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Ask Natural Life:
Do Cell Phones & Other Gadgets Affect Our Health?
by Wendy Priesnitz

Q: I’m confused about the level of danger associated with cell phones, cordless phones, high tension wires, wireless Internet connections and all the other electronic stuff that people tell me isn’t good for me. The other day, someone told me that I shouldn’t have my electric clock radio beside the head of my bed! What do you think about all of this? Are these things harmful?

A: There is no doubt that the level of low frequency radio waves is increasing in our environment and that, as a result, most of us are living in an electronic smog. And while you’re thinking about sources, don’t forget baby monitors, dimmer switches, computer monitors, fluorescent light bulbs, halogen lights, radios, microwave ovens, just plain electrical wiring….all things that researchers say can make some people ill with symptoms that can include nausea, headaches, asthma, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, tinnitus, brain fog, restless sleep and rashes. The illness is sometimes called electrohypersensitivity or EHS. And it may be just the tip of the iceberg, since new research indicates that exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) may cause damage at the cellular level. Cell phones seem to be the most worrisome.

There is much puzzling and sometimes conflicting research on this topic; there are studies that corporations can use to placate people’s fears, as well as studies that could turn us all into Luddites. For instance, one study on hands-free mobile phones (i.e. those with a wired ear attachment) funded by the U.K. government contradicts another study by the Consumers’ Association, which found that the hands-free style tripled the radiation going into the user’s brain; the government study found that hands-free cell phones cut radiation by up to eighty percent!

Electromagnetic Fields

As far back as the pre-Wi-Fi and cell phone 1950s, it was found that relocating asthmatics to areas of low electrical fields eliminated their symptoms. But it took until 1998 for an international panel of researchers meeting in Vienna, Austria – including a professor from Queens University in Canada and a representative from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – to agree that the biological effects from low-intensity exposures to electromagnetic fields (EMF) are well-established.

In 2004, the European Union’s EMF Reflex Research Project – an in vitro study – was released, showing that EMF radiation can damage DNA in human cells. The report also cautioned about the health risks of exposure to cell phone antennas (referred to as “base stations”).

In 2006, the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS) released a six hundred and fifty-page report citing more than two thousand studies (many very recent), which emphasizes that the accumulated evidence points to “adverse health effects from occupational and public exposures to electric, magnetic, and EMF at current exposure levels.” Signed by thirty-one leading scientists from around the world, the resulting Benevento Resolution, this resolution calls for governments to “adopt guidelines for public and occupational EMF exposure that reflect the Precautionary Principle. In 2008, ICEMS reiterated, in stronger terms that in 2006, their warnings about the negative effects of electromagnetic radiation in the Venice Resolution.

Samuel Milham, MD, MPH is an American researcher and occupational hazards expert who has been publishing reports since 1979 that show electrical workers have increased mortality due to certain cancers. In 1997, he was the recipient of the prestigious Ramazzini Award for his contribution to the epidemiology of occupational disease, with particular reference to carcinogenic risk from electromagnetic fields. He is particularly concerned about something called "high frequency voltage transients," which result from the wildly fluctuating current created by energy-efficient appliances and electronics. He studied a California school where teachers were developing various types of cancer. And, along with his colleague L. Lloyd Morgan, he reported his findings in 2008 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. They found that cumulative exposure to transients in the school increased the likelihood a teacher would develop cancer by sixty-four percent. A single year of working in the building raised risk by twenty-one percent. Although not included in the research, the risks for young students were probably even greater due to their smaller bodies and undeveloped immune systems.

In 2007, the European Environment Agency (EEA) called for immediate action to reduce exposure to radiation from Wi-Fi, cell phones and their transmission towers. It suggested that delay could lead to a health crisis similar to those caused by asbestos, smoking and leaded gasoline. The warning followed an international scientific review which concluded that safety limits set for EMF radiation are “thousands of times too lenient.” The review, produced by the international BioInitiative Working Group of leading scientists and public health and policy experts, said the “explosion of new sources has created unprecedented levels of artificial electromagnetic fields that now cover all but remote areas of the habitable space on Earth,” causing “long-term and cumulative exposure” to “massively increased” radiation that “has no precedent in human history.”

A study published in the journal Atmospheric Environment in August of 2007 describes how electrical fields from computers, cell phones, Wi-Fi systems and everyday household devices can give people asthma, influenza, and other respiratory diseases. A team of scientists at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy found that electrical fields can charge minute particles in the air such as viruses, allergens, bacteria and other toxic particles. The problem is that the charged particles are less than eighty times the thickness of human hair, so they are small, light and always airborne, which means they are constantly being inhaled. Once the particles are electrically charged, they will stick to the tissue of the lungs and respiratory tract when they are inhaled. The greater the electrical field, the greater the charge on the particles, which increases the speed at which they strike the tissue, causing them to deform and embed in the tissue more firmly. Once embedded in the tissue, they can cause infection and other health problems.

