People are confused. On the one hand, they hear reports that there may be problems with cell phone radiation. On the other, they look around them and see excitement about every new wireless development, with no limits in sight. So what’s the real story? And what’s a parent to do?
Well, I started learning about this 15 years ago when cell antennas were about to be put up on our large condo building. Being on the top floor, I thought I should look into it. I was lucky to be mentored by a retired physicist. Little did I know what I would discover, and how it would change my life!
It turns out, there is much more research on radiation from wireless devices—cell phones, WiFi, cordless phones, smart meters, cell towers, etc.—than one would ever guess from listening to the news. Numerous studies have focused on various specific biological processes. In half, bioeffects are seen at low intensity levels; in the other half, they are not. Analyses of funding source for these studies find clear bias—those studies funded by the wireless industry only find bioeffects 1/3 of the time, whereas non-industry-funded research finds it 2/3 of the time. Biological systems shown to be the most consistently affected in the studies are the neurological and reproductive/genetic ones. This is a bit concerning.
Our children nowadays are being exposed to this man-made radiation from conception onward. We live in a sea of wireless signals now from cell antennas, WiFi—you name it. And it’s on 24/7. In addition, we get exposures from our personal wireless devices, which we are using more and more all the time. Our bodies have evolved to handle electromagnetic radiation from the sun and other natural sources. But what we have today, regardless of how low intensity it is meant to be, is exposure to billions of times more radiation than our parents experienced when they were born. We don’t know how it may affect us or our children over the long term.
Many expert groups have called for precaution, particularly as regards children: The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), Consumers Union, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS), even many governments in Europe and Asia. What about US federal agencies?
In the 80’s and early 90’s, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintained a research lab that looked at the kind of radiation emitted by wireless technology—non-ionizing radiation (as opposed to ionizing radiation like X-rays). Several studies found problems. They also monitored levels in cities (from broadcast towers and radars). As the cell phone industry ramped up and influenced Congress, the budget was slashed and the lab was dismantled. The EPA is now out of the business of looking after the safety of wireless radiation for the country.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was supposed to be in charge of testing and regulating cell phones, but they traded that job to the cell phone industry who promised to do a $28 million study on safety in exchange for the FDA staying out of cell phone regulation. Some of those FDA scientists went to work for the industry, and there has continued to be a close relationship.
The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funded a $25 million study on the cancer risk of lab animals from wireless exposures. Results from an initial pilot study, already shared with industry but not with journalists or the public, have shown that rats exposed before and after birth were slower to gain weight, according to leaked information. Meanwhile, ten years into the much delayed project, NIEHS has remained tight-lipped about overall study results and has refused to release project documents even after Freedom of Information Act requests.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in charge of setting human exposure limits for radiofrequency (RF) radiation, the main carrier of the wireless signal. They get much of their guidance from an industry-influenced standard-setting committee of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers, which is made up primarily of wireless industry representatives and consultants (I know, I have been on that committee). They base their allowed exposure levels only on noticeable tissue heating effects, which occur at quite high levels of exposure, “a criterion nearly 30 years out of date” according to the US Department of the Interior. It is also based on discrete, short-term exposures. Science has already shown this to be an outmoded basis, as many bioeffects have been found at much lower levels. Plus, people are now exposed over a lifetime. It is interesting to note that the wireless industry’s former chief lobbyist is now the chairman of the FCC, keeping up a long cozy tradition between the two entities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has spoken out of both sides of its mouth about wireless radiation. The head of the EMF Project there for several years took the industry point of view, even flip-flopping awkwardly at times. He is now a consultant for industry. Meanwhile, he and some colleagues represented the WHO as finding no conclusive evidence of harm from wireless radiation. This glossed over the fact that, conclusive or not, much of the research has been finding bioeffects for years, and the WHO’s own IARC committee of scientists determined that there is enough evidence to classify both radiofrequency radiation (RF) and extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF EMF is also emitted by wireless devices) as “possible carcinogens,” pending further research outcomes. Since then, new studies have led some researchers to conclude that the designation should now be “probable carcinogens.”
There is a great deal more to the political climate that is influencing what studies are being done, how they are being designed and reported, and how that is being translated into policy. It’s important to understand this backdrop.
So, what kind of bioeffects are we talking about?
At the cellular level, it appears that this radiation can affect the cell membrane which allows the transport of ions into and out of the cell, and communication between cells. This is quite a basic process. Wireless signals have been found to open the protective blood-brain barrier, which normally keeps toxins and pathogens traveling in the body’s bloodstream from getting to the brain. DNA, too, appears to be vulnerable, with single- and double-strand breaks occurring, perhaps as a result of other intermediary processes such as the oxidative stress found to be induced in cells by this radiation.
