Science to Live By: Cell Phones & Adolescent Health

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Digital information and communication technologies (ICT) have exploded into our lives. In the blink of an eye, cell towers, smart phones, Wi-Fi Internet hubs, and computer tablets have sprung up everywhere. And this is just the beginning.

The wireless industry is gung-ho on introducing 5G service. Higher-frequency, 5 gigahertz (5G) waves transmit more data more quickly, but they do not transmit information as far as the lower-frequency waves currently used by wireless services. To provide 5G service, “small” cell towers must be placed much closer to customers than current towers. Nationwide, the telecommunications industry plans to install hundreds of thousands of new 5G antennas on street corners and traffic lights near homes, schools, and businesses. The initial goal is to double the number of cell towers above what already exists.

High-tech ICT has promoted impressive economic growth. ICT has helped save countless lives.  Nevertheless, ICT also has led to huge increases in human exposure to man-made radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs). While introduction and acceptance of wireless communication devices into the marketplace have been phenomenal, medical knowledge concerning possible adverse health effects of RF-EMFs from cell phones and cell towers has struggled to keep pace.

Brain cancer clearly is a lightning rod for worry. Some studies have shown evidence of statistical association between cell phone use and brain tumor risks. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined RF-EMFs are “possibly carcinogenic in humans.” In this article I report on another potential health risk regarding brain function. Preliminary evidence from Europe shows that, in adolescents, radiofrequency radiation “may affect brain functions such as figural memory in regions that are most exposed during mobile phone use.”

The European Commission provides funding for the GERoNiMO (Generalised EMF Research using Novel Methods), an interdisciplinary project to improve our knowledge about the health effects of short and long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields. Objectives of this project include identifying possible health effects of EMF radiation emitted by wireless communication devices, characterizing levels of EMF exposure among different populations, and proposing non-technological means to reduce EMF exposure. Using an integrated approach, GERoNiMo brings together researchers from different disciplines, research institutions, and member states to address key questions regarding these issues.

Funded in part by GERoNiMO, a team of scientists led by the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) is heading a study on the effects of radiofrequency radiation, emitted by wireless communication devices, on the memory performance of young adults.

After assessing the cognitive skills of nearly 700 adolescents, the Swiss TPH team reported in the July 2018 issue of the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) preliminary evidence that radiofrequency radiation may adversely affect those regions of the brain of adolescents most heavily exposed during mobile phone use. Specifically, they found these young people had a decreased ability to remember and associate graphical figures on standardized tests.

This is alarming to me.  Environmental Health Perspectives is a peer-reviewed, open access journal issued monthly by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. EHP publishes “highly credible information that enhances our understanding of the relationship between the environment and human health. EHP’s scope is broad, encompassing many disciplines, including experimental toxicology (using in vitro and in vivo approaches), epidemiology, exposure science, and risk assessment.”

The authors of this study observed diminished figural memory performance in adolescents, a skill associated with the right hemisphere of the brain. In contrast, sending text messages or surfing the Internet were not associated with detrimental memory performance of this kind. Because most people are right-handed and therefore place the cell phone next to their right ear, “This may suggest that indeed RF-EMF absorbed by the brain is responsible for the observed associations,” said Martin Röösli, an author of this study, and Head of Environmental Exposures and Health at Swiss TPH.

The biological cause or causes for the observed decrease in memory performance were not revealed by the Swiss TPH study. Their research did not divulge which brain processes were affected or what biophysical mechanisms caused the measured effects. Nevertheless, the study authors believed the results to be of concern and warrant further research. They suggest that “Potential long-term risk can be minimized by avoiding high brain-exposure situations as occurs when using a mobile phone with maximum power close to the ear because of, for example, bad network quality.”

I agree with their suggestion.

I recognize that the total amount of energy emitted by mobile phones is quite low. Frankly, I am amazed that these wireless devices work as well as they do. Cell phones typically transmit less than one watt of power when in use. How an electronic device emitting less energy than a typical nightlight can communicate through walls and automobiles to distant cell towers is astonishing to me. In addition, the radio frequency wave emitted by a mobile phone does not contain sufficient energy to break chemical bonds the way uv-radiation and x-rays can. Taken together, at first blush, these facts would make cell phones appear harmless to our health.

But these technologies are changing constantly. Their use is increasing exponentially. The inner workings of the human brain are incredibly complex. The brains of children and young adults are more vulnerable, growing and maturing in ways that can never be repeated once adulthood is reached. IARC notes that “For children – compared to adults – the average deposition of RF-energy from a mobile phone can be up to 2-fold higher in the brain and up to 10-fold higher in the bone marrow of the skull.”  In other words, radiation from cell phones more easily penetrates my granddaughter’s head than it does my thick skull. I fear we are leaping into a wireless future before we sufficiently understand the medical implications these electronic devices impose upon our lives.

And I have a deeper concern than our physical health. I wonder how these digital devices are wiring our brains, especially in the young. How does spending hours each day interacting with electronic devices impact the development of neural networks in the human brain? How does the perception of the world change compared to the acuity of a child spending the equivalent amount of time in face-to-face with people, or in Nature?

Finally, I find, in certain respects, the European Commision’s acronym GERoNiMO ironically befitting and apropos.

The real Geronimo was an Apache born in 1829 near Turkey Creek, a tributary of the Gila River in what is now the state of New Mexico. In the later decade of his life, he was held in captivity as a prisoner of war at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sensing a business opportunity, Geronimo was allowed to travel with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show under Army guard. Pawnee Bill depicted Geronimo and other Native Americans as “lying, thieving, treacherous, murderous” savages. Patrons of the show paid Geronimo to take a button from the coat of the “tamed” Apache.

Near the end of his life, Geronimo, along with five other “wild Indians,” rode on horseback in the Inaugural Parade of President Theodore Roosevelt. Although the Roosevelt Administration wished to show Americans that all Indian rebellions had been put down, Geronimo saw it as an excellent chance to appeal for his and his people’s freedom. After the parade, in 1905, he wrote to the President. “Great Father, my hands are tied as with rope. I will tell my people to obey no chief but the Great White Chief. I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free.  Let my die in my own country an old man who has been punished enough, and is free.”

He was returned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a prisoner of war of the United States, his request denied.  He later wrote, “It is my land, my home, my father’s land to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there and be buried among those mountains. If this could be, I might die in peace.” On February 17, 1909, he died from pneumonia in an Apache hospital at Fort Sill. He had falling from his horse (he probably he drunk too much ‘fire water’ in the nearby town of Lawton) and had lain all night unattended in a cold puddle of water beside the road before he was found the next day.

To the American World War II paratroopers who yelled “Geronimo!” when they jumped from the plane, his name represented fearlessness.  To me, the word “Geronimo” also represents a legacy of hubris and a tragic lack of respect on the part of those who hold political and economic power for the wishes of a minority people. Yes, very many of us like the convenience that instant communication cellular technology offers. But what about those who want to live “free” from this technology and its cell tower radiation? Do they have a say? 

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