Welcome to a world in which more people have cell phones than toilets. Yep, it’s weird but true. (source) If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering, “How did that happen? What is EMF? And more importantly, is it safe?”
In Overpowered: The Dangers of Electromagnetic Radiation (EMF) and What You Can Do About It, Dr. Martin Blank tackles that question with just the kind of thoroughness you’d expect from a man who holds PhD’s in physical chemistry and colloid science from Columbia University and The University of Cambridge, respectively. The self-proclaimed “unlikely activist” opens the book by saying that . . .
“You may not realize it, but you are participating in an unauthorized experiment – ‘the largest biological experiment ever.'”
He then details the very real risks associated with EMFs – especially for children. In this post I’m sharing some insights from his book – you can read more about solutions in my follow-up post here.
(No, I do not recommend that you buy a yurt and move to the desert. Sorry if that is what you were hoping for!)
What Is EMF (Electromagnetic Radiation)?
Electromagnetic (EMF) radiation comes in many forms. Historically, it has been believed that only ionizing radiation – the stuff you see on the right of the spectrum above – is harmful. The theory was that only ionizing radiation is strong enough to break chemical bonds and damage DNA. However, new research supports the idea that even non-ionizing radiation can cause breaks in DNA.
How is this possible? It’s simple. DNA has more than just a chemical component – it conducts electricity.
Um, yeah, that surprised me, too. As it turns out, the fractal pattern that makes up our DNA (the double helix) is so good at conducting electricity that it operates as an antenna of sorts. “By definition, a fractal antenna can pick up and react to a wide range of frequencies of EMF, which means that many frequencies of EMF in the environment can and do react with your DNA.” (source, emphasis mine)
Should we be concerned that our DNA reacts to EMFs?
That’s a great question. To answer it, we need to revisit some fundamentals:
“Cells inside your body continually die, and new cells are created to replace them . . . For a new cell to be created, the DNA in a cell (referred to as a parent cell) has to be copied . . . The objective of DNA replication is to create exact copies of the original DNA. However, given the immense scope of the DNA replication process, it’s to be expected that mistakes will happen – and they do.” (source)
Though the error rate is estimated to be very low – about 0.001% of the time – because there is so much DNA in each cell, that means “there are approximately 120,000 mistakes in the DNA each time one of the cells in your body divides.” Whoa, right?
The good news is these mistakes – called strand breaks – are usually identified and corrected by the body’s quality assurance program. If they aren’t caught and the cell has trouble functioning, it will activate “a process named apoptosis, or programmed cell death, to kill and remove the cell. This is an optimal outcome, because once the damaged cell is dead, it cannot harm the body or pass on its defective genes.
Sometimes, however, the damaged cell with the mutated DNA survives and replicates, becoming a permanent genetic mutation in the body.” (source)
The problem with EMF exposure, according Dr. Blank and several studies like this one, is that it increases the frequency of strand breaks, which may overwhelm the body with errors and lead to mutations. Other studies have found that EMF’s increase the number of micronuclei, or fragments “of DNA with no known purpose, a byproduct of errors that occur during cell division. The presence of micronuclei indicates a type of DNA damage so strongly associated with cancer that doctors test for them as a means of diagnosing cancer.” (source)
Do EMFs Cause Cancer?
In Overpowered, Dr. Blank devotes a whole chapter to the epidemiological evidence that suggests EMF’s from cell phones, computers, power lines and other devices may contribute to the development of cancer. However, one thing he continually stresses is that our risk reduces exponentially if we are able to put some distance between ourselves and the devices. (The amount of distance needed varies by device.)
There’s much more information available on this subject than I can cover in this post, but I want to mention one meta-analysis published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology. A team of seven scientists reviewed 23 studies and concluded that “among the 10 higher quality studies we found a harmful association between cell phone use and tumor risk.” (source)
Also, the “13 studies that investigated cell phone use for 10 or more years found a significant harmful association with tumor risk, especially for brain tumors, giving us ample reason for concern about long-term use.” (source)
Not surprisingly, Dr. Blank notes that the studies deemed to be lower quality by the researchers – the ones which “failed to meet scientific best practices” – were mostly industry funded.
He also cites several high quality studies that indicate EMFs may play a role in Alzheimers, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, male infertility and other problems. (One study he mentioned found that men who used cell phones more than 4 hours a day had a 40% lower sperm count than men who did not use cell phones. Keep in mind that they were not holding the phone against their groin – this was a whole body effect.)