Brain neurons have been found to be affected. Studies on animals and on humans have shown impacts on memory, learning problems, spatial orientation, attention, activity level, and sleep, among others. In some studies, even neuron death has been detected. Most publicized have been studies on the risk of developing brain tumors, particularly gliomas and acoustic neuromas. Unfortunately, flaws in the design and reporting of some of the much publicized “no effect” studies have been overlooked, giving the public the impression that there is nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, a troubling development was recently reported regarding the incidence of central nervous system tumors in the US. The rate has been found to be increasing in children and teens (Gittleman et al, 2015) and we do not know why.
Many studies have found negative effects on sperm in both humans and animals which may affect fertility and genetic integrity. Preliminary studies on fetal exposure effects suggest attention deficits and hyperactivity may be induced.
There are numerous other effects reported in the literature. Among them, a recent study found that mercury vapor from dental amalgam fillings increased with exposure to RF (e.g., from cell phones), and it was recommended that pregnant women and sensitive people try to limit such exposure. Some studies also found that the effects of certain neurotropic drugs were altered by exposure to wireless signals.
While much research is still needed—and unfortunately, most labs have been forced to close for lack of funding to follow up their findings—clearly there are many red flags waving in the wind regarding wireless exposures, and it is obvious that we still have much to learn. Thus, parents are well advised to limit their children’s exposure as much as possible. In addition, it has been found that a certain percentage of the population (worldwide) may be particularly sensitive to these signals.
What can you do?
It does not appear that the US government is going to call for precautionary action any time soon. It is up to individuals to find ways to limit exposure as much as possible. Here are some of the recommendations for you and your family from various groups and experts:
Cell Phones and Cordless Phones
- Use them on speakerphone mode, use a head set, or text, rather than putting the phone up to your head;
- Keep the phone away from the body when waiting for calls, because phones nowadays have multiple antennas that continually send signals to check in with base stations (cell towers) or satellites. When left in a pocket or bra, these signals could affect the surrounding tissue. Smart phones come with an FCC advisory (obscurely placed in online manuals) calling for a minimal distance of several millimeters or centimeters between phone and body in order to stay within exposure limits;
- Keep calls short and save long calls for a wired landline as much as possible. Cordless phones are also emitters of RF and ELF EMF, and thus, they expose the user to similar risks. Wired landline phones are preferable;
- Keep cell phones, cordless phones and their base stations away from your head and body when you sleep;
- Try to use the phone only when several bars indicate connectivity is good. In poor reception areas, phone radiation must ramp up to communicate with towers.Metallic enclosures like cars, planes, trains, buses, and elevators make the phone work harder.
- WiFi uses similar signals. While there is less research on WiFi specifically, similar precautions should apply;
- Use a WiFi-enabled computer on a table, not on your lap;
- Place the wireless modem away from your working area;
- Turn off your wireless modem when not in use, especially overnight;
- Encourage your child’s school to use wired connections rather than wireless. Many schools have modems throughout the school that broadcast these signals all day. If wireless must be used, it is wiser to use modems that can be turned off when not in use.
Cell Towers and Building-Mounted Antennas
- Discourage the placement of cell towers or other cell antennas on school buildings, in proximity to a school or daycare center, or close to where people live.
Other Devices: Baby Monitors, Smart Meters, Microwave Ovens, etc.
- Wireless baby monitors emit this radiation as well. Use a wired monitor, if possible;
- Keep any wireless monitor away from the baby’s head and body, at as great a distance as possible;
- Smart meters are part of a “smart grid” in which meters communicate not only with the utility company, but also with the appliances in your home, which are now built with radiating antennas embedded within. Some people opt to keep their old meters when there is an option. Make sure meters are not placed outside the wall of a frequently used area, such as a bedroom or favorite easy chair;
- Microwave ovens are designed to keep their microwaves inside the oven and shielded from escaping. Over time, the seal breaks down and more microwaves may escape. Avoid proximity to the oven when in use, and replace the oven when shielding is no longer effective (see web reference #14 for do-it-yourself testing).
