Health Risks of Cell Phone Use: Part II

In Cell Phone Hazards: Part I, we discussed the safety standards surrounding cell phone radiation and why they are inadequate to protect us against risk of potential adverse health effects. In this article, we provide more detailed information about non-thermal effects associated with cell phone radiation and how they may be endangering your health. Exploration of non-thermal effects as possibilities, rather than certainties, provides a logical foundation for adopting a precautionary approach toward use of cell phones and other wireless technologies.

Why are Cell Phones Potentially Dangerous?

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Cell phones emit electromagnetic radiation within the radio frequency (RF) range of the electromagnetic spectrum, which encompasses radio waves and microwaves. RF energy, which is also used for radio and television broadcasting, wireless internet use and microwave cooking, is non-ionizing energy. On the other end of the spectrum are Gamma-rays and X-rays, which emit ionizing energy. Ionizing energy is powerful enough to strip electrons from atoms and cause damaging health effects such as DNA mutations and cancer. While RF energy is non-ionizing, exposure to high levels of it can cause rapid heating of, and damage to, body tissues; this is the principle behind microwave cooking. Biological changes caused by quick tissue heating are known as “thermal” effects.

When establishing safety standards governing the amount of RF radiation cell phones may emit, regulatory organizations and agencies considered only the risk of thermal effects that cell phone radiation may have on our cells. Regulators did not take into account the risk of adverse health effects associated with “non-thermal” biological effects caused by exposure to lower levels of RF energy; the existing information on non-thermal effects was too complex and the relevance to human health too uncertain (ICNIRP Guidelines).

Just because cell phones are not “cooking” our brains and skulls, though, doesn’t mean they get a clean bill of health…

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the U.S. agency in charge of regulating cell phones and other consumer wireless devices, has acknowledged that, “in general, while the possibility of ‘non-thermal’ biological effects may exist, whether or not such effects might indicate a human health hazard is not presently known.” The agency continued by stating, “further research is needed to determine the generality of such effects and their possible relevance, if any, to human health” (OET Bulletin 56).

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS)

Despite regulatory protection against thermal effects, a small, but significant, percentage of people have reported health problems that are believed to be caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF), for example from cell phone towers, WiFi and cordless phones. Authorities have labeled this group of people as having “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” or EHS. Common symptoms reported by people with EHS include heart palpitations, dizziness, nausea, digestive disturbances, fatigue, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and skin irritation.

Cellular Stress Response

It’s quite possible that cellular stress response, which is thought to cause non-thermal biological effects, is at the root of the EHS phenomenon. In vitro studies suggest that, in response to low levels (i.e. below existing cell phone radiation standards) of RF energy, some of our cells produce stress proteins (heat shock proteins) as a protective mechanism, and thus perceive wireless radiation as a threat to cellular function. Cellular stress response activates DNA and protein synthesis, which demonstrates the possibility, if not proof, of altered cell physiology, or non-thermal biological effects.

As cellular stress response serves the body best as a short-term protective mechanism, chronic or continual stress response may result in diminished response and protective effect, which could increase cell vulnerability to damage. As such, researchers have hypothesized that chronic cellular stress response can eventually cause damaging non-thermal effects such as leakage of the blood-brain barrier and toxicity of the brain, suppression of the immune system, cardiac disturbances, DNA damage, and even cancer. As subtle as the wireless threat itself, non-thermal biological effects associated with it may begin as cell sensitivities which develop into greater systemic issues.

Wireless Emissions: A Subtle, yet Serious Threat

Compare EKG rhythms on the left, which show the heart’s electrical activity, to the audio waveform on the right.

We are bioelectrical beings by nature, and our hearts and nervous systems are especially vulnerable to electrical disturbances. Wireless radiation, with its non-harmonious jagged waveforms, can disturb our natural biorhythms. From a cardiac perspective, wireless radiation may affect the rate and rhythm of our heartbeats, which can cause arrhythmias, or heart palpitations; some complex or malignant arrythmias can lead to sudden death.

Heart rate variability is a measurement of the beat-to-beat alterations in heart rate, which can indicate whether a person is in a chronic state of sympathetic arousal, or overly stressed, and is used to help determine risk of cardiac events. New research indicates that use of a cordless phone can disturb HRV. Conversely, through a recent study on grounding researchers have learned that placing one’s feet in direct contact with the Earth’s electromagnetic field supports HRV (Chevalier, et al.). Serindipidously, the researchers also observed that grounding supports zeta potential, the electrical force bewteen red blood cells (RBCs), and that exposure to wireless radiation correlates with RBC stacking; remember that viscous blood increase one’s risk of strokes or heart attacks. Wireless radiation may also interfere with our neurological electrical impulses, causing difficulty concentrating and other cognitive issues. These effects might be systemic manifestation of cellular stress response. (For more information about electromagnetic effects on HRV and blood viscosity, read Grounding for a Healthy Heart.)

