Although the scientific community remains at odds over the issue of whether cellphone use is linked to health issues, Health Canada is now advising parents to encourage children under 18 to limit the time they spending talking on mobile phones.

The recommendation was part of an Oct. 4 information update titled Health Canada Offers Practical Advice on Safe Cell Phone Use, which noted that more than 24 million Canadians now use mobile phones. While it pointed out that the scientific evidence surrounding cellphone use and health is far from conclusive and more research is required, it contained a short list of things "consumers should do":

  • Limit the length of cellphone calls.
  • Replace cellphone calls with text messages or use "hands-free" devices.
  • Encourage children under the age of 18 to limit their cellphone usage.

The advice relates to limiting exposure to the radio waves and electromagnetic fields, or EMF, emitted by cellphones and base towers, a type of non-ionizing radiation also given off by common sources such as AM-FM transmitters and TV broadcast signals. (Ionizing radiation such as the kind emitted by UV rays or X-rays breaks chemical bonds and releases ions whereas non-ionising radiation, such as radio- or microwaves, cannot break chemical bonds but can produce other effects on matter, such as heat.)

Previous guidance from Health Canada had suggested that people could limit their use of cellphones if they were concerned about an unproven suggestion the devices increase one's risk of developing brain cancer, but the new advice is more definitive.

"Really it's more proactive in encouraging cellphone users to find ways to limit their exposure, and … to empower parents to make healthy choices to reduce their children's exposure," explained James McNamee, division chief for health effects and assessments in Health Canada's bureau of consumer and clinical radiation protection.

Uncertain research results

Health Canada's advisory follows a statement issued in late May this year by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that classified cellphones as a category 2B risk, meaning the agency acknowledged mobile phones are possibly carcinogenic to people. McNamee sat on the panel involved with the advisory.

But to put the statement into perspective, things like coffee and surgical implants are also listed as a category 2B risk.

And not all researchers agree with the 2B classification for radiofrequency energy. The U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Cell Phones and Cancer Risk fact sheet, reviewed in August, says, "Although there have been some concerns that radiofrequency energy from cell phones held closely to the head may affect the brain and other tissues, to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer. It is generally accepted that damage to DNA is necessary for cancer to develop. However, radiofrequency energy, unlike ionizing radiation, does not cause DNA damage in cells, and it has not been found to cause cancer in animals or to enhance the cancer-causing effects of known chemical carcinogens in animals."

There are many reports about cellphones and health, and one of the larger ones is IARC's own 10-year Interphone study of brain tumours that looked at 2,708 glioma and 2,409 meningioma cases in people aged 30 to 59 in 13 countries, including Canada. It was aimed at defining whether or not cellphones and cancer were linked, but it wasn’t conclusive.

The Interphone study reported in 2010 that, "Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation."

The research into RF energy and health is just as divided when it comes to young people, partly because it can take years for cancers to develop.

Brain tumour study found no causal link

A U.K. study by the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) sparked concern when it was released in 2000, pointing out that, "If there are currently unrecognized adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head, and a longer lifetime of exposure. In line with our precautionary approach, we believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged. We also recommend that the mobile phone industry should refrain from promoting the use of mobile phones by children."

The more recent CEFALO report in June tried to put the issue to rest by looking at about 1,000 children in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland ages 7 to 19 years who were diagnosed with a brain tumor between 2004 and 2008. It said that, "The absence of an exposure–response relationship either in terms of the amount of mobile phone use or by localization of the brain tumor argues against a causal association."

si-cell-sarkozy-rtr1r17g-1

French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks on his cellphone. France has banned the marketing of cellphones to children under 14 and requires all mobile phones to be sold with a hands-free attachments. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

But critics argue that there were issues with how the data was interpreted, and that the results should be revisited.

Researchers are still striving for a definitive study. The IARC’s Interphone report didn’t look at young people, because it says there weren’t enough of them using cellphones regularly when it began. But the use of mobile phones for calls, texting and internet access has skyrocketed among youth in recent years, so in March 2009, the five-year MOBI-KIDS project involving research groups in 13 countries (again including Canada) was launched to study about 4,000 people between the ages of 10 and 24.

Since the bulk of research into cellphones and their base towers done to date has found no definitive evidence that short-term use poses significant health risks to humans, policy makers have generally given the telecom industry a green light, allowing the use of wireless devices to explode around the world. The WHO estimates that five billion people owned cellphones in 2010.