Cell Phones and Wi-Fi

Cell phone signals utilize pulsed electromagnetic fields, which can greatly exceed the strength of other EMF fields like those from television and radio signals. For instance, scientists at the 1998 Vienna Resolution symposium noted that in one study undertaken in Salzburg, Austria, they were up to one hundred times greater. Because of that – and the fact that cell phones are used in closer proximity to the body – there has been more research conducted into their safety.

And the result of much of that research isn’t pretty, with a few studies linking cell phone usage and cancer. One study, published in 2006 in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, found a significant increase in the risk for malignant brain tumors for subjects with first use of both cellular and cordless phones at less than 20 years of age.

Another study of twelve thousand mobile phone users in Sweden and Norway found “a statistically significant association between calling time/number of calls per day and the prevalence of warmth behind/around or on the ear, headaches and fatigue.” The mobile phone users studied used their phone less than two minutes or two calls per day. The researchers also found dose/response relationships with concentration, memory loss, fatigue and headache for people who used the phones for over one hour per day total.

A study by Drs. Alexander Borbely, Peter Achermann and colleagues at the Neuroscience Center in Zurich, Switzerland demonstrated that the type and strength of electromagnetic radiation produced by mobile phones can affect the brain. Twenty-four men in their early twenties were exposed to an intermittent mobile phone signal whilst asleep (ruling out any placebo effect) for fifteen minutes on, fifteen minutes off. Every time the signal was first switched on, their electro- encephalogram patterns (tracings of the brain’s electrical activity) changed, becoming up to fifteen percent stronger in some frequency ranges. The level did not drop immediately when the signal was switched off but reduced gradually over the night, suggesting some adaptation mechanism.

The largest-ever animal study of cellphone radiation effects was released in early 2017 by the U.S. National Toxicology Program. It confirmed earlier evidence from human studies that cellphone radiation increases the risk of cancer. The research found that male rats exposed to radio-frequency radiation at the levels emitted by cellphones had a greater chance of developing malignant brain cancer, tumors in the heart and tumors in other organs. Various tumors were also observed in mice exposed to the same radiation.

Research published in 2009 showed evidence that wearing a cell phone on your hip may weaken an area of your pelvis. Using bone scans designed to diagnose osteoporosis, researchers measured pelvic bone density in one hundred and fifty men who had carried their cell phones attached to their belts for an average of fifteen hours a day for an average of six years. The researchers found that bone mineral density was lowered on the side of the pelvis where the mobile phones were carried, raising the possibility that bone density could be adversely affected by the electromagnetic fields emitted by cell phones.

Previous studies have found that cell phone radiation can affect men’s sperm count, and the quality of their sperm. One such study, published in the journal PLoS One found that “RF-EMR in both the power density and frequency range of mobile phones enhances mitochondrial reactive oxygen species generation by human spermatozoa, decreasing the motility and vitality of these cells while stimulating DNA base adduct formation and, ultimately DNA fragmentation. These findings have clear implications for the safety of extensive mobile phone use by males of reproductive age, potentially affecting both their fertility and the health and wellbeing of their offspring.”

The German government advises its citizens to use wired Internet connections instead of Wi-Fi and landlines instead of mobile phones. In 2005, Canada’s top public health official, Dr. David Butler-Jones, advised Canadians to limit their and their children’s use of cell phones until science resolves uncertainties about long-term health effects. Also in 2005, the UK’s National Radiation Protection Board issued a warning that no child under age eight should use a cell phone, citing the growing scientific evidence that exposure poses a health risk. France, Germany, and England have dismantled wireless networks in schools and public libraries, and other countries are considering the same.

In 2007, Professor Dennis Henshaw, Professor of human radiation effects at the UK's Bristol University called for an enquiry into the dangers of Wi-Fi wireless internet technology. "The research hasn’t been done," he told the Independent newspaper. "Therefore we cannot assume that there are no effects. This technology is being wheeled out without any checks and balances."

In 2007, the president of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario banned Wi-Fi on campus, likening it to second-hand smoke. And Toronto’s public health department has questioned the wisdom of plans to install a citywide wireless network.

In September 2009, the Director of the European Environment Agency stated that the evidence for potential risks is now strong enough to justify steps to reduce people's exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields and that the current exposure limits needed to be reconsidered.

