the research offers no clear answers, it's increasingly certain that
wireless radio signals can cause biological effects — such as breaks in
rat and human DNA, or nerve cell damage in animal brains — that
potentially could be precursors to health effects.
60 per cent of the more than 250 studies looking at the health effects
of cellphone frequencies have shown some form of biological effect,
according to an analysis by Dr. Henry Lai, a top researcher of the
subject at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"There's a cause for concern," says Lai. "The radiation is not as safe
as the cellphone industry asserts."
says some effects, including potential sperm cell DNA damage found in a
recent Australian study, are "likely to be health hazardous."
Michael Repacholi, who heads the radiation research program at the
World Health Organization, takes a different view, arguing that it's
normal to see small biological effects in lab experiments.
you start getting effects that are going to damage DNA ... that's
something that could lead to a consequence. But most of the biological
effects that are reported are well within the range of normal
compensation of the body."
Mary McBride, senior scientist in cancer control research at the B.C.
Cancer Agency, agrees biological effects aren't necessarily cause for
"There are many examples of biological effects that are neutral and
positive in terms of health, so there's no reason to presuppose that
because there is a biological effect that that should raise a red flag
the scientific community remains divided on the link between cell
signals and potential health risks, there's growing concern about the
lack of research related to children.
image modeling comparing the heads of adults and children has shown
radiation penetrates far more deeply into young skulls, resulting in
greater exposure to potentially harmful radio waves.
the youngest users of this technology, today's children will be exposed
more than any other generation to a steady stream of wireless signals.
Market researchers predict 10 per cent of Canadians aged 8 to 11 will
have their own cellphones by the end of this year, a number expected to
quadruple by 2008.
Busby recently got a cellphone for her 11th birthday after a
year-and-a-half of asking her parents.
uses it to chat with her friends, who also have their own cellphones,
and check in with family.
like the idea of her having a phone for security reasons," says Martin
Busby, Linnea's father. "The investment is well worth knowing I can be
in touch with her. And it's a status thing for her. If it gets to the
point where it's stuck to her ear all the time, it would concern me. It
concerns me a little bit. But she knows it's not a toy."
about cellphone exposure is one of the reasons Adam Kucharski took back
the cellphone he gave his son Alex two years ago. The 13-year-old
Richmond Hill student used to carry the phone with him everywhere. His
parents cancelled his plan three months ago.
think they're overused," says Kucharski, a computer specialist. "And in
the back of my mind I have concerns about the (radio frequencies). It's
better to be cautious. Frequencies are getting higher and that has an
the absence of any clear advice from Health Canada, the industry has
become the de facto voice on wireless health effects.
its message is clear.
its website, the Canadian cellphone association claims that
"overwhelming evidence in the scientific community ... supports the
conclusion that there is no demonstrated public health risk."
It also says government agencies "support that wireless telephones are
not a health risk."
Health Canada officials say they are uncomfortable with those claims.
their statement; it doesn't come from us," says Bradley. "There are
still issues that need to be addressed so we can feel more comfortable
with saying that ... There is no heavy, strong leaning saying, `No,
absolutely, totally on the safe side,' nor the other way, saying,
`Absolutely, totally bad.'"
industry's Barnes says the difference in messages reflects the
differing "roles" of industry and science.
though studies indicate biological effects, he says the scientific
community has not informed his association of any proven health
also been told they want to continue studying it and we're more than
willing to co-operate with them," he says.
• • •
Meanwhile, Canadian children are using cellphones in record numbers.
next year, one in every five children aged 8 to 11 will have a wireless
phone, according to forecasts from Toronto-based Solutions Research
figure is expected to balloon as campaigns rev up and wireless phones
become more accepted as a replacement for "wired" phones.
experts have conservatively suggested that half of all pre-teens in
this country will regularly use a cellphone by the end of the decade.
concern is the fact that the cellphone industry is relatively young. In
Canada, the industry celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer, but
the phones were very much a novelty during the first decade.
only been in the past five to eight years that consumers have been able
to enjoy unlimited evening and weekend calling, affordable monthly
rates and heavily subsidized handsets. Cellphones have become an
essential social and business tool for many, and this has led to a
dramatic increase in the time we spend using these devices.
example, Canadians spent an average of 262 minutes a month on their
cellphones in 2002, according to a report last year from Bell Canada,
which predicted that by the end of 2005 average minutes would jump to
nearly 400 — a rise of 50 per cent.
scientists say it could take decades to determine whether this popular
embrace of cellphones will affect health, particularly for adults who
began using the devices as children.
officials don't want to wait until it's too late.
this time, we believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by
children for non-essential calls should be discouraged," stated a
report last year from the National Radiological Protection Board, a
part of the U.K. Health Protection Agency.
also recommend that the mobile phone industry should refrain from
promoting the use of mobile phones by children," said the report, which
encouraged the government to send information leaflets to every U.K.
household outlining the health aspects of mobile phone use.
Michael Clark, scientific spokesperson for the U.K. protection board,
says the British are more cautious than most countries because of the
Mad Cow scare during the mid-1990s that caught the government off
could look at the BSE thing and say we weren't cautious enough in the
early days," he says. "More children and younger children are using
mobile phones. We felt we should re-emphasize the precautionary
has so far decided to steer clear of any such cautionary messages. But
Bradley concedes the agency may now need to do more.
have to look at this over the next couple of months and see whether or
not there is a missing piece of information for the public," he says.
red flags continue to emerge as the industry matures and cellular use
study out of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden last fall found that
people who used a cellphone for more than 10 years doubled their risk
of developing a non-cancerous tumour of the acoustic nerve — called an
acoustic neuroma — that transmits sound from the inner ear to the
benign, the condition can lead to loss of hearing and balance. Left
untreated, the slow-growing tumour can even kill.
studies have previously documented minor health effects from cellphone
signals such as headaches, sleep disorders and slowed reaction times,
studies on acoustic neuromas stand out as the first major warning signs
of a possible health effect.
wireless industry downplayed the Karolinska findings as isolated. But
they weren't the first.
findings out of a competing research lab at Sweden's Örebro University
found increased incidence of the benign tumour among long-term
follow-up study published in June reinforced that conclusion.
Louis Slesin, who has published the respected New York-based scientific
newsletter Microwave News for 20 years, calls the Swedish studies a
far as I'm concerned, the acoustic neuroma data is not quite a smoking
gun, but it's pretty close," Slesin told the Star. "If there are any
more studies showing acoustic neuroma increases, all hell will break
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