Science for a living: mobile phones and adolescent health
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 tablet computers popped up everywhere. And that’s only the beginning.
The wireless industry is excited to introduce 5G service. High-frequency 5 gigahertz (5G) waves transmit more data faster, but they don’t carry information as far as the low-frequency waves currently used by wireless services. To deliver 5G service, “small” cell towers need to 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 at traffic lights near homes, schools and businesses. The initial goal is to double the number of cell towers above what already exists.
High-tech ICTs have fostered impressive economic growth. ICTs have saved countless lives. Nevertheless, ICTs have also led to a considerable increase in human exposure to artificial radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF). While the introduction and acceptance of wireless communication devices in the market has been phenomenal, medical knowledge regarding the possible adverse health effects of RF-EMF from cell phones and cell towers has struggled. to keep pace.
Brain cancer is clearly a lightning rod for concern. Some studies have shown evidence of a statistical association between cell phone use and brain tumor risk. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that RF-EMFs are “probably carcinogenic to humans”. In this article, I point out another potential health risk regarding brain function. Preliminary evidence from Europe shows that, in adolescents, radiofrequency radiation “may affect brain functions such as figurative memory in regions most at risk during cellphone use”.
The European Commission funds GERoNiMO (Generalized EMF Research using Novel Methods), an interdisciplinary project aimed at improving our knowledge of the health effects of short and long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields. The objectives of this project include the identification of possible health effects of electromagnetic radiation emitted by wireless communication devices, the characterization of the levels of exposure to electromagnetic fields among different populations and the proposal of non-technological means to reduce the exposure to electromagnetic fields. Using an integrated approach, GERoNiMo brings together researchers from different disciplines, research institutes 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 leading a study on the effects of radiofrequency radiation, emitted by wireless communication devices, on memory performance young adults.
After evaluating the cognitive abilities of nearly 700 adolescents, the Swiss TPH team reports in the July 2018 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) preliminary evidence that radiofrequency radiation can negatively affect the areas of the adolescent brain most heavily exposed during mobile phone use. Specifically, they found that these youngsters had a reduced ability to remember and associate graphic figures on standardized tests.
It’s alarming to me. Environmental Health Perspectives is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal published monthly by the US National Institutes of Health. EHP publishes “highly credible information that enhances our understanding of the relationship between the environment and human health. The scope of EHP is broad and encompasses many disciplines, including experimental toxicology (using in vitro and in vivo approaches), epidemiology, exposure science, and risk assessment.
The authors of this study observed a decrease in the performance of figurative memory in adolescents, a skill associated with the right hemisphere of the brain. In contrast, texting or browsing the Internet were not associated with such detrimental memory performance. Because most people are right-handed and therefore place the cellphone next to their right ear, “This may suggest that indeed RF-EMFs absorbed by the brain are responsible for the observed associations,” said Martin Röösli, author of this study, and responsible for environmental exposures and health at Swiss TPH.
The biological cause(s) of the observed decrease in memory performance was not revealed by the Swiss TPH study. Their research did not reveal which brain processes were affected or which biophysical mechanisms caused the measured effects. Nevertheless, the study authors felt that the results were concerning and warranted further research. They suggest that “the potential long-term risk can be minimized by avoiding high brain exposure situations such as occur when using a mobile phone at maximum power near the ear due to, for example , poor network quality”.
I agree with their suggestion.
I recognize that the total amount of energy emitted by cell phones is quite small. Frankly, I’m amazed that these wireless devices perform as well as they do. Cell phones generally transmit less than one watt of power when in use. I am amazed at how an electronic device emitting less power than a typical night light can communicate through walls and automobiles to distant cell towers. Also, the radio frequency wave emitted by a cell phone does not contain enough energy to break chemical bonds like UV rays and X-rays can. Taken together, at first glance, these facts would make cell phones appear as harmless to our health.
But these technologies are constantly evolving. Their use is growing exponentially. The inner workings of the human brain are incredibly complex. The brains of children and young adults are more vulnerable, developing and maturing in ways that can never be repeated once adulthood is reached. IARC notes that “for children – compared to adults – the average RF energy deposition from a mobile phone can be up to 2 times higher in the brain and up to 10 times higher in the bone marrow. of the skull”. In other words, cellphone radiation penetrates my granddaughter’s head more easily than my thick skull. I fear we will jump into a wireless future before we sufficiently understand the medical implications that these electronic devices impose on our lives.
And I have a deeper concern than our physical health. I wonder how these digital devices wire our brains, especially among young people. 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 face-to-face time with people, or in Nature?
Finally, I find, in some ways, the European Commission acronym GERoNiMO ironically appropriate and apt.
The real Geronimo was an Apache born in 1829 near Turkey Creek, a tributary of the Gila River in what is now New Mexico. During the last decade of his life he was held captive as a POW at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sensing a business opportunity, Geronimo was allowed to travel with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show under military guard. Pawnee Bill portrayed Geronimo and other Native Americans as “liar, thief, traitor, and murderer” savages. Show patrons paid Geronimo to take a button from the “tamed” Apache’s coat.
Towards the end of his life, Geronimo, along with five other “Wild Indians”, rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade on horseback. Although the Roosevelt administration wanted to show Americans that all Indian rebellions had been put down, Geronimo saw this as an excellent opportunity to appeal for his freedom and that of his people. After the parade, in 1905, he wrote to the president. “Grandfather, my hands are tied like a rope. I will tell my people to obey only the Great White Chief. Please cut the cords and set me free. That I die in my country an old man who is sufficiently punished and free.
He was returned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a United States POW, his request was denied. He later wrote, “This 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 these mountains. If it were possible, I could die in peace. On February 17, 1909, he died of pneumonia in an Apache hospital in Fort Sill. He had fallen off his horse (he had probably drunk too much ‘fire water’ in the nearby town of Lawton) and had been left unattended all night in a cold puddle by the side of the road before being found the next day.
To the American paratroopers of World War II who shouted “Geronimo!” when they jumped from the plane, his name stood for fearlessness. For me, the word “Geronimo” also represents a legacy of hubris and a tragic lack of respect on the part of those who wield political and economic power for the wishes of a minority people. Yes, many of us love the convenience that instant communication cellular technology offers. But what about those who want to live “free” from this technology and its cellular radiation? Do they have a say?