In 2011, the World Health Organization's Agency for Research on Cancer classified cell phone radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." In a statement, Dr Jonathan Samet (University of Southern California, USA), Chairman of the WHO Working Group, indicated that “the evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification. The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office announced in August of 2012 that federal cell phone radiation standards are outdated and may not protect public health, confirming what organizations like the Environmental Working Group have been saying for years.

In 2013, Dr. Siegal Sadetzki, the principal investigator of a 2008 study, testified at a U.S. Senate Hearing that cell phones were identified as a contributor to salivary gland tumors. The report states that your risk of getting a parotid tumor on the same side of your head that you use for listening to the mobile phone increases by thirty-four percent if you are a regular cell phone user and have used a mobile phone for five years and fifty-eight percent if you had more than about five thousand five hundred calls in your lifetime.

David Carpenter, MD, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, School of Public Health, University of Albany, New York, has said, "Based on the existing science, many public health experts believe it is possible we will face an epidemic of cancers in the future resulting from uncontrolled use of cell phones and increased population exposure to Wi-Fi and other wireless devices. Thus it is important that all of us, and especially children, restrict our use of cell phones, limit exposure to background levels of Wi-Fi, and that government and industry discover ways in which to allow use of wireless devices without such elevated risk of serious disease. We need to educate decision-makers that 'business as usual' is unacceptable. The importance of this public health issue can not be underestimated."

High Voltage Power Lines

High voltage power lines have been around much longer than Wi-Fi, but are another controversial source of EMR. A study published in 1979 in the American Journal of Epidemiology by Nancy Wertheimer and Ed Leeper reported an increased incidence of childhood leukemia, lymphomas and nervous system tumors for children exposed to very high electromagnetic fields, which related to the distance they lived from power lines and the thickness and number of conductors distributing electricity. More recently, a large, publicly-funded study in the UK found that children under the age of 15 living within 100 meters of high-voltage power lines have nearly twice the risk of developing leukemia. The Oxford Childhood Cancer Research Group study involved thirty-three years of data on thirty-five thousand children diagnosed with cancer.

Magda Havas, an environmental science professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, has worked with citizens concerned about high voltage transmission. In her research, she has found that symptoms of MS, diabetes and other illnesses improve when capacitators are used to filter the radiation from the wiring in their homes. Since 1995, Havas has been teaching a unique course on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields at Trent’s Centre for Health Studies. She has been studying the dangers of cell phone and Wi-Fi use. In 2009, she issued an open letter saying she was "increasingly concerned" about Wi-Fi and cell phone use at schools. "It is irresponsible to introduce Wi-Fi microwave radiation into a school environment where young children and school employees spend hours each day," she wrote.

Precautionary Principle

In spite of all this research and scholarly activity, some people insist that the science is uncertain, and many physicians say EHS is psychological and doubt that cell phone use is harmful. But we must remember that the dangers of tobacco usage and second-hand smoke, not to mention the problem of global warming, have their share of naysayers – many who are funded by the industries whose profits are threatened by suggestions of problems with their products. Dr. Devra Davis of the Environmental Health Trust, has pointed out that the results of any study can be accurately predicted by looking at its sponsorship (or "following the money" as I'm famous for saying). According to a review by Dr. Lai in 2008, the probability that a study will find “no effect” is two to three times higher in industry-funded studies, while independently-funded studies into the health effects of mobile technology are twice as likely to find a positive result.

Meanwhile, we – along with many independent scientists world-wide – urge the Precautionary Principle: If there seems to be a possibility of harm, limit your exposure. That may mean something as simple as moving an electric clock a few feet away from your bedside table or as complicated as limiting your children's screen time, rethinking your own cell phone and wireless Internet usage, or moving to a home farther away from high tension wires.

Learn More

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment

Powerwatch

EMR Policy Institute

International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety

EWG's Guide for Safer Cell Phone Use

Swedish Association for the Electrosensitive

Wi-Fi in Schools

"Your [Dangerously] Wired Child" in Natural Child Magazine, July/August 2013 issue

Electromagnetic Man – Health and hazard in the electrical environment by Dr. Cyril Smith and Simon Best (St Martins Press, 1990)

The Powerwatch Handbook by Alasdair Philips and Jean Philips (Piatkus Books, 2006)

EMF Book: What You Should Know About Electromagnetic Fields, Electromagnetic Radiation & Your Health by Mark Pinsky (Grand Central Publishing, 1995)

Cross Currents – The Perils of Electropollution, the Promise of Electromedicine by Robert O. Becker (Tarcher, 1990)

The Invisible Disease: The Dangers of Environmental Illnesses Caused by Electromagnetic Fields and Chemical Emissions by Gunni Nordstrom (O Books, 2004)

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books. This article was first published in 2007 and has been updated a number of times since.

 

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