The West Australian 4 Jul 2009
Alarm bells ring over kids”™ phones
Aine Lynch, UK National Parents Council
I t has a handset with an “on” switch, an “off” switch and two buttons with a male and female figure on ”” one calls mum, the other calls dad and another button gives access to a phone book that contains up to 20 numbers.
The brightly coloured Firefly phone has rung alarms in Britain, where parent groups are concerned about the phones being marketed to children as young as four.
With almost half of the world”™s population now owning a mobile phone the results from the biggest study into its safety, due out within months, will be watched closely.
While snippets have emerged from the Interphone study, done in 13 countries including Australia, experts say the final report could provide the definitive answer to the question that troubles many ”” do mobile phones cause brain cancer?
If so, are children especially vulnerable?
The fear is that long-term exposure on young, growing brains potentially poses the greatest risk from this modern-day communications essential. That could explain some of the public backlash in Britain to the Firefly, the phone for preschoolers.
National Parents Council chief executive Aine Lynch told The Times: “Targeting a phone at a four-year-old gives rise to questions as to where parental responsibility is going. Why would kids need to be contacted by mobile phone? Why are they not in the care of their parents, teachers or supervisors?”
The lobby group Parents Outloud has argued that, apart from mobile phones being unnecessary for such young children, there are greater concerns about radiation exposure on their developing brains.
In Australia, the jury is out about a possible association between mobiles and brain cancer, and while there is still no clear evidence of a link it is telling that many experts recommend limiting their use.
Renowned brain surgeon Charles Teo has cautioned against regular mobile use, particularly because he says the latency effect means exposure to electromagnetic radiation may take many years to show up. He says he uses a mobile phone only when it is on speaker phone.
In October last year, the distinguished head and neck surgeon Chris O”™Brien, who died from a brain tumour last month, told ABC 720”™s Sharon Greenock: “A number of people pointed out that perhaps mobile phone use may have contributed to the initiation of my cancer ”” and that might be right, I don”™t know ”” and in fact there”™s new compelling evidence that suggests that constant mobile phone use beyond 10 years is strongly linked to the development of brain tumours.
“Who knows in my case? I wasn”™t a really, really strong user. but when I was in the car ”” and I know it”™s illegal and I regret it ”” but I would drive for many minutes with the phone up at my ear and my right elbow on the windowsill and so it”™s possible that contributed.”
Doubts have been raised by University of Sydney professor of public health Bruce Armstrong, who worked on the Australian arm of Interphone, which has focused on tumours of the head and neck in those aged 30 to 59 and others with high and long-term mobile phone use.
He gave oxygen to health concerns about mobiles when he spoke at a conference of the country”™s major research centre, the Australian Centre for Radiofrequency Bioeffects Research in Melbourne six months ago.
He told the meeting that some data from Interphone suggested an increased risk of glioma, a particularly deadly brain tumour, on the side of the head used by mobile phone users. This was enough to be a “cause for concern”.
Asked for a bottom line assessment of the risk, Professor Armstrong ”” a former WA Health Department chief ”” said no one knew yet. While a large harmful effect “seemed unlikely”, he told the meeting there might be a small effect and because so many people used mobile phones that could potentially mean a lot of harm. “I certainly can”™t say it”™s harmful, nor can I confidently say it”™s definitely safe, so I”™m sitting on the fence.”
He said he limited his mobile phone use and used landline phones when available.
“Human exposure to mobile phone frequency electromagnetic energy should be kept as low as reasonably achievable, especially in children,” he said. “Research into the possible adverse health effects of radio-frequency energy should continue.” Professor Armstrong said from Britain this week that his position had not changed. “The main thing that”™s coming down the track is the major report of Interphone, that”™s what everyone is waiting for.”
Professor Michael Abramson, a Monash University researcher into the effect of radio-frequency effects on the body, said some results from Interphone had been questioned because of questions of bias and lack of numbers at some centres.
“My take on it all is that the jury is still out but the results from most of the Interphone centres so far suggest no association with acoustic neuroma or glioma.,” he said. “But some centres showed an association in people who had used a mobile phone on that side of the head (as the cancer) for more than 10 years, but there”™s even been some disagreement among the researchers on this.”
The mobile phone industry says it supports continuing research but there is no proof of any risk, even to children. The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association says concerned parents can limit children”™s radio-frequency exposure by limiting calls or using hands-free devices to keep the handset away from the head and body.
Cancer Council of WA director of education and research Terry Slevin said most agents known to cause or contribute to cancer risk took many years, even decades, to achieve their effect.
While there were billions of mobile phone users in the world and the number was growing, the devices remained a relatively new technology, dating back to only the 1990s for many users.
“As a result it is too early to be certain about whether mobile phone use contributes to cancer risk,” he said. “And if there is a link, is it only in extremely heavy users or does it increase the risk for all users, or perhaps just those who started using mobile phones very young?”
Mr Slevin said results from research were not always reliable because of factors such as recall bias, which meant those with brain cancer were more likely to recall higher phone use because they believed this was the cause of their cancer.
“But this is an issue ”” and a research question ”” that is not going away any time soon,” he said.
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