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Mobile phones – the risks for children

In Children and Family, Community and Relationship by LivingNowLeave a Comment

In September a well-known Swedish oncologist announced that children who used mobile phones have a higher risk of developing brain tumours. Professor Lennart Hardell told a meeting of the Royal Society in London that people aged 29 had over a five-fold increased risk of developing gliomas if they were under 20 years old when they began using mobile phones.

“This is a warning sign,” Dr Hardell told reporters. “We should be taking precautions.”

Dr Hardell is one of a team of international scientists who have been studying the safety of mobile phone use as part of the 13-country Interphone research project initiated by the World Health Organisation. And he is one of many who are sounding a warning call about the effects of mobile phone radiation for children.

While brain tumours are perhaps the most serious concern about the radiation from mobile phones, they are not the only one – it has been linked with other harmful effects. These include breaches of the blood-brain barrier, damage to DNA, interruption of cell cycle and cell-communication, changes to enzymes, effects on hormones, changes to the central nervous system and impairment of the immune system.

Children are thought to be particularly vulnerable to this radiation when their cells are actively growing and dividing. Their nervous system continues to develop during their teens and their brains are not fully developed until the age of 25. In addition, their skulls are thinner and offer less protection. Studies have demonstrated that children’s brains absorb more radiation from mobile phones than adults.* Add to this the fact that the current generation of children is the first to be exposed to radiofrequency radiation for potentially their entire lives – and that this sort of radiation has a cumulative effect.

Hardell’s study on the tumour risk for children has been criticised by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association. Chief Executive Officer Chris Althaus described Hardell’s report as alarmist and said that mobile phones complied with international standards. He also said there was no evidence for singling out children because scientific evidence did not indicate differences in the absorption of electromagnetic energy from mobile phones between adults and children.

However, Hardell’s findings are consistent with his earlier results. He has previously found increased risks of brain tumours in adult phone users who have used mobile or cordless phones for more than ten years on the same side of the head as the tumour. These include nearly three times the risk of gliomas from analogue mobile phones and one and a half times the risk of acoustic neuromas and astrocytomas from cordless and digital mobile phones.1

Similar risks for long-term phone use have been found by other researchers. Last year a study from Israel found a 50% increased risk of tumours in the parotid (salivary) gland among people who have been using mobile phones for long periods of time.2 A large study of brain tumours in five northern European countries found that people who used a mobile phone regularly for more than ten years had 1.39 times the normal rate of gliomas.3 In 2006 German researcher Joachim Schüz’s group found over twice the normal risk of glioma brain tumours among a small group of people who had used a mobile phone for more than ten years.4 Even some studies that have concluded that mobile phone use does not increase the risk of brain tumours have found increased tumour risks in the subset of long-term users.

Reviewing the evidence for a link between mobile phones and brain tumours, Australian neurosurgeon Vini Khurana said earlier this year, “There is a growing and statistically significant body of evidence reporting that brain tumours such as vestibular Schwannoma (acoustic neuroma) and astrocytoma are associated with ‘heavy’ and ‘prolonged’ mobile phone use.”5

International standards that apply to mobile phones do not necessarily guarantee safety. They protect against only a limited number of short-term effects caused by tissue heating from the radiation. They don’t protect against any long-term, or non-heating effects. And these may be the real culprits.

Late last year the BioInitiative Report was published on the health effects of electromagnetic radiation by a collaboration of international researchers. It concluded, “What is clear is that the existing public safety standards limiting these radiation levels in nearly every country of the world look to be thousands of times too lenient.”6

Apart from the health risk they may pose to children, mobile phones have been associated with a range of negative social behaviours. Mobile phone use has been associated separately with addictive behaviours and with sleep problems in children. Recently a joint study from Denmark and the US surveyed the mothers of over 13 000 children aged seven during 2005 and 2006. They found that children whose mothers had used a mobile phone while pregnant were 54% more likely to have behaviour problems such as difficulties interacting with other children and hyperactivity.7

Earlier this year an Egyptian study found that pregnant women’s use of the mobile phone affected their unborn babies. Researchers measured increases in heart rate and decreased cardiac output in foetuses exposed in this way.8

And for would-be parents there is a further caution. A number of studies have now shown that men who use mobile phones have reduced sperm quality and an increased risk of infertility.9 And if you carry a mobile phone in your hip pocket while it is turned on, remember that sensitive parts of your body are absorbing the radiation.

