Family Matters

Pediatricians Say Cell Phone Radiation Standards Need Another Look

Concerns persist over the health effects of radiation from cell phones, especially for kids. Now the nation's largest pediatricians group is asking the government to review emission standards

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It’s been 18 years since the U.S. government assessed the standards for cell phone radiation. That was back in 1996, long before the practice of giving your big kid a cell phone became as common as giving your little kid a bath. Both cell-phone technology and cell-phone use have changed in the interim, which is why last week the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reconsider its radiation standards.

Current guidelines specify that the specific absorption rate (SAR) — the amount of radiofrequency (RF) energy absorbed by the body when using a cell phone — can’t exceed 1.6 watts per kilogram. The standard tells cell-phone makers how much radiation their products are allowed to emit. This all sounds pretty technical; why, you may wonder, is the AAP getting involved in deliberations over RF and SARs? It comes down to children’s health and well-being, writes AAP President Dr. Robert Block, who notes that standards are based on the impact of exposure on an adult male, not on women or kids:

Children, however, are not little adults and are disproportionately impacted by all environmental exposures, including cell phone radiation. In fact, according to [the International Agency for Research on Cancer], when used by children, the average RF energy deposition is two times higher in the brain and 10 times higher in the bone marrow of the skull, compared with mobile phone use by adults.

Yikes. Parents, run, don’t walk, to buy your tween a headset.

(MORE: Study Finds No Link Between Cell Phones and Childhood Cancer, but Hold the Phone)

The AAP’s appeal has a history: previous research has raised questions about whether exposure to radiation from mobile phones can lead to brain cancer. And last month, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski formally proposed an inquiry into radiation standards in cell phones and other wireless devices.

The FCC is also looking into whether emissions standards should be adjusted for the types of devices that are used mostly by kids, which makes sense. But Block points out that standards for all cell phones — even those not aimed at children or teens — need to “be based on protecting the youngest and most vulnerable populations to ensure they are safeguarded throughout their lifetimes.”

Given his target audience, Block couldn’t resist highlighting more than physical health concerns. He also brought up the downside of too much time spent using cell phones, computers, televisions and other devices.

The Academy has found potentially negative effects and no known positive effects of media use by children under the age of 2, including television, computers, cell phones and other handheld wireless devices. In addition, studies consistently show that older children and adolescents utilize media at incredibly high rates, which potentially contributes to obesity and other health and developmental risks. In reviewing the SAR limit, the FCC has the opportunity to improve the health of our nation by highlighting the importance of limiting screen time and media use for children and adolescents.

(MORE: Study: Could Cell-Phone Use in Pregnancy Affect Kids’ Behavior?)

The AAP is not recommending a SAR standard, says Dr. Jerome Paulson, chair of the AAP’s council on environmental health and a pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “We don’t have any preconceived notions about how much is too much,” says Paulson. “But we know in general that children are more vulnerable to environmental hazards.”

Until there’s more clarity, Paulson recommends doing what comes naturally to many kids: text. That way the cell phone isn’t near a child’s head. For phone conversations, use a hands-free device. And pregnant women, take care not to carry your cell phone in a pocket near your abdomen. 

MORE: 5 Easy Ways to Reduce Your Cell Phone Radiation Exposure