Interestingly, small amounts of EMF’s may be beneficial, because like other stressors they send the body into cleanup/repair mode. It seems that the real concern comes when exposure goes over what the body can reasonably repair, which leads me to five facts about EMFs every parent should know:
#1: Funding Bias Is Real
Remember that time we all realized BPA was bad and started voting with our dollars, then found out some of that BPA-free stuff we were buying actually contained a form of bisphenol that’s likely to be more toxic? Yeah, this is kind of like that.
Companies know one of the best ways to win the public’s trust is to say that their products have been tested for safety. What they typically leave out is that the studies they fund are sometimes specifically designed to make their products look safe . . . even when they may not be.
This is not a tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theory – this is a documented phenomenon called funding bias – aka the “tendency of outcomes from studies to align with the interests of those funding the studies.” (source)
According to this analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives, studies funded by the wireless industry only showed a biological effect on human beings about 28% of the time. In contrast, studies funded by other sources (that are presumably more independent) showed an effect 68% percent of the time. (source 1, source 2)
There are plenty of high-quality studies out there demonstrating real health concerns associated with EMFs, but those aren’t the ones most likely to make the evening news. As Dr. Henry Lai – who along with Dr. Narendra Singh conducted the research I mention in the next section – explains, ” a lot of the studies that are done right now are done purely as PR tools for the industry.” (source)
In other words, before you take a study at face value, find out who funded it.
#2: Children Are More Vulnerable
“In 2009, Dr. Lennart Hardell reported that children who begin using mobile phones at ages younger than 20 have a 520% elevated risk of developing glioma – even after just one year of use (this is compared to a 140% elevated risk across all ages).” (source 1, source 2, emphasis mine)
That’s probably due to two reasons:
1. “Children’s bodies operate differently than adults,” writes Dr. Blank. “In the context of our discussion, the most important difference is that children continuously grow at a faster pace. The rate of growth in children means they undergo a much faster pace of cell division. Thus, the DNA of children is more vulnerable to the errors that occur during normal protein synthesis, and any damaged DNA is more likely to pass to more cells (through cell division as well as replication), spreading further in the body and more rapidly.” (source )
2. And second, “the bone in a child’s head is thinner, leading to less shielding of the brain’s neurons from external forces than is found in adults. Exacerbating matters further, research has shown that the amount of radiation absorbed by children from cell phones (the SAR values) is larger in children than adults, because children have higher levels of electrical conductivity than their older counterparts.” (source 1)
If you’re feeling a little freaked out right now, take a deep breath. While I do limit my children’s use of cell phones and other devices like iPads (airplane mode only), I doubt I’ll be able to continue doing that until they’re twenty. Fortunately, there are high quality shielding devices available that can help reduce our EMF exposure. I’ll be sharing some that have been independently tested in my next post.
#3: EMF Exposure Affects Sleep
Every parent I know cares deeply about sleep – both theirs and their child’s! One thing to be aware of is that too much EMF exposure can decrease melatonin production, which is associated with poor sleep quality, increased aging, and lowered immune function. (source 1, source 2)
Like the effects above, there seems to be a dose-response relationship, so the important thing is to be wise and take steps to reduce exposure from all sources – not panic and move into the aforementioned yurt.
#4: EMFs May Increase Blood-Brain Barrier Permeability
According to a study conducted by neuroscientist Dr. Allan Frey, rats who were exposed to EMF’s that mimic the equivalent of a cell phone began to show an increase in blood-brain barrier permeability almost immediately.
They tracked this by injecting a dye into the rats, where it leached into all the tissues including the brain after EMF exposure. In the control group, the dye leached into all the tissues except for the brain, demonstrating an intact blood-brain barrier.
Children already have a more permeable blood-brain barrier than adults, so this is something we really need to consider when deciding whether to let them play games on our phones or iPads. (As I mentioned earlier, when we let our kids play on our phones due to an unexpectedly long appointment or something, we always put them in airplane mode so that wifi radiation is not a concern.)
#5: There ARE Things You Can Do To Protect Your Family
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all the health challenges we face – sometimes personally, sometimes collectively. But unlike some things which require massive shifts in our culture for change to occur, you can begin to reduce your family’s EMF exposure with just a few simple steps.
Next in this series: EMF Protection: Products and Tips for Your Home and Family.