Cells of children rapidly divide and hence are more sensitive to any radiation. The brain area exposed to radiation is also large

If the World Health Organisation has classified mobile phones as “possibly carcinogenic” on May 31, the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly took a proactive step by adopting a resolution on May 27.

The Council has recommended restrictions on the use of mobile phones and wireless Internet access in all schools thus making them healthier places for children.

The Council's recommendation states: “give preference to wired internet connections, and strictly regulate the use of mobile phones by schoolchildren on school premises.”

No evidence found yet

While mobile phones use non-ionising radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, the Council's recommendations have covered the entire gamut of electromagnetic fields. By virtue of being non-ionising, they tend to be less harmful to humans, and till date no definite connection has been found between mobile phone use and cancer.

Most of the large-scale studies conducted so far have relied completely on individuals' ability to recall the duration and extent of use. Hence they tend to become subjective. Also, there are several other factors that play a role in the amount of non-ionising radiation that a mobile phone would emit when in use. For instance, when the signal is weak, the radiation emitted is more.

Why this label

No firm and definite scientific evidence has been found to confirm non-ionising radition as harmful. This is the reason why the WHO has labelled mobile phone use as “possibly carcinogenic.” Yet, it is customary in science to apply precautionary principle whenever risk is suspected but clear evidence is not available.

Unlike adults, children have cells that are rapidly dividing and the tissues are growing. Hence the cells are more sensitive to radiation. Also, the thickness of the skull is less compared with adults. The area of the brain exposed to non-ionising radiation from cell phones is large vis-à-vis adults. Hence more caution is required in the case of children, particulalry young children..

The Council has rightfully highlighted this basic approach in its recommendation by stating that: “Precautionary principle should be applicable when scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty.”

It goes on to add that it is all the more essential to apply the precautionary approach when dealing with a vulnerable population, which in this case is children.

For reasons well known, people were in the dark for many years about the risk of lung cancer from smoking. The same is the case with lead in petrol and asbestos.

“Waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof before taking action to prevent well-known risks can lead to very high health and economic costs,” it notes.

It also calls for measures for building awareness among teachers, parents and children.

However, the Council's recommendation has no legal force. Yet, its stand sends a strong signal to the 47 member governments.

The Council of Europe is not the only body that has come out with such a recommendation much before the WHO's classification.

The Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (RNCNIRP) published a similar resolution in April this year.

Russia's stance

As in the case of the Council of Europe, the Russian Committee's (RNCNIRP) recommendation is based on the application of the precautionary principle.

The resolution entitled “Electromagnetic fields from mobile phones: health effect on children and teenagers” has identified a number of priority areas. The most striking among them is the requirement that the “information that a mobile phone is a source of RF EMF is clearly shown on the phone's body (or any other telecommunication device).”

It also mandates that the user's manual clearly mentions that mobile phones are a “source of harmful RF EMF exposure. Usage of a mobile phone by children and adolescents under 18 years of age is not recommended.”

The U.S and a few countries in Europe stipulated that manufacturers of carbonated drinks refrain from advertising in children's TV channels and also stop featuring advertisements targeting children. The Russian Committee has emulated these restrictions in the case of mobile phones.

It has called for banning of all types of advertisement of mobile telecommunications for children (teenagers).

The reason for this becomes clear when one looks at the statistics. There were about 15 million children and teenagers aged 5 to 19 living in Russia at the end of last year. And with mobile phone penetration in Russia standing at 150 per cent according to the report, the compulsion to target them becomes big.

“They [the children] all are presumed to be a target group for marketing for telecommunication service providers, mobile phone vendors and others” the report states.

According to RNCNIRP, “results of clinical studies on children show that chronic exposure to RF EMF may lead to borderline psychosomatic disorders.”

Apparently, the Russian population already seems seized of the unknown risks of non-ionising radiation from mobile phones.

According to a survey conducted last year, about 73 per cent of the respondents appear to be aware of the possibility of health risks.

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