Several thousand rats and mice have taken up residence in a $10-million complex at a Chicago laboratory, where they eat, snooze and have their babies in a constant bath of the same kind of cell-phone radiation American families live with every day.

Their 21 Swiss-engineered chambers, shielded steel rooms where the small mammals are exposed to radio emissions mimicking cell phones up to 20 hours a day for two years, were designed to provide the federal government's most comprehensive answer to a question that has become increasingly pressing for Americans: Is it safe?

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 barred local governments from using concern about health risks as a ground for denying cell towers so long as the technology met safety standards set by the Federal Communications Commission.With nine out of 10 Americans - many of them children - now using wireless phones, the Food and Drug Administration concluded a comprehensive study of cell-phone radiation was imperative.

"With so many users, this could translate into a potentially significant public health problem should the use of these devices even slightly increase the risk of adverse health effects," said John R. Bucher, associate director of the National Toxicology Program, in Senate testimony last year.

Up until now, the most comprehensive cancer studies in Europe used restrained rodents exposed up to two hours per day. The Chicago study will allow scientists to monitor potential health effects starting in the womb and extending through old age, said David McCormick, director of the IIT Research Institute, which is conducting the study.

"This is the largest study that has been done or most likely will ever be done to try to identify adverse effects of longer term exposure," he said in an interview.

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