Wireless technologies, non-ionizing electromagnetic fields and children: Identifying and reducing health risks

April 9, 2023

Children today are conceived and live in a sea of wireless radiation that did not exist when their parents were born. The launch of the digital age continues to transform the capacity to respond to emergencies and extend global communications. At the same time that this increasingly ubiquitous technology continues to alter the nature of commerce, medicine, transport and modern life overall, its varied and changing forms have not been evaluated for their biological or environmental impacts. Standards for evaluating radiation from numerous wireless devices were first set in 1996 to avoid heating tissue and remain unchanged since then in the U.S. and many other nations.

A wide range of evidence indicates that there are numerous non-thermal effects from wireless radiation on reproduction, development, and chronic illness. Many widely used devices such as phones and tablets function as two-way microwave radios, sending and receiving various frequencies of information-carrying microwave radiation on multiple simultaneously operating antennas. Expert groups advising governments on this matter do not agree on the best approaches to be taken.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limited screen time for children under the age of two, but more than half of all toddlers regularly have contact with screens, often without parental engagement. Young children of parents who frequently use devices as a form of childcare can experience delays in speech acquisition and bonding, while older children report feelings of disappointment due to ‘technoference’—parental distraction due to technology. Children who begin using devices early in life can become socially, psychologically and physically addicted to the technology and experience withdrawal upon cessation. We review relevant experimental, epidemiological and clinical evidence on biological and other impacts of currently used wireless technology, including advice to include key questions at pediatric wellness checkups from infancy to young adulthood.

We conclude that consistent with advice in pediatric radiology, an approach that recommends that microwave radiation exposures be As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) seems sensible and prudent, and that an independently-funded training, research and monitoring program should be carried out on the long term physical and psychological impacts of rapidly changing technological milieu, including ways to mitigate impacts through modifications in hardware and software. Current knowledge of electrohypersensitivity indicates the importance of reducing wireless exposures especially in schools and health care settings.

Introduction. Children’s exposures to wireless radiation are increasing rapidly

We live in the age of technological wonder, where the ability to respond to emergencies, engage in routine commerce, and even conduct warfare has been radically altered by wireless communications. At the same time, we are also in an age of technological imperatives; that is, the fact that something can technically be done has been misconstrued as an argument that this should be done, i.e., in favor of implementing that technology. Parents understand that—just because you can go skateboarding without a helmet and other protective equipment does not mean that is a good idea. From wireless baby monitors to the iPad potty for toddlers learning to use the toilet, Wi-Fi Barbie, tablets and cell phones, today’s infants, toddlers, young children, and adolescents are surrounded by wireless technologies. None has been tested for their impacts on children. Especially when used at early stages of life these devices can interfere with social development, learning, and socialization. They also can have lifelong and potentially irreversible adverse biological effects.

“Children are not little adults and are disproportionately impacted by all environmental exposures, including cell phone radiation.” American Academy of Pediatrics to the Federal Communications Commission (2013)1

Cell phones, tablets, and laptops typically operate as two-way microwave radios sending and receiving radiofrequency radiation (RFR) to and from internal and external antennas. Unchanged since 1996, RFR exposure standards for the use and operation of cell phones and other wireless devices rest on a crude physical model using an empty plastic ball for the head into which homogenous fluid is poured; this uniform medium cannot reflect the different densities and electromagnetic properties of developing physiology, morphology and tissues at different ages, and the greater vulnerability of infants, toddlers, and children. Health based standards have never been developed to take into account the vastly different technologies, uses and users employing devices today.

Although cellular communication systems and wireless technologies have demonstrated numerous direct benefits to society, they can also pose risks to the health and safety of the billions who are exposed to unnecessary levels of RFR throughout the life span. As demonstrated in this review, given the substantial experimental, epidemiological and clinical evidence that current levels of wireless radiation can be harmful, especially to the young, we concur with those experts who counsel that policies should be governed by the concept of ALARA—as low as reasonably achievable—while research continues to evolve.

