No link between cell phone towers, kids' cancer risk

June 24, 2010 12:58 am | Updated 02:00 am IST

Concerns about mobile phone towers have been driven mostly by people's own beliefs rather than science. Photo: M. Karunakaran

Concerns about mobile phone towers have been driven mostly by people's own beliefs rather than science. Photo: M. Karunakaran

Children whose mothers lived close to a mobile phone tower while pregnant did not appear to be at any higher risk of cancer than children whose mothers lived farther away, a new study finds.

British researchers analyzed 1,397 cancer cases in children up to age 4 from 1999 to 2001 in the United Kingdom. Using a national birth registry, they identified 5,588 similar children without cancer.

Next, they compared how far the children's mothers lived from a cell phone tower and the stations' signal strengths. No significant differences were seen between the two groups.

Independent body

The study was paid for by an independent body set up to provide money for research into the health effects of mobile phones, funded by Britain's department of health and the mobile telecommunications industry.

Paul Elliott, the study's lead author, was a member of the body's program management committee. The research was published online Wednesday in the medical journal, BMJ.

“It's reassuring,” said Elliott, a professor of epidemiology and public health medicine at Imperial College in London. “On the basis of our results, people living near mobile phone stations shouldn't consider moving based on health reasons.”

Since the study was done, many more mobile phone towers were built in Britain.

Exposure to radiofrequency from mobile phone towers is much lower than exposure from cell phones.

The effect

Elliott and colleagues estimated that a day's exposure from a mobile phone tower at an incident level of 1-2 V/m corresponds to about the first 4 seconds of local exposure to the head and about 30 minutes of whole body exposure arising from the use of a mobile phone.

However, even at low levels of exposure there are theoretical concerns about the effects on children because of relatively greater dose (per kg body mass), the potential greater susceptibility of children compared with adults, and potential effects of lifelong, cumulative exposures.

It is for these reasons that in the UK it has been recommended that exposure of children to mobile telephony should be minimised.

As cell phones have carpeted the globe and become essential to lifestyles from Africa to Asia to America, some have wondered if the devices might come with a hidden health cost. Last month, the results of a major study on cell phones and cancer were published and largely dismissed the connection between cell phones and cancer, though it could not definitively be ruled out.

Some experts said concerns about mobile phone towers have been driven mostly by people's own beliefs rather than science.

“People don't like these things towering over their gardens and every time they get a headache they think it's responsible,” said John Bithell, a retired research fellow at the Childhood Cancer Research Group at the University of Oxford.

No evidence

“But there's no scientific evidence, not even in animals, to back this up.” Bithell was not connected to the study and wrote an accompanying editorial in the BMJ.

He said it might be more important to study cancers in adults, because any health effects are likely to appear only after years of exposure to cell phones and their base towers.

Still, Bithell said any dangers of mobile phones causing cancer were dwarfed by more immediate dangers of using the devices.

“What you do while using a mobile phone during driving is more dangerous than what the phone is doing to you,” he said.

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