But due to the questions still being asked about the health effects of cellphone radiation, Canada is not alone in taking a cautious approach to young people's use of the devices. The following is a snapshot of some of the measures other countries have taken:

France

In July 2010, the national assembly passed a law that bans the advertising of cellphones to children under the age of 14; bans their use during teaching in nursery, elementary and middle schools; and requires all cellphones to be sold with an ear piece or other hands-free device that limits the head's exposure to radio frequencies. The government also set up a website dedicated to the issue of radio frequencies and their effects on health and the environment.

Russia

Russia's so-called sanitary and epidemiologic rules and regulations recommend that children under 18 limit their cellphone use. In May, the Russian National Committee on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection, a scientific body that has conducted research into the health effects of cellphone radiation for the Russian health ministry and the WHO, issued a series of recommendations.

It suggested that children under 18 be more strongly and publicly advised against using cellphones. It also proposed that the devices themselves be labelled with information stating they are a source of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields and that the user's manual states that the phone is a sources of "harmful RF EMF exposure" and that cellphone use by children under 18 and pregnant women is not recommended.

U.K.

In March 2011, the department of health updated a leaflet it published in 2005 on mobile phones and health and recommended that children under 16 limit use of cellphones to essential calls and keep calls short. It said the effectiveness of hands-free kits to reduce absorption of radio wave energy is uncertain but that those who are concerned could "take steps to reduce … exposure such as using hands-free kits or texting." It reinforced previous findings that "there is no immediate need for concern when using mobile phones or having a base station in your area" and "no convincing evidence that either will cause harm" but stressed that further research is needed.

The original findings came out of an expert group the government set up in 2000 known as the Stewart group. As a result of that group's recommendations, the government set up the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme to co-ordinate research on the possible impact on health from mobile telecommunications. In its latest progress report in 2007, the group found that:

  • There is no evidence linking short-term mobile phone use with cancers of the brain and nervous system.
  • There is no evidence that mobiles affect brain function or cause unpleasant symptoms.
  • It is too early to say whether mobiles are safe in the long term, and further research is needed.

U.S.

Several jurisdictions have tried to pass laws requiring mobile device packaging to contain labels warning of potential health risks, but most have failed – although many are still studying the issue. The strongest legislation passed to date has been in San Francisco, where the city passed a "right to know" ordinance that would require cellphone retailers to display posters and provide factsheets informing customers of potential health risks and outlining how to reduce those risks. The law is to go into effect Oct. 25, but the industry group CTIA, which represents large wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T, has filed a lawsuit to block the ordinance from taking effect. A hearing is set for Oct. 20.

New Mexico passed a law in March asking the government to study the health effects of cellphone radiation and recommend how to alleviate potential risks. Pennsylvania's house committee on consumer affairs is holding hearings on proposed legislation that would require labels on cellphones that say the device "may cause brain cancer" and advise children and pregnant women to keep them away from the head and body.

Germany

The country's Office for Radiation Protection has recommended that children limit their cellphone use and issued the following general tips for reducing exposure to radiofrequencies:

  • Buy phones with a low specific absorption rate, or SAR, a measurement of the amount of energy in watts that a body absorbs per kilogram in an electromagnetic field. (The office has a database of SAR values by cellphone model sold in Germany.)
  • Use landlines whenever available.
  • Place phones next to your ear only once the phone on the other end is ringing.
  • Make calls as short as possible.
  • Do not use phone when reception is bad.
  • Use hands-free headsets.
  • In cars, use cellphone only with a hands-free kit and outdoor antenna.
  • Send text messages instead of making calls.

EU

EU guidelines on electromagnetic fields are based on the recommendations of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which recommends exposure to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields be limited to frequencies between 0 and 300 GHz. The limits "include a 50 times safety factor for the general public" and are reviewed regularly. When the EU adopted the limits, it included a provision calling on member states to research possible carcinogenic hazards of EMF and keep the public informed of any risks and measures taken to address them. Some EU countries, including Belgium, Greece, apply stricter limits than the general guidelines.

In 2009, the European Parliament asked the European Commission to review the scientific basis and adequacy of the EMF limits. The commission found the limits to be scientifically sound and adequate but did agree to work with member states and the industry to consider the creation of "a guide to available technology options serving to reduce exposure to EMFs."

In May, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which is not a legislative body but an international organization set up by European countries to "promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law," called on European governments to "take all reasonable measures" to reduce young people's exposure to electromagnetic fields. It recommended governments strictly regulate cellphone use on school premises and "give preference to wired internet connections" in classrooms and for children in general. It urged EU governments to "reconsider the scientific basis for the present electromagnetic fields exposure standards" and adopt the precautionary principal when it comes to evaluating the health risks.