By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
We live in an increasingly technological world of gadgets, gizmos, devices, electronics, screens, and apps. Obviously there are wonderful benefits and conveniences to be had by all this new stuff, but there are also potential risks. My long concern has been with the potential for health problems from excess exposure, particularly among growing children, whose bodies and nervous systems are more vulnerable.
My Personal Experience
My concern grew out of a personal experience.
I developed an auto-immune thyroid disorder – unusual for a man – after starting to use a cell phone when the first models came out in the early 1990s. As you could imagine, this was a great convenience for me as a cardiologist constantly on call. Instead of having to run to the nearest pay phone when the hospital beeped me for what was often a life-and-death situation, I could now conveniently pull out a cell phone and speak to the hospital on the spot. Needless to say I used the cell phone a lot….And probably overused it.
The thyroid condition shocked me and although I couldn’t directly link it to cell phone usage, I suspected that overuse of early cell phones was a probable cause. Whether causal or not, the experience raised my antenna, about possible health risks from cell phone usage.
I became motivated to learn as much as I could about any risks. I also dramatically altered how I used cell phones: I drastically cut down my usage time, and did not hold the phone directly against my ear anymore.
Over the years, I have studied the wireless issue thoroughly and even spoken at conferences about potential risks. During this time, I have talked to many parents who believe their kids have been affected by various wireless technologies, including ubiquitous Wi-Fi systems in homes and public places, including schools. Parents have described conditions to me such as dizziness, lightheadedness, hyperactivity, and even cardiac arrhythmias.
As I learned more, I increasingly came to believe that all these proliferating wireless gadgets and systems are part of a “perfect storm” of environmental insults that include vaccinations, excess sugar, sodas, and refined carbohydrates, and multiple chemicals.
One sensitive child I learned about developed cardiac arrhythmias and intestinal dysfunction as a result of exposure to many things, from computers and cell phones and cordless phones to the colored markers they used in schools. Limiting his exposures helped him a good deal.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of serious cardiac arrhythmia.
How many kids are there like him who doctors have a hard time figuring out? Many, I suspect.
We live in a toxic world. Wireless technology is part of it. And some people are more vulnerable to it than others.
Do Cell Phones “Cook” Your Brain?
The wireless gadgets used by consumers operate within a “radio frequency” zone of very high frequencies (Megahertz, or MHz, and above). A cell phone functions, for instance, by transmitting “radio waves” through a network of fixed antennas called base stations. Such radio waves are electromagnetic fields (EMFs) operating in a frequency band between 450 MHz and 2,700 MHz (2.7 GHz), at the higher levels near the same range as consumer microwave ovens (2.45 GHz). Microwaves heat up water. The question that has been widely asked is whether a cell phone can heat up and harm your brain if you keep it up to your ear for long periods of time?
The question has raised considerable debate. The preponderance of evidence indicates there is no such threat. But maybe we haven’t studied the possibility long enough.
Although operating at high frequencies, cell phones and other wireless devices do not function at the much higher levels of X-rays or gamma rays that emit radiation that can break chemical bonds in the body. Cell phones emit non-ionizing radiation, so any effects are said to be non-thermal.
Having a cell phone right next to your ear or body for long periods of time may cause disruptions and oxidative stress. Some studies have suggested an increased risk of cancer over many years, leading the World Health Organization to list cell phones and handheld devices as “possible carcinogens” (other “agents” on the list include chloroform, DDT, lead, diesel fuel, and gasoline).
However, animal studies to date have shown no increased risk of cancer for long-term exposure. But larger and longer studies are currently underway to examine this possible link among children and adolescents, because, among other reasons, the time between initial exposure and diagnosis of a tumor could be decades.
The issue of vulnerability in children was summarized in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure:
- Children absorb more “microwave radiation” than adults because their brain tissues are more absorbent, skulls thinner, and their size smaller. The younger the child the higher the risk of disrupting the electrical activity of these developing brains.
- The fetus may be at an even greater risk. Laboratory animal studies suggest that cell phone exposure during pregnancy could potentially result in neuronal damage. In one study, mice exposed as fetuses to constant cell phone radiation throughout gestation later demonstrated signs of hyperactivity and impaired memory. Whether such exposure translates to humans is unclear at this time.
In another study, researchers from UCLA conducted a survey of mothers in a Danish National database about cell phone use during pregnancy and child behavior in the ensuing years. The findings suggested that higher cell phone use during pregnancy was associated with a higher risk of emotional problems and hyperactivity.
These are troubling findings, and only the tip of the research iceberg. I have collected more research, which you can find elsewhere on my website. There are even studies showing adverse effects on sperm quality from cell phone and laptop usage that may affect fertility in men (see Morgan LL, et al.)
Continued research will help us better understand who develops symptoms and why, and certainly that consumers everywhere – particularly vulnerable kids – face a real technological threat.
Years ago, the dangers of tobacco use were underestimated and covered up. I hope we don’t repeat that same lapse again with wireless technology, and we are able to develop stronger regulatory oversight and safe use practices.
Cell Phones and WiFi: Usage by Children and Teens on the Rise
How widespread are health symptoms likely caused by cell phones and other wireless technologies? We know that perhaps 3-6 percent of people – including children – have been found to be sensitive to the chaotic cross-currents of wireless frequencies.