Hardell is not the first to sound the warning about children’s use of mobile phones. There are now many international scientists, doctors and agencies that have urged precautions to restrict children’s use of the phones. This year, precautionary advice on children’s mobile phone use was issued by the following agencies.

· The European Parliament voted in August on a recommendation to reduce radiation standards from mobile and cordless phones and other devices because of children’s sensitivity. It stated, “the limits on exposure to electromagnetic fields which have been set for the general public are obsolete … and do not address the issue of vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, newborn babies and children”10

· In July, Dr Ronald Heberman, Director of the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, issued a directive to more than 2500 staff members urging precautions for mobile phone use and stating “Do not allow children to use a cell phone, except for emergencies.”11

· The Vienna Resolution, signed in June by a group of international researchers, stated “We strongly advise limited use of cell phones, and other similar devices, by young children and teenagers,”12

· Toronto Public Health recommended “that children, especially pre-adolescent children, use landlines whenever possible, keeping the use of cell phones for essential purposes only, limiting the length of cell phone calls and using headsets or hands-free options, whenever possible.”

· The Israeli Ministry of Health issued guidelines for reducing exposure to mobile phones, particularly for children, in July.

· Russia’s peak radiation body, the Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Projection, issued a statement on 14 April warning against children’s use of mobile phones and stating that the “potential risk for children’s health is very high” .

· The French Ministry of Health, Youth and Sports advised taking precautions to restrict children’s use of mobile phones in a statement on 2 January.

Other agencies that have urged precautions to restrict children’s use of mobile phones in previous years include the British Education Ministry, the British Health Protection Agency, the Irish Doctors Environmental Association, the Vienna Medical Association, the Viennese Chamber of Medical Practitioners, the German Academy of Pediatrics and groups of doctors and scientists.

Even though children’s use of mobile phones has not been conclusively proven to cause health problems such as brain tumours, the writing is on the wall – and to ignore it might not be in the best interests of your child. Dr Ronald Heberman neatly summarised the situation in his presentation to the Congressional hearing on Cell Phone Use and Tumors on 25 September. He said, “I cannot tell you conclusively that phones cause cancer or other diseases. But, I can tell you that there are published peer reviewed studies that have led me to suspect that long term cell phone use may cause cancer. It should be noted in this regard that worldwide, there are three billion regular cell phone users, including a rapidly growing number of children. If we wait until the human evidence is irrefutable and then act, an extraordinarily large number of people will have been exposed to a technology that has never really been shown to be safe.”13

If you do need your child to use a mobile phone, here are some tips to help reduce their exposure.

Advice for children

  1. Don’t use the mobile phone except for emergencies
  2. Limit the amount of time spent on the phone
  3. Don’t carry the mobile phone against the body while it is turned on (because it is still radiating sporadically)
  4. Use a loud-speaker or a wired headset (but not a head-set that operates using radiofrequency radiation)
  5. Communicate by SMS rather than by making calls
  6. Don’t keep the mobile phone near your bed at night either as an alarm clock or while the battery is charging
  7. Don’t use the phone in cars, buses or lifts (where the signal is amplified by the metal)

Advice for parents

  1. Set a good example – limit your own use of mobile phones
  2. Don’t use a mobile phone when pregnant
  3. Don’t use a mobile phone near your child which leads to passive exposure
  4. Don’t buy toy mobile phones for your children. Radiation-emitting devices are not play things
  5. Have a landline, rather than cordless phone in the home
  6. Choose mobile phones that have the least functions

Lyn McLean is author of “Watt’s the Buzz? understanding and avoiding the risks of electromagnetic radiation” and publisher of “EMR and Health”.


1.    Hardell, L et al, World J Surg Oncol 4:74, 2006.
2.    Sadetzki, S et al, Am J Epidemiol Dec 6 2007.
3.    Lahkola A, et al, Int J Cancer, 15;120(8):1769-75. 2007.
4.    Schüz, J et al Am J Epidemiol, 163(6):512-20, 2006.
7.    Divan, H et al, Epidemiology, May 7, 2008.
8.    Rezk, AY et al, Saudi Med J 29(2):218-23, 2008.
9.    eg. Yan JG et al, Fertil Steril July 10, 2007.

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