- Let your local, state, and federal lawmakers and policy makers know that there are concerns about wireless exposures, especially for our children, that are not being properly addressed. Call for research funding, biologically-based exposure limits, and the rights of citizens to know the full truth about wireless health issues, and to have input into decisions about the placement of wireless facilities;
- Call for preservation of the wired landline network;
- Keep yourself informed about the developing science and politics. Some recommended sites include:
saferemr.com : Dr. Joel Moskowitz of U. C./Berkeley-Public Health
ehtrust.org : Dr. Devra Davis, epidemiologist and author
microwavenews.com : Dr. Louis Slesin, EMF-related news & politics
There are new devices being marketed all the time. Keep in mind that wireless devices emit RF as well as ELF EMF signals in order to operate and transfer information. Proximity to the body, in general, raises the risk of exposure effects, regardless of the device. The radiation rapidly declines in intensity with distance. If you place the device twice as far away, you get 1/4 the radiation; three times as far, and it drops down to 1/9 of the radiation (one over the square of the distance from the source). Distance from the body is your friend. Pregnant women should be particularly careful.
This is a complex science attempting to discover answers in a complex eco-political environment, frequentlythwarted by limits in funding and support. And raising concerns about the safety of wireless these days is hardly a popular proposition. But as we have seen before, some very popular products and pursuits have been found years later to be detrimental to health and the environment. Often it is discovered, too, that industries promoting them actually knew all along of the risks, but failed to inform the public. For all these reasons, it is important to take a precautionary stance in order to ensure the health and well-being of our children.
- http://www.bioinitiative.org/table-of-contents/ BIOINITIATIVE REPORT. Prepared by scientists from 10 countries, an indexed review of published, peer-reviewed science on RF and ELF EMF bioeffects. Most consistent findings are genotoxic (Section 6) and neurologic (Section 9) effects.
- http://microwavenews.com/sites/default/files/docs/mwn.7-06.RR.pdf “RADIATION RESEARCH” AND THE CULT OF NEGATIVE RESULTS. Looks at who funds studies and how that affects outcomes (Lai and Slesin).
- http://www.saferemr.com/search?q=funding+bias (1/3 of the way down the page) MOBILE PHONE USE AND RISK OF TUMORS: A META-ANALYSIS (Myung et al) Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2009. 27(33):5565-5572. Looks at best quality studies and who funds them.
- http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7520941318 LETTER TO FCC FROM AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF PEDIATRICIANS. Urges biologically-based exposure limits, education of the public, and precaution regarding children’s exposure.
- http://www.ewg.org/research/cellphone-radiation ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP GUIDE TO SAFER CELL PHONE USE (AND TIPS)
- http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/smartphones/cell-phone-radiation#social_fb_comments CONSUMER REPORTS: DOES CELL-PHONE RADIATION CAUSE CANCER?
- http://www.microwavenews.com/news-center/iarc-cell-phone-radiation-possible-human-carcinogen IARC: CELL PHONE RADIATION IS A POSSIBLE CARCINOGEN. WHO Monograph.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jIOo6T1s2g CELL PHONES: JUST LIKE CIGARETTES? Video for teens.
- http://www.icems.eu INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION FOR ELECTROMAGNETIC SAFETY (ICEMS) Resolutions signed by
- https://emfscientist.org INTERNATIONAL EMF SCIENTISTS’ APPEAL TO THE UNITED NATIONS. Regarding the need for biologically-based limits on exposure, and call for precaution with cell phones and other wireless devices.
- https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/effect-mobile-phone-use-metal-ion-release-from-fixed-smj-mortazavi A NEW LOOK AT THE SAFETY OF DENTAL AMALGAM FILLINGS: THE ROLE OF EXPOSURE TO EMF ON THE RELEASE OF MERCURY
- http://www.microwavenews.com/news-center/ntp-rf-animal-studies INSTITUTE OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SECRETS. Regarding NIEHS reluctance to share outcomes of tax-payer funded studies.
- https://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/us_doi_comments.pdf DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR LETTER TO NATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION. Regarding tower impacts on wildlife.
- http://ethics.harvard.edu/files/center-for-ethics/files/capturedagency_alster.pdf CAPTURED AGENCY: HOW THE FCC IS DOMINATED BY THE INDUSTRIES IT PRESUMABLY REGULATES. Expose on wireless industry relationship to FCC.
- http://www.wikihow.com/Check-a-Microwave-for-Leaks HOW TO CHECK A MICROWAVE FOR LEAKS
- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4298242/ TRENDS IN CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM TUMOR INCIDENCE RELATIVE TO OTHER COMMON CANCERS IN ADULTS, ADOLESCENTS, AND CHILDREN IN THE UNITED STATES, 2000 TO 2010; Gittleman et al, 2015.
Marne Glaser is a school psychologist with a special interest in the adverse effects of electromagnetic fields on learning, behavior, and the nervous system. Now retired, she is a frequent contributor to ACN Latitudes.