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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Post #23 Assessing the Risk of Cell Phones to Children's Health

Recently, our local elementary school allowed a cellular company to hoist a cell phone tower next to the cafeteria. Apparently, the school district will receive some monetary subsidy in exchange for allowing the tower to be built. I am unaware of the politics, legislation and deal-making that allowed this to happen; however, as a local pediatrician (with one child and many patients who attend this school) I felt compelled to do some cursory research into the potential health hazards (if any) regarding long term exposure to a cell tower.

As I am not an expert in epidemiology, radiation, cellular technology or cancer, I have posted snippets of the most relevant research I have found. And although I have my personal misgivings about the actual process that led to the cell tower being erected, I have tried to stick to the facts in regards to the health risks (the editorializing comes mostly at the end).

The main bias may be in the selection of websites that I chose to research - mostly government agencies - which I realize may be a problem for some.

Like most debates, evidence for both sides can be found on the web. The evidence in general seems to favor that there is no appreciable risk from cell phone radiation. Most organizations that I trust (CDC, WHO, FDA, NIH) all post evidence on their websites that generally conclude that cell phone usage has not shown a statistically relevant risk in developing cancer.

1. National Cancer Institute
This link is a nice primer on the health risks of cell phone use and a good summary of the reputable information available. The general conclusion is that "there is currently no conclusive evidence that non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phones is associated with cancer risk."

The National Cancer Institute also reports that a "Nordic study is expected to provide some results on children in the next few years. Plans are also under way for a study called MOBI-KIDS, which would evaluate risk from new communications technologies, including cell phones, and other environmental factors in people between age 10 and 24."

2. National Institutes of Health
This link is to a subsection of the NIH website which summarizes an interview with Toxicologist, Dr. Michael Wyde, who is overseeing the National Toxicology Program (NTP) cell phone studies.

In the interview Dr. Wyde states, "Currently, there’s little or no evidence to suggest that cell phone usage is associated with brain tumors or any other adverse health effects in humans."

3. World Health Organization
Key facts listed in this link show:
• Mobile phone use is ubiquitous with an estimated 4.6 billion subscriptions globally.
• To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use.
• Studies are ongoing to assess potential long-term effects of mobile phone use.
• There is an increased risk of road traffic injuries when drivers use mobile phones (either handheld or "hands-free") while driving.

4. Center for Disease Control
This blog commented on a large epidemiologic study called INTERPHONE which was funded by the European Union and health agencies in 13 countries. From 2000 to 2005, INTERPHONE interviewed 14,000 adults about their cell phone use, other exposures to RF radiation, and other factors conceivably related to brain cancer.

The study concluded that, "overall, no increase in risk of [brain cancer] was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk... at the highest exposure levels... However, biases and errors limit the strength of the conclusions we can draw from these analyses and prevent a causal interpretation... The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation."

5. Food and Drug Administration
This webpage focuses on the risks of cell phone radiation to children. "The scientific evidence does not show a danger to any users of cell phones from RF exposure, including children and teenagers."

6. Wikipedia
Under the cancer subheading in this Wikipedia entry there are is a list of studies both for and against the risks of cell phone radiation.

7. British Medical Journal

BMJ 2010; 340:c3077 doi: 10.1136/bmj.c3077 (Published 22 June 2010)

This case-control study looks at mobile phone base stations and early childhood cancer risk in children born to mothers who lived near cell phone towers during pregnancy.

Paul Elliott, professor of epidemiology and public health medicine, head of department, director, MRC-HPA centre for environment and health, concludes that "there is no association between risk of early childhood cancers and estimates of the mother’s exposure to mobile phone base stations during pregnancy."

Overall the current body of evidence gives me solid relief about cell phones and the lack of health risk they pose.

However, one thing that frustrated me in my research was that I could not find a significant amount of information on health risk secondary to cell phone towers. Understandably, most of the research is concentrated on cell phone usage.

Several articles did comment that cell phone usage exposed the body (and more specifically the brain) to higher radiofrequency energy then a cell phone tower did; however none of the articles really went into detail about distance from the tower, hours near the tower, etc.

One could then extrapolate that if studies are showing that cell phone usage is safe, then exposure to a cell phone tower must also be. But as a parent, I would obviously feel safer and less anxious if there were clear studies in regards to cell phone towers.

The BMJ article cited above discusses cell phone towers and finds no risk to the children of woman who lived near the towers during pregnancy. However there were some debatable flaws to the study and although the conclusion is assuaging, the more studies the merrier.

Interestingly, several websites cautioned that the risks of driving while using a mobile phone were greater than the risks from the radiation exposure itself. Guilty as charged!

In the end my research made me feel better about my child's (and patients') exposure to a cell phone tower, but not completely at ease. It's the unknown that gnaws at me – but I suppose there will always be some level of unknowing.

Would I rather the cell phone tower not be built? Yes. But this may be more NIMBYism than true health concern.

Would I vote to stop it? Yes.

Am I going to fight a long battle to stop it? There are probably better and more productive ways my time could be spent for my child (unless of course the risk of cell phone towers becomes more real in future research).

Am I going to move schools because of this? I doubt it. Our family as a whole is very happy with the school and this potential but unlikely risk doesn't seem to warrant a move.

As in life, every decision carries some risk. We take some risk every time we send our child to school, but as parents we have to decide if the good outweighs the bad. And while my wife and I would rather not see a cell phone tower erected, ultimately, as of this writing, the research leads me to believe very little has changed with the bad.