UK Cell phone cancer researchers: The jury is still out. Especially for kids.

Summary:The bad news, after the latest round of cell phone cancer research, is that cell phones have yet to be ruled out as a potential cause of brain cancer "or whether children face greater risks than adults, British scientists said on Wednesday." The cell phone industry would have you believe that the good news is that no definitive link between cell phone usage and brain cancer was proven in this most recent study.

The bad news, after the latest round of cell phone cancer research, is that cell phones have yet to be ruled out as a potential cause of brain cancer "or whether children face greater risks than adults, British scientists said on Wednesday." The cell phone industry would have you believe that the good news is that no definitive link between cell phone usage and brain cancer was proven in this most recent study. That's BS. The truth of the matter is that if the jury is still out, which it clearly is, there isn't a whole lot of good news. OK, in this case, there's apparently some good news. It's that cell phones don't cause short term health risks. But according to the Reuters report:

University of Nottingham professor Lawrie Challis, chairman of the 8.8 million pound ($17.90 million) Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research (MTHR) Program, said studies so far had included few participants who had used cell phones for 10 years or longer.

"We cannot rule out the possibility, at this stage, that cancer could appear in a few years' time," he told a news conference. "Most cancers take 10 years to appear."

Challis also noted that the U.K. studies that made up the report had not yet examined children. British scientists had shied away from exposing children to radio frequency fields, which are generated by devices such as mobile phones and phone masts, for ethical reasons, he said.

However, he noted that it was possible for children to be more sensitive to radio frequency radiation than adults and said a second MTHR program is under way, involving 200,000 people in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Britain.

Over the years, I've taken a lot of heat for my position on the cell phone cancer issue, a part of which has to do with children and cell phones. If I could sum up that position in a nutshell, it's that as long as the jury is still out, you're welcome do what you want with your own body (so long as you're aware that the jury is still out and that you could be taking a risk). But for Pete's sake, don't blindly take that same risk with your kids.

Another part of the position is that there should be a federal regulation in place that requires all cell phone packaging and marketing materials to display the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) rating of the cell phone in question. Before any phone is allowed onto the US market, two SAR ratings (one for head, the other for body) must be registered with the Federal Communications Commission.

You could argue that this is simply to certify that phones do not exceed the maximum allowed SAR rating of 1.6 W/kg (watts per kilogram). But if that were the case, then all that would be required would be a pass/fail score. Instead, the actual score is published which to me represents a means of arming the public with information that could be relevant when it comes to their tolerance for risk. One problem? Try finding this information. It isn't easy. When the iPhone came out, was anything written about its SAR rating? Do you even know what it is? If you ask me, until the cell phone cancer jury is officially "in," SAR ratings should be common knowledge and readily accessible. Not buried. The head SAR ratings for the 4 and 8GB iPhones are same at .974 W/kg.

Let's say you're not willing to condemn cell phones yet but, given that the jury is still out, you might want a phone that's not on CNET's top 10 highest SAR-rated phones on the US market. Or maybe you'll go one step further and only pick from CNET's 10 lowest SAR-rated phones. Or maybe you'll blow-off SAR as an issue for yourself, but consider it when buying a phone for your kids. Others with a financial interest in cell phone sales have argued that the efficacy of equipping your kids with a cell phone (so that they can call in case of an emergency) far outweighs any potential risk. And yes, to be fair, there have been some very public cases including one from last September involving text messaging where cell phones have saved a child's life.

There are no easy answers which is why I say not to blindly take a risk with your kids. For example, if you honestly believe your kids need a phone for their safety's sake, there are some things you can do to mitigate the unknown risk. Teach them how to use it in speakerphone mode when possible. Use Bluetooth-based headsets (Bluetooth radios don't have near the power of the radio that must communicate with the nearest cell tower). Buy a phone that isn't one of the maximum SAR rated phones. Tell them to keep the phone in a purse or a backpack instead of in their pockets (where the body SAR rating goes into effect) to put at least some distance between the radio and their skin. You get the picture.

The jury is out. I guess you can see that as meaning the glass is half full. But when it's cancer we're talking about, maybe seeing it as half-empty makes sense. For now.

Topics: Mobility

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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