Most parents pay for cell phones and the monthly usage plans primarily for safety, they say. They want to stay in touch with their kids after school. Another main reason is that kids ask for the phones. Their friends have them. They don’t want to be left out. Peer-pressure is tremendous.
According to a 2012 National Consumers League survey, nearly six out of 10 U.S. parents of children ages 8 to12 have provided their children with cell phones. That number has obviously risen since then.
And according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey on teens and technology, 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half own smartphones.
“Fully 95 percent of teens are online, a percentage that has been consistent since 2006,” the Pew survey reported. And “the nature of teens’ internet use has transformed dramatically during that time – from stationary connections tied to desktops in the home to always-on connections that move with them throughout the day. In many ways, teens represent the leading edge of mobile connectivity.”
Some school districts are helping facilitate the cell phone spread by installing Wi-Fi technology like “smart boards.” Kids are then able to digitally access classroom content on smart phones or tablets. Conversely, some school districts have started to ban Wi-Fi in the classroom.
According to the Wireless Association, an international organization that represents the wireless communication industry, 53 percent of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, say most of their calls last four minutes or less, and 33 percent, ages 13 to 17, list texting as their favorite form of communicating with their friends.
Recommendations for Safer Cell Phone Use
In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop new standards for consumer education and safe use of cell phones and other wireless devices in order to better protect pregnant women and children who have “unique vulnerability.”
Meanwhile, if you are a parent, or grandparent, of a child or teenager, please educate yourself about the risks. You need to be cautious and, while enjoying the benefits of the new technology, respect also the potential for harm.
Here are some specific ideas:
- Try as best you can to withhold wireless devices from children for as long as possible. As a child gets older, the peer-pressure will become irresistible to get the latest and fastest and coolest. At that point, you need to give your child some guidance.
- Be a role model. Don’t walk around with your cell phone next to your ear. That’s behavior you want to discourage in your kids.
- In my house, I have removed Wi-Fi and cordless phones. The grandkids know that, and also that when they visit I have a hard-wired computer with online time limits. I give them books for birthdays and Christmas instead of any devices.
- The power and frequency exposure decreases rapidly with distance from the handset. According to the WHO Guidelines, a “person using a cell phone 30–40 cm (1 foot to 16 inches) away from their body – for example when text messaging, accessing the Internet, or using a “hands free” device – will therefore have a much lower exposure to radiofrequency fields than someone holding the handset against their head.”
- As much as possible, keep wireless devices away from the head. Use “hands-free” options, such as the speakerphone or a wired air-tube head set that keep cell phones and devices away from the head and body during phone calls.
- Read the cautionary instructions for smartphones that describe minimum distances that such products should be used. One major smartphone manufacturer says to carry the phone no closer than 10 mm (just under a half inch). Keep phones out of pockets in order to reduce exposure.
- Keep tablets and laptop computers a 20 cm (about 8 inches) distance from the body.
- Limit the number and length of calls.
- I also highly suggest that, as a protective measure, you Earth, or simply ground the body. You can ground by placing your bare feet on the Earth’s surface (grass, dirt, beach) or by using grounding devices (e.g. special conductive mats or sheets mats that are connected with a wire to the ground port (third hole) of a properly grounded wall outlet). When you make bare skin contact with the Earth’s surface or a grounding mat or sheet, your body becomes grounded, that is, in direct contact with the natural electric charge on the surface of the Earth.
The protective potential of Earthing has not been tested yet on wireless or cell phone exposure. There is no research indicating that Earthing will or will not protect a person from exposure to cell phones signals, microwave radiation, or radio frequencies. What is known, however, is that Earthing significantly reduces the induced body voltages generated by simple exposure to common household 50/60 Hz EMFs continuously emitted by all plugged-in electrical cords (even if the appliance is off), internal wiring, and all ungrounded electrical devices in the home or office.
I have seen people who are extremely sensitive to EMFs, so I always recommend being grounded as much as possible. This goes for adults as well as kids. The research shows that Earthing keeps your metabolism – and your capacity for recuperation from injury – at maximum efficacy.
- Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health: Mobile Phones. World Health Organization. Published online at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs193/en/
- Morgan LL, Kesari S, Davis DL. Why children absorb more microwave radiation than adults: The consequence. Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure, 2014. 2(4):179-204. Published online at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213879X14000583
- Divan HA, et al. Prenatal and postnatal exposure to cell phone use and behavioral problems in children. Epidemiology, 2008. 19(4):523-9. Published online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18467962
- EMF Sensitivity: General Information. Heart MD Institute.
- Consumer Reports. Most kids 8 to 12 now have cell phones. Should yours? Published online at http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2012/07/most-kids-8-to-12-now-have-cell-phones-should-yours/index.htm
- Pew Research Center. Teens and Technology 2013. Published online at http://www.pewinternet.org/files/old-media/Files/Reports/2013/PIP_TeensandTechnology2013.pdf
- Wireless Association. Kids wireless use facts. Published online at http://www.growingwireless.com/get-the-facts/quick-facts
- Letter from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the U.S. FDA, 2013. Published online at http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7520941318
- Applewhite R. The effectiveness of a conductive patch and a conductive bed pad in reducing induced human body voltage via the application of earth ground. European Biology and Bioelectromagnetics. 2005; 1: 23–40. Published online at http://www.earthinginstitute.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Applewhite_earthing_body_voltage_2005.pdf
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