Monday, May 30, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

During this graduation season, the gift of choice for the younger set seems to be a cell phone. By younger set, I'm talking about those kids graduating from elementary school or junior high and moving on to the next step.

A few years ago, this pint-sized arms race of communication technology would seem laughable. But with ever-more affordable phones and (seemingly) economical family plans to run them, most kids I know end up with a cell phone somewhere during their junior high or early high school years. The convenience of having your kids wired can't be beat - knowing when the school's game bus is nearing campus so you don't have to cool your heels waiting or easily locating your kids at crowded venues like outdoor festivals are huge pluses. (I'm purposefully ignoring the benefits my kids associate with cell phones - access to friends, texting, and access to friends.) Yes, cell phones are incredibly useful to organize family life.

But I have my concerns.

And these concerns are shared by others, ranging from governments to health agencies to cancer researchers. For years, in fact for as many years as I've been communicating science, there have been concerns about the effects of radiation from cell phones on the brain. And those concerns are especially acute for younger people, whose skulls are not as thick as those of adults (especially around the ear), which means that their brains, replete with their quickly replicating cells, are exposed to more radiation than an adult's.

No one is sure what these higher levels of radiation exposure mean. After all, we're talking about the usually benign non-ionizing radiation rather than the shorter, more intense waves of ionizing radiation that x-rays or radioactive materials emit. However, even though non-ionizing radiation is much less problematic overall, what is a problem is our increasingly higher and longer exposures to these sources. In other words, the source is less dangerous, but we are exposing ourselves to it for longer periods of time over many more years than ever before.

The EU, which is conducting a large, multi-national, case-controlled study focusing specifically on kids called Mobi-Kids, has a nice primer on electromagnetic fields here.

So what does the science tell us about cell phones and health risks?

Well, cancer surveillance tells us that brain cancers in young people, while still rare, are increasing in frequency. There are many possible reasons, including nutrition, family history, and exposure to chemicals, but non-ionizing radiation has not been ruled out as a contributing factor. Cancer aside, it is well documented that rates of attention deficit disorder and autism, both due to brain differences that were likely triggered in utero, are rising as well. And then there are worries about radiation's effects on other sensitive, still-forming parts of the body, like reproductive organs, especially for guys who often carry their phones in the front pockets of their pants.

To date, this has been a difficult field to research, and much of the research is sponsored by cell phone manufacturers. As a result, the findings are all over the place. Even the American Cancer Society (ACS) noted one of the largest studies to date just complicates the debate because it found heavy cell phone users had lower overall rates of brain cancer, but higher rates of a specific type of brain cancer called glioma. And what was considered heavy cell phone usage at the time of the decade-long study would not be considered heavy use today. The ACS concluded, not surprisingly, that more research is needed, especially for children because they were not included in this large study.

A recent report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that glucose metabolism was higher in the brain in areas nearest the cell phone antenna after a 50-minute conversation on a cell phone. No one is speculating what "increased glucose metabolism" means other than a change in brain activity, but it does show that the radiation does have some effect on normal cellular functioning.

Currently, the general consensus among respected organizations, such as the World Health Organization (which, incidentally, sets standards for radiation for mobile devices, as does our FCC), is that there is no evidence of adverse effects from the radiation from devices such as cell phones. However, many of these same organizations hedge their bets by offering tips for reducing personal exposure from those devices.  Sort of a "buyer beware" type of situation.

What's a parent to do?

Personally, I've adopted the tactics of the WHO by assuming a reasonable level of safety with these devices, but practicing precautions nonetheless.

For example, I shopped around and found phones that emitted lower levels of radiation. CNET, which provides tech products reviews, compiled a list of cell phones and their radiation outputs here.

I'm encouraging my family to practice "safe cells" to reduce the amount of radiation they're exposed to by
  • limiting the time spent talking on cell phones
  • holding the phone away from their heads when talking
  • using headsets to create distance from the radiation-emitting phone
  • opting to text rather than talk
  • being aware of how many bars are in use - the lower the number of bars, the harder the phone has to work, i.e., the more radiation it emits, in order to connect to a tower. Similarly (and counterintuitively)...
  • skipping the radiation "shields," which reduce the connection and force the phone to transmit at a higher power, with more radiation 
  • carrying the phone away from their bodies, for example, in a backpack, rather than in a shirt or pants pocket
  • not sleeping with it turned on near their heads, which means not using it every night for an alarm clock on the bedside table
This New York Times article offers additional ideas for reducing radiation exposure from cell phones.

This issue is being taken seriously by countries around the world. For example, in France, cell phones cannot be advertised to children under 12, they must be sold with hands-free extensions, and there are limits on radiation emissions. In Germany, low-emission phones carry a seal of approval. Finland advises that children should stick to texting rather than talking. The UK's National Radiological Protection Board recommends that children only use cell phones for essential phone calls. Perhaps the most strongly worded warnings come from Russia, which not only mentions cancers may be associated with  electromagnetic radiation, but also epilepsy, nervous system disorders, and immune disorders. In fact, the Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection recommends that children under the age of 18 and pregnant women not use cell phones at all.

The WHO, along with various countries, recently convened an international conference in Slovenia on non-ionizing radiation and children. The report will be issued soon and one hopes it will provide some clarity between Russia's dire warnings and the United States' laissez faire attitude.

But, as with every generation, it seems while the adults are busy fretting and the scientists are figuring out how to study an issue, the kids have moved on. What I've noticed from my older kid is that texting is more popular than talking on cell phones, and that Skype seems preferable to sitting with a phone on your ear for those extended, middle-of-the-night conversations. And really, at this point, the main known health risk of cell phones comes not  from radiation, but from automobile accidents caused by drivers distracted by the phones. So perhaps the concern about radiation is a red herring that diverts us from the real threat of cell phones - fragmented attention - but at this point, no one really knows.


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