Digital and wireless devices have provided many benefits, however, we are now realizing that the rapid adoption of this novel technology has not been accompanied by adequate regulation, monitoring or safety precautions.
Widespread use of digital media and near constant exposure to wireless devices has caused increasing concern among scientists, health care professionals, psychologists, educators and the public who are now considering this is not only a public health issue but a looming public health crisis. (11,108) It appears that we are at the same point of emerging science similar to early recognition of health impacts associated with tobacco, asbestos, coal dust and lead. (119) These concerns are amplified by industry proposals for a massive expansion of wireless infrastructure and connectivity.
Through both science and observation, we are learning that there are significant adverse health, psychosocial, environmental, privacy and security issues associated with the use of this modern technology. This raises many challenges and questions for physicians and other health care professionals, patients and our society regarding the development and use of this technology. To date digital technology has not been addressed in the U.S. from a public health, individual health or environmental perspective.
The abundance of peer reviewed science showing harm coupled with obsolete radiofrequency safety guidelines that fail to address long term health effects and non-thermal biological effects indicate that a precautionary approach is essential to reduce potential harm to the public and the environment. (11, 14, 20) Relevant factors which are also not considered in exposure standards include critical windows of development, genetic variability/predisposition, age, individual health status, combined toxic exposures and simultaneous exposure to multiple frequencies. Several countries and cities around the world have recently adopted policies which reduce exposure, limit advertising of digital devices to children and increase transparency regarding measurements of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) and documented health effects. (119)
This website was created to highlight relevant research and help physicians understand how the use of digital technology can cause or contribute to a wide variety of health effects, both mental and physical. Physicians are encouraged to incorporate this evidence-based knowledge in their discussions with patients, and to advise a precautionary approach to improve health and well-being.
The Environment Affects Our Health
Human bodies are a complex arrangement of cells that are guided by fragile biologic and electric signaling. The nervous system, heart and intricate cellular processes use an interplay of both molecular and minute electrical charges which control and direct precise responses to internal and external stimuli, thus influencing function and development. Our environment can interfere with and adversely affect these biological processes and thus our health.
Public health experts and scientists are now aware of how environmental factors, such as nutrition, exercise and stress influence our cell biology, aging and long term health. The idea, however, of acquiring a chronic illness from constant exposure to multiple toxins even at low levels, is slow to be accepted as a mainstream concept in the larger medical community. We are well aware of the hazards of smoking, asbestos and lead, however, we now are exposed to thousands of chemicals in consumer products along with widespread environmental contamination from manufacturing processes. Long term exposure to these low level chemical mixtures are not routinely addressed by physicians.
Another environmental factor we are routinely exposed to, that is also overlooked and even less understood by physicians is the adverse health and biological effects of wireless devices that emit non-ionizing radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation (RF EMR). EMR can have toxic effects that occur on a cellular level.
The discovery of electricity in the 1700’s brought with it abundant observation of the beneficial and harmful nervous system effects of electricity, even in low power. (151) In 1753, Abbey Nollet was the first to document biological effects from exposure to a DC electric field, including nervousness, headaches, nosebleeds and heart palpitations in individuals. (150) Modern scientific research has added to much to our understanding of health impacts of electromagnetic radiation, highlighting individual variation and vulnerability. Despite that, physicians today are fundamentally focused on the chemical and not the electrical aspects of biological processes and accompanying health interactions of our modern wireless technologies.
Health Effects of Wireless Devices and Digital Technology
Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation (RF EMR) emitted by common wireless devices that we are exposed to, such as cell phones, laptops, tablets, DECT cordless phones, wireless routers and smart meters, has been well demonstrated in the literature to have non-thermal toxic effects on our cell biology, even when used on lower power settings. (14)
The increasing use of wireless devices and computers has spawned an abundance of research revealing a variety of health concerns including cancer, neurodevelopmental harm, neurodegeneration and reproductive abnormalities.
