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Are Cell Phones Harming Kids?
Seattle Times
Journalist: Judith Blake
March 14, 2001

Cell phones and kids - put them together and some people see potential health concerns.

But the state Board of Health, which will discuss the issue today, likely won't be advising parents to minimize cell-phone use by children younger than 17. The board is expected to follow the recommendation of the state Department of Health. Researchers there say their review of scientific research did not reveal enough evidence of harm to advise that parents limit children's use of cell phones.

"There's a lot of conflicting data," said Janice Englehart, the department's senior health-policy adviser. "What I propose is that the board generate a fact statement" about that data, letting parents use it to make up their own minds.

Cell-phone issues are making waves in many states as wireless use rises. An estimated 110 American now use cell phones.

Cell-phone health issues for children - and some say for adults, too - are linked to concerns about the impact of radio-frequency waves on the brain and what some experts see as a potential to cause cancer or other adverse effects. Englehart noted that several countries, including Britain, recommend such limitations for children. She said this could be part of the information Washington parents could use to decide about their children's cell-phone use.

She said some studies indicate that cell phones' radio-frequency waves alter electrical activity in the brain and may affect short-term cognitive function, such as the ability to make quick choices. She said there was no conclusive evidence that such exposure resulted in long-term effects and that recent studies have shown no link to cancer.

Drew Thatcher, a health physicist with the department, said one study showed that people who were not exposed to radio-frequency waves had quicker recall than those who were exposed. But he considered the findings "quite subjective."

Even if they indicated a genuine impact during exposure, the effect would most likely last only during cell-phone use, he said.

Brain-cancer concerns have arisen because radio-frequency waves can heat brain tissue. However, Thatcher said, exposure levels, and consequent heating effects, from cell phones fall well within limits approved by the government as safe.

But Henry Lai, a University of Washington research professor of bioengineering, believes it is a "logical thing" to recommend limited use of cell phones by children. Lai says several of his own studies with rats indicate that radio-frequency waves affect cognitive function, and he's unconvinced that would not translate into a long-term impact.

There's extra concern with children, he said, because their smaller head sizes mean the waves affect a proportionately greater area of the brain. He added that some of children's brain cells are still developing and "may be more susceptible to radiation." He said cell-phone use began too recently to determine any increased long-term risk for cancer.

The board is expected to advise against using cell phones while driving and will also urge greater public participation in choosing sites for cellular communication towers.

Using a cell phone while driving is a clearer safety issue than children's use, said Health Department officials. Englehart said her review of research indicated a definite connection between higher accident rates and cell-phone use - though in the studies she reviewed, it did not seem to matter whether the phone was hand-held or hands-free.

There's no indication that the state Board of Health will propose cell-phone-related legislation at this time, said the board's executive director, Don Sloma.

A House bill that would have restricted cell-phone use while driving died in committee earlier in this legislative session.

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