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Just How Safe Are Cellular Phones?

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WebMD Health News

May 18, 2000 -- We're addicted to cell phones. "It's the only way my friends can find me," has become a mantra. An estimated 80 million Americans have cell phones today, including kids who carry them to help parents stay in touch.

While the cell phone industry has assured us time and again that going wireless is harmless to our health, new reports are once again stirring concern.

Here's some of the evidence:

A study by the American Health Foundation found a link between cell phone use and a rare type of brain cancer. Another, conducted by Integrated Laboratory Systems in Research Triangle Park, N.C., found that DNA in human cells breaks down when exposed to large doses of cell phone radiation, possibly changing the genetic structure and leading to cancer.

But another study, from England, showed a very small improvement in brain function after people were on the phones for half an hour. Published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology, this study concluded that radiation from cell phones has no effect on the brain besides warming it up slightly, which seemed to slightly increase reaction times in the study subjects.

While the findings of the various studies have yet to be explained or duplicated, they were enough to catch the attention of the U.K.'s National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB).

"That sort of thing has made us say, 'hold on,'" Michael Clark, the board's scientific spokesman, tells WebMD. "Until we know why these things are happening, a precautionary approach should be adopted for children."

The NRPB, whose members also form an independent expert panel known as the Stewart Commission, has issued a 160-page report about the possible health implications of radiofrequency emissions from wireless devices. Citing several studies on the issue, the report included a recommendation that the use of mobile phones by children be limited to essential calls.

Some experts have argued that children absorb more radiation, Clark says. But there is a dispute about this, he adds. "Some say the skull might be slightly thinner, but because their head is smaller, they may absorb less of the microwaves. It's not as simple as that. ... We are saying that because there is not a known effect, there should be precautions."

Still, the commission said there was no evidence that cell phone use causes cancer or Alzheimer's disease. "They dismissed all that," Clark says.

The Stewart Commission's report is "just one piece of a larger puzzle," says cell phone industry spokeswoman Jo-Anne Basile. "In the vast majority of scientific studies on cell phones, no adverse health effects were reported," she tells WebMD. Basile is vice president of extra and industry relations for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

"The Stewart report is up front about stating there is no scientific basis for restricting cell phones for children," Basile says. "Parents should feel confident in knowing there is no scientific evidence in that recommendation."

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