Studies indicate that radiofrequency EMR has broad effects on the body and negatively affects sperm, ovaries, liver, kidneys, the immune system, melatonin production, DNA, protein synthesis, the blood brain barrier, and nerve cell viability and function. (11)
Prenatal developmental effects are especially worrisome as they can be heritable. The damage to cells is cumulative and increases with longer exposure. Commercial use of wireless devices began in the late 1990’s and because of long latency periods between exposure and diseases such as brain cancer, the full negative effects on public health may not be realized for many years with exposure. (121)
In addition, a condition called electrosensitivity (ES) is emerging in the population. People with ES develop symptoms of insomnia, headaches fatigue and impairment of concentration with near exposure to wireless devices, smart meters and cell towers. (see below)
The use of digital technology comes with a host of other related health issues which are now becoming obvious to physicians, such as, technology addiction, psychosocial impairment, computer vision syndrome, ergonomic back strain, repetitive strain and obesity.
Beneficial and Harmful Effects of EMR
It is both interesting and ironic that non-ionizing radiation is now being used in some areas of medicine as a short-term therapeutic agent and in combination with other treatments to address a number of conditions from cancer to pain management. (16) The literature does indicate that non-ionizing radiation has biological effects that can have either beneficial or harmful effects depending on the frequency of the wavelength, mix of carrier waveforms, distance from the organism, length of exposure, timing of exposure and if the waveforms are static or pulsating. (81) An excellent review book chapter underscores that the beneficial effects are usually seen with short term exposure and the adverse effects tend to be seen with long term exposure. (16) This indicates that these EMR treatments while beneficial in the short term, are not necessarily safe for long term use.
Exposure Guidelines Are Based Only on Heat Damage to Cells
Current U.S. exposure guidelines to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation (RF EMR) are an engineering standard based only on thermal (heat) effects. These guidelines do not consider the significant body of research demonstrating biological harm with non-thermal low-level EMR exposure which are identified at and below current safety standards. (14) We have thus, a heat standard without a more relevant biological standard of safety, which if taken into consideration would indicate a much lower exposure should be applied to current guidelines. (11)
How Can Non-Ionizing Radiation Be Harmful?
The electromagnetic spectrum is roughly divided into ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. We know that ionizing radiation is high energy and can cause direct harm by removing electrons from atoms with resultant direct DNA damage to nucleotides resulting in fixed mutations. It also produces free radical molecules which cause widespread indirect injury to cell structures via oxidation of tissues and cell death. (122, 128)
However, for decades scientists thought ionizing radiation from x-rays was safe enough to treat acne and measure shoe size. There was no temperature change on the feet or burns to guide safety and kids would spend long afternoons in the shoe store wiggling their green feet in the shoe slots. Until atomic bomb survivors showed long term health effects no one questioned the safety of these widespread devices. Even though recommended safety guidelines were in place decades earlier, shoe fluoroscopes were not banned in the U.S. until the 1970’s. (111, 112) What seems like a great discovery at one point in time can later be deemed hazardous many years later. (27, 28, 121) Science can change our views and policies.
It has long been believed that non-ionizing radiation could not be harmful to living organisms as it did not break chemical bonds. It was only felt to be damaging if it heated tissue. We are now learning that microwave radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation from wireless devices acts as an environmental stressor with direct toxic effects on cellular processes that are not related to heat or to ionization. The effect of radiofrequency EMR is indirect, inducing biochemical changes in cellular structures and their membranes. (49,50,78)
Although some physicists deny this could be the case, this biologically toxic effect from electromagnetic radiation has been demonstrated in many research investigations and is similar to effects from other chemical exposures.
