Until we’ve mastered the art of telepathy as a means of universal communication, we’re stuck with the cell phone and all that it brings to the table, some of which can be anticipated, like the bill at the end of the month, and some that can’t be expected, like the radio frequency radiation that is alleged to change your unborn child from Mother Teresa to Attila the Hun. Funny thing about science, there’s a study for everything, except for why the eye of a needle is not at the other end.
It has been assumed that using a cell phone in front of your unborn child will render cerebral changes in him/her that will eventuate into attention deficit and hyperactivity. Such is the conclusion of a group of Yale School of Medicine researchers who worked with mice. The authors of this study noted an increase of neurobehavioral disorders in children and decided to look for a cause. To be fair to researchers, mice are used in the laboratory because some of their metabolic characteristics parallel those of humans, and because they mature quickly enough to track their development in a reasonable time span. They also share 99% of their genes with humans.
In this experiment, pregnant mice were exposed to an activated, but muted, cell phone suspended above their cage, while a pregnant control group was exposed to a deactivated phone. As adults, those mice subjected to cell phone radiation as fetuses tended to be more hyperactive and had reduced memory capacity compared to the controls. The outcome was attributed to dose-responsive impaired glutamatergic synaptic transmission onto layer V pyramidal neurons of the prefrontal cortex. Got it? Not exactly a topic at your next cocktail party, this scientific crooning means that the neurological wires in the front part of the brain don’t develop the right way. This is the section of the brain in charge of complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and social behavior. Like other pronouncements in the research world, “further experiments are needed…to determine the risk of exposure during pregnancy.” (Aldad, 2012)
Rodent pregnancies typically last fewer than three weeks, and the brains of newborn mice are far less developed than those of human babies. Despite the findings, potential risks in humans might not be similar. However, in human studies done in Germany, scientists found that about 6% of children who were exposed to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields at any time in their existence exhibited “abnormal mental behavior.” Here, too, “more studies…are warranted…” (Thomas, 2010)
If a definitive case can be made for the hazard of cell phone radiation, it’ll certainly be a major public health concern. But a trend in this direction might have been established in a Danish study that recruited the cell-phone-using mothers of more than 13,000 children. The mothers were enrolled early in their pregnancies, and seven years later were asked to submit a subjective questionnaire regarding the current health and behavior status of their school-aged children. Those children who had prenatal or postnatal exposure to cell phone use demonstrated greater association with behavioral difficulties and hyperactivity. (Divan, 2008) Other, confounding, factors may have come into play, though, including diet, lifestyle and permissiveness, exposure to environmental contaminants such as heavy metals, and genetics. Cognitive and language development seem not to be affected by cell phones, as evidenced in a subsequent study by the same research team. (Divan, 2011)
Repeatability is characteristic of a well-constructed study. To ascertain the results of their 2008 report, Divan and colleagues duplicated that work, but with more than twice the number of subjects and the consideration of the confounders. The findings were the same: prenatal and postnatal cell phone use is associated with behavior problems in school-aged children. (Divan, 2010) To confuse the issue, Spanish researchers found little evidence of abnormal neurodevelopment in a prenatal group exposed to cell phone radiation when tested at 14-months of age and compared to a group of nonusers. (Vrijheid, 2010) What seems to be needed is a longitudinal study, one that tracks the development of, and tests, the same group of users and nonusers over a period of time, maybe ten or more years.
If the results of a ten-year study were absolutely definitive of cell phone culpability, it’s unlikely that patterns of cell phone use would change, despite a risk of uncomfortable child behavior. Returning to the dark ages of landlines is unthinkable. Besides, in a few years the problem will belong to somebody else. What self-respecting parent would sacrifice immediate convenience for the future?
Divan HA, Kheifets L, Obel C, Olsen J. Prenatal and postnatal exposure to cell phone use and behavioral problems in children. Epidemiology. 2008 Jul;19(4):523-9.
Divan HA, Kheifets L, Obel C, Olsen J.
Cell phone use and behavioural problems in young children.
J Epidemiol Community Health. 2010 Dec 7.
Divan HA, Kheifets L, Olsen J. Prenatal cell phone use and developmental milestone delays among infants. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2011 Jul;37(4):341-8. doi: 10.5271/sjweh.3157. Epub 2011 Mar 14.
Tamir S. Aldad, Geliang Gan, Xiao-Bing Gao, & Hugh S. Taylor Fetal Radiofrequency Radiation Exposure From 800-1900 Mhz-Rated Cellular Telephones Affects Neurodevelopment and Behavior in Mice Scientific Reports. Volume:2 ,Article number:312 doi:10.1038/srep00312 15 March 2012
Thomas S, Heinrich S, von Kries R, Radon K. Exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields and behavioural problems in Bavarian children and adolescents. Eur J Epidemiol. 2010 Feb;25(2):135-41. Epub 2009 Dec 4.
Vrijheid M, Martinez D, Forns J, Guxens M, Julvez J, Ferrer M, Sunyer J. Prenatal exposure to cell phone use and neurodevelopment at 14 months. Epidemiology. 2010 Mar;21(2):259-62.
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