Cellular Stress Response and the Blood-Brain Barrier

Scientists have also hypothesized that cell phone and other wireless radiation induces a stress response in human endothelial cells (which form the lining of blood vessels), which may compromise function of the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier performs a gatekeeper function by allowing nutrients and waste products into and out of brain cells while preventing toxins in the bloodstream from getting in. Impaired function of the blood-brain barrier, then, can lead to toxic permeation of the brain, which ultimately damages brain cells. Some researchers believe that this leakage underlies the alarming increase in autism over the last decade.

Immune System Dysfunction

Much like cellular stress response, the body’s immune system also reacts to wireless radiation as if it is a threat. Under currently permitted standards, RF emissions can cause inflammatory and allergic reactions. It follows that chronic exposure to cell phone and WiFi radiation could lead to health problems associated with inflammation. Inflammation, which can lead to cellular, tissue and organ damage over time, is now thought to be the primary precursor to most degenerative diseases. An immune system burdened with chronic inflammatory and allergic reactions lacks optimal resources with which to respond to other reparative tasks, which sets the stage for immune system dysfunction.

DNA Damage

DNA damage, which can be caused by a variety of factors including exposure to ionizing radiation and oxidative stress, is a primary cause of cancer. When DNA damage exceeds the body’s ability to repair it, the damaged cells can start reproducing themselves without eventually dying, causing the formation of tumors.

Mixed results from in vitro and animal model studies, have led researchers to hypothesize that cell phone radiation exposure could damage DNA and/or reduce its reparative ability. Slightly more than 50 percent of studies have demonstrated significant effects on DNA, while the rest have not. This split has resulted in some researchers advocating the precautionary principle, and others dismissing the hypothesis that low-level RF radiation can damage DNA. In the BioInitiative Report, Henri Lai, Ph.D explained that discrepancies in these study findings may occur as a result of different exposure conditions, as well as general differences in the way the particular cells or organisms studied respond to EMF.

As mentioned earlier, ionizing radiation can break chemical bonds within molecules, which damages DNA. Since cell phone radiation under current safety standards lacks sufficient energy to do this, researchers have theorized that any possible DNA damage is through indirect or secondary changes in cell physiology. One of the mechanisms by which cell phone radiation may lead to DNA damage is by enhancing free radical activity within cells, especially nerve cells.

The good news is, if cell phone radiation does increase free radical activity in cells, eating foods rich in, or supplementing with, antioxidants could help protect against possible DNA damage. It follows that grounding, which supplies the body with free electrons with which to counteract free radicals, could also help protect against the possible cancerous effects of cell phone radiation.

Obviously, more research is necessary to state with any certainty that cell phone radiation damages DNA; without conclusive proof that it doesn’t, though, isn’t precautionary use the smartest option?

Discrepancy about Standards Related to Thermal Heating

Cell phone radiation may also be dangerous under current Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) standards because of a basic misconception about the nature of thermal effects. SAR standards are based on the risk one’s entire body temperature increasing by more than 1 degree Celsius. As body temperature often fluctuates in this manner throughout the course of normal physiological processes, cell phone radiation which induces biological effects by raising body temperature up to 1 degree Celsius is considered harmless.

The problem with this standard is that it doesn’t account for localized heating of body tissues, such as in the brain, caused by cell phone radiation. Have you ever felt your ear or side of your face get hot when talking on your cell phone? You can bet the temperature of your entire body has not been similarly raised. As whole body heating happens gradually, your cells have time to generate protective responses; with localized heating, radiation can penetrate unprotected tissues. Hence, even under safety standards designed to protect against thermal effects, cell phone radiation may be causing them locally.

Rationalizing the Precautionary Principle

Cell phone use has indeed exploded over the past decade. In light of such widespread use, any health risks connected to cell phones pose threat of a public health crisis. The “weight of” existing studies does not prove either safety or adverse health effects associated with cell phone use, which has led to a general divide in thinking. While some people entirely dismiss evidence from studies which do link cell phone radiation to adverse health effects, others advocate the Precautionary Principle based on possibility of such effects, especially with regard to children.

Under the Precautionary Principle, the threat of plausible, serious and irreversible hazards to public health from exposure to particular environmental stimuli justify public policy action to reduce such exposure; even though scientific uncertainty or ignorance may preclude findings of a true hazard, waiting for such proof may be more damaging to public health in the long run. With cell phone and other wireless radiation, there is the possibility of adverse health effects under currently permitted standards, and RF radiation may actually alter cell physiology through a combinationof thermal and non-thermal effects.

As health problems due to non-thermal and thermal effects can take years to fully develop, and regulatory agencies may take years to update the safety standards, practicing the precautionary principle by limiting exposure to cell phone and other radiation is simply a matter of common sense.

References and Resources:

© 2011 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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