In May 2011 the WHO/ International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed radio frequency electromagnetic radiation as a Class 2B carcinogen. A team of 31 scientists from 14 countries made the decision after reviewing scientific data on non-ionizing microwave radiation and its association with brain tumors. (30)
Biochemical Mechanisms of Harm from Microwave Radiofrequency EMR
At least one underlying biochemical mechanism of toxicity of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation (RF EMR) has been observed to be in many instances similar to common toxins such as pesticides, industrial chemicals and heavy metals. Effects include oxidative damage, altered intracellular signaling, membrane effects, direct effects on proteins, and free radical production. (11, 73, 74, 88, 89, 100)
Oxidation-Disruptions of normal cellular processes are caused by the overproduction of reactive oxygen species, causing oxidation of biomolecules leading to DNA damage, mitochondrial disruption, altered differentiation and proliferation. This is well known to contribute to a number of pathologic diseases such as cancer, neurologic harm, metabolic harm and reproductive harm (80, 114, 115). Measurements of reactive oxygen species in different tissues are now used in biomedical research as a biomarker for inflammation, toxic exposure and disease. (17, 70, 71, 116, 117, 118)
Voltage Gated Calcium Channels- Experimental evidence in basic science research supports a plausible biochemical mechanism of EMR effects to be related to alterations of cellular voltage gated calcium channels and cellular nitrous oxide production. (81-84) All cells in living organisms have an electrical voltage across their membrane which is generated by unequal distributions of ions such as potassium (K), Sodium (Na) , Chloride (Cl) and Calcium (Ca). An active transport system for each keeps the cell membrane in electrochemical balance. Miniscule electric fields can alter this balance and thus biological processes. (85)
Calcium-The Ultimate Signaling Molecule-Studies show electromagnetic exposure has biological effects on critical cellular calcium channels. (81-85) Calcium has been called the “ultimate signaling molecule for organisms … [and]…mediates processes as diverse as synaptic transmission, muscle contraction, insulin secretion, fertilization, and gene expression”. (93) These cellular alterations on calcium channels could have significant effects on diverse physiological and developmental events without breaking any chemical bonds. (84, 86, 93-96)
DNA Damage by Ionizing Radiation-Ionizing radiation is known to cause direct double stranded DNA breaks and this is an established mechanism for chromosomal damage. (110, 121,129, 130 ) It is also known that late post-radiation effects from ionizing radiation are due to an indirect mechanism, reactive oxygen species (ROS), that cause mitochondrial DNA damage that can be heritable when mitochondria replicate. (134) ROS cause epigenetic changes, in one mechanism, through an alteration of enzymes known as methyltransferases which control nuclear DNA and thus the central control mechanism of the cell
DNA Damage by Radiofrequency Non-ionizing radiation-Research has demonstrated that low intensity long term exposure to non-ionizing microwave radiation can cause single strand breaks as well as double strand DNA breaks through an indirect mechanism. Lai and Singh in 1995 were one of the first to identify single-strand breaks in rat brain cells with low-intensity microwave radiation. (136) A year later they published further research showing not only single but also more damaging double-stranded DNA breaks with low intensity RF EMR. (137) The following year they repeated the studies but added a group of rats given melatonin, a potent free radical scavenger, before and after RF exposure. They found that melatonin blocked the adverse effects of the microwave radiation. (138) These results are especially meaningful as Dr. Lai and his group produced important research developing an industry standard variation of the comet assay which is still used today to test for qualitative and quantitative DNA damage to cells. (139, 140, 141) His work was confirmed by Paulrai and Behari in 2006. (142) Ghandi in 2005 looked at the blood lymphocytes of 24 cell phone users who used their phones for a variable time frame of 1.5 to 9 hours a day. He found a direct dose response curve of chromosomal aberrations and length of exposure to cell phone frequency microwave radiation. (143)
The BioInitiative Report, the Reflex Project in Europe and others have compiled a myriad of studies which demonstrate genetic damage from non-thermal radiofrequency radiation exposure. (11, 145, 146)
Epigenetics: Indirect Alteration of DNA Functions
The science of epigenetics is a popular topic among scientists and physicians alike. Research is extensive in this field and crosses many disciplines. Epigenetics