The guiding principle of radiation safety, ALARA means avoiding exposure to radiation that does not have a direct benefit to you, even if the dose is small.2

The guiding principle of radiation safety is “ALARA”. ALARA stands for “as low as reasonably achievable”. ALARA means avoiding exposure to radiation that does not have a direct benefit to you, even if the dose is small.2

For more than a decade the American Academy of Pediatrics3 and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry4 advised that children age two and under have no screen time, yet infant and toddler use of devices is skyrocketing. That advice has now been modified to allow parentally supervised video calls for ages 18 to 24 months. The Pew Research Foundation surveyed parents in 2020 and 2021 and found that 8 out of 10 parents of a child who was age 11 or younger (81%) said their child had ever used a tablet computer in 2021 up from 68% in 20205; 71% said their child had used a smartphone in 2021 (See Fig. 1). More recent numbers are sure to be higher, as the pandemic has led to increased reliance on digital devices. Reports of serious behavioral problems including problems with self-control, socialization, language acquisition and the like have been associated with device addiction; and internet gaming disorder is on the rise in all age groups.6

Fig 1

Decades of research on RFR (including microwaves) indicate that everyday exposure to wireless devices can impact the physical, emotional and psychological health and well-being of adults and children.7 A growing number of independent researchers find that while regulators, such as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP) currently consider “low-level” exposures safe; these levels do in fact place children’s endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems at risk. These current regulatory limits are based on the assumption that over-heating by high power RFR is the only established health effect to be avoided. Nevertheless, numerous studies find that nonthermal levels of RFR can cause major adverse effects such as induction of reactive oxygen species (ROS), DNA damage, cardiomyopathy, carcinogenicity, sperm damage, memory damage, and neurological effects.8 As with many other chemical and physical hazards, there is evidence indicating that greater detrimental impacts take place when exposures occur during critical phases of growth and development, including pregnancy.9

Since the 1990s, member states of the European Union and the FCC have looked to the ICNIRP10 and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)11 for risk assessments and guidance on occupational and public exposure to RFR from all sources. These groups assume that only thermal effects (excessive heating) are to be avoided. In contrast, the International Commission on Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Fields (ICBE-EMF)12 and the Oceania Radiofrequency Scientific Assessment Association (ORSAA),13,14 among others, reject the assumptions on which ICNIRP relies, providing detailed grounds for their positions.15 Moreover, the former editor-in-chief of the journal Bioelectromagnetics16 contends that standards for evaluating wireless phones and other devices have not kept pace with developments in technology finding that nonthermal effects do occur and therefore current FCC standards do not protect public health.

Regulations on both sides of the Atlantic have in common that they are founded on risk assessments conducted in the 1980s and early 1990s by industry scientists and their affiliates in the IEEE. Despite a considerable weight of evidence indicating serious biological and environmental impacts of nonthermal levels of RFR, the FCC and the ICNIRP risk assessments of non-ionizing radiation from phones and other devices have remained unchanged for decades.

Several thousand apps have been developed for infants and toddlers to use on phones, watches and tablets with no research on their long-term physical or psychological impacts.

When phones were first brought to market, children’s cell phone use was unheard of. Today children are exposed to wireless radiation from cell phones as well as numerous sources in their homes, child care settings and schools as shown in Fig. 2. Several thousand apps have been developed for infants and toddlers to use on phones, watches and tablets with no research on their long-term physical or psychological impacts. (Fig. 2)

Fig 2

This article assembles key scientific information regarding why and how to reduce wireless exposures to the young, including limiting prenatal and neonatal exposures. The latest scientific and clinical studies on the biological impacts of wireless radiation and models of exposure are considered briefly in terms of unexplained trends in cancer, autism spectrum disorder, learning difficulties, attention deficit, behavioral and psychiatric disorders, and other increasing pediatric disorders. Finally, health professional and U.S. national policy developments aimed at protecting children from inappropriate and harmful exposures are presented, with specific recommendations and practices for safer use of technologies.

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