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Page last updated at 23:35 GMT, Friday, 5 August 2011 00:35 UK

Are mobile phones safe for children to use?

A toddler talking on a mobile phone
Children's nervous systems are still developing, and there are fears that radiation could penetrate deeper into their brains

By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click

While many experts say there is no link between mobile phone use and cancer in adults there is still widespread uncertainty about the risks children face.

Research into health and mobile phones has been beset with difficulties. Mobiles have been in use for a relatively short time and yet cancers can take decades to develop.

However most scientists seem to agree about one thing - that if mobiles are hazardous, children may be more vulnerable than the rest of us to their possible ill-effects.

"If the penetration of the electromagnetic waves goes for four centimetres into the brain, four centimetres into the adult brain is just the temporal lobe," says Dr Annie Sasco of the Institute of Public Health, Epidemiology and Development in Bordeaux.

"There are not too many important functions in the temporal lobe - but in a child the more central brain structures are going to be exposed.

"In addition kids have a skull which is thinner, less protective, they have a higher content of water in the brain, so there are many reasons that they absorb more of the same radiation," she adds.

'Possibly carcinogenic'

European research just published in America's Journal of the National Cancer Institute has concluded children who use mobile phones are at no greater risk of developing brain cancer than those who don't.

But critics say the research is too short-term and the data it used is out of date.

Mobile phone covers with cartoon character designs
About five billion people now use mobile phones across the world

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recently reclassified mobile phones. The UN agency has fallen short of saying that mobile phones are definitely hazardous, instead they have re-classified mobile phones as possibly carcinogenic.

The re-classification was the result of a meeting held at the headquarters in Lyon of the world's leading scientists in the field.

They reviewed experimental data from animal research and also the longest running research project into the use of mobile phones by brain cancer sufferers.

"The strongest evidence really comes from the studies of cancer in humans and there was some evidence that there may be an association between the use of mobile cell-phones and certain types of brain cancer," says Dr Kurt Straif of the IARC.

The GSMA, the industry body representing the interests of the mobile industry followed up the IARC's findings by saying: "The IARC classification suggests that a hazard is possible but not likely."

And while the GSMA acknowledged that some mobile phone users may be concerned it said that present safety standards remain valid, and that there was need for further research.

Safety advice

Some scientists believe the IARC's classification of a "possible" link between cancer and mobile phone use is not strong enough.

We think we face a new emerging health risk and that we shouldn't wait 30 to 40 years to see the results
Elizabeth Ruffinengo
Women in Europe for a Common Future

"I think mobile phones are a risk for brain tumours and we have already quite substantial epidemiological evidence showing that people who use cell-phones for more than 10 years have about a doubling in their risk of glioma, which is a brain tumour, quite often fatal," says Dr Annie Sasco.

Certainly for parents, giving children mobiles helps to keep tabs on them when they are out and about in a world full of hazards. But if the hazard is the phone itself, then we would be wise to take precautions.

"From the review of the exposure determinants we can clearly say that it is mostly the use of cell-phones for voice calls, particularly when the phone is close to the brain or to the ear - so you could for example recommend a hands-free kit for voice calls," said Dr Straif.

"There is also some evidence that exposure in children may be up to two-fold higher because of the different biology and other factors that influence exposure, therefore it may be prudent to restrict it further to kids and take these pragmatic measures more seriously," he added.

Text rather than talk, hands-free sets, use a land-line when there is one to hand - the sort of advice that some would like to see governments and health authorities passing on to consumers in the light of the IARC's new classification for mobile phones.

Elizabeth Ruffinengo, from Women in Europe for a Common Future, believes that as mobile phones represent a possible carcinogen there should be some safety recommendations.

"We have heard scientists saying that children are more at risk when it comes to exposure to mobile phones, so what we want is recommendations following the new IARC's classifications and so far we have not seen any.

We think we face a new emerging health risk and that we shouldn't wait 30 to 40 years to see the results."

So after 20 or so years with mobiles, many experts say there is nothing to worry about, the UN says there might be a problem, and others believe there definitely is an issue.

It is up to the individual to decide whether to dismiss the warnings or take minor precautions to ensure those thought most vulnerable do not blame us if the most dire predictions do turn out to be correct.

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