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Kids' cellphone use in spotlight

Kids' cellphone use in spotlight Officials agree questions call for use of caution

From Robert Reidlinger:

Kids' cellphone use in spotlight Officials agree questions call for use of caution

Tyler Hamilton and Robert Cribb

Toronto Star, 7/09/05

Public calls for greater caution around children's use of cellphones are emerging for the first time in Canada as scientists raise questions about the impact of radio frequencies on young heads and bodies.

In the past few days, several leading international and Canadian health officials have acknowledged concerns about the potential health risks of children using cellphones. These cautions come just as the industry, which says its products are safe, prepares to target pre-teens with colorful new phones bearing the images of Barbie, Hello Kitty and Disney characters.

"We certainly advocate precautionary measures for children," said Dr. Michael Repacholi, co-ordinator of radiation and environmental research for the World Health Organization, or WHO, during a presentation at an international conference in Ottawa this week.

Urging children to use headsets or speakerphones that keep potentially harmful radio waves away from their heads is one prudent step, he suggested. Some scientists believe children are more vulnerable to cellphone frequencies because of thinner skulls and developing nervous systems.

Repacholi's comments are a departure from WHO's official position, found on the organization's website, stating science "does not indicate the need for any special precautions for use of mobile phones."

The new caution follows a Toronto Star investigation into the wireless industry's new marketing focus on children and what some scientists view as potential health effects.

Before now, Canadian health authorities have issued no precautionary messages on the use of cellphones by children. But voices of concern have been heard over the past few days.

On Monday, Canada's top public health official, Dr. David Butler-Jones, told the Star that moderation is the best strategy when it comes to children's use of cellphones. Dr. Sheela Basrur, Ontario's chief public health officer, has also urged caution and better communication from governments about the health risks of children using cellphones.

The wireless industry maintains that cellphones are safe for adults and children alike.

Peter Barnes, chief executive officer of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, said his industry relies on the official policies of organizations such as WHO and Health Canada that continue to make no distinction between adults and children.

"We can only support what they say at the official level, rather than the more informal level of what they say at a conference," he said. "We get licenses to operate, we are told to adhere to limits, which Health Canada establishes. That's the basis upon which we carry out our business. We have and will continue to adhere to those limits."

As the cellphone industry shifts more of its marketing focus to teenagers and pre-teens, some scientists and public health officials say more research is needed.

One Canadian scientist heading up a massive international study on cellphones and cancer is urging the world community to back follow-up research focused on children.

Dr. Elisabeth Cardis, a top researcher at the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of WHO, said the latest study - the so-called Interphone project - has involved spending the last few years looking at adults between 30 and 59 for incidences of head, neck and salivary-gland cancers.

The results of the 13-country effort, which includes a three-city population study from Canada, are currently being analyzed and will remain confidential until publication, probably in 2006.

Cardis, who grew up in Ottawa, is now turning her attention to cellphone use by children, an area that has been the focus of surprisingly little research.

"We're seriously considering an Interphone kids study," said Cardis, who made the case for just such a project in June at a WHO conference in Geneva.

She's hoping that member countries will contribute to the $400,000 needed to evaluate the feasibility of an Interphone kids project. She estimated the final cost of a multi-year, multi-country study at between $10 million and $15 million.

The pleas to join the wireless age are getting more persistent, and aimed at younger targets. If, for parents, it comes down to weighing the short-term safety benefits against the uncertain long-term health risks, the question becomes whether they're getting what they need to make informed decisions.

Often information about health issues, including emission levels of a phone, is in the back of user manuals that consumers don't have easy access to until after the devices have been purchased. The same information is difficult to find, if not unavailable, on the websites of service providers.

In Europe, some health authorities have been urging caution for years. Britain's national health agency has asked its wireless industry to refrain from marketing to children, while several authorities in other European countries have recommended that children be discouraged from using cellphones for non-essential calls.

Health Canada has remained quietly on the fence.

"There is nothing in the science to suggest that children are any more at risk than adults," said Dr. James McNamee, a scientist with Health Canada's radiation protection division. "Obviously, the review of the science is ongoing and we're trying to fill in the knowledge gaps as we can."

Meanwhile, family plans, usually offering unlimited calling on evenings and weekends and free calls between family members any time of the day, have become an effective way for providers to reach the young without having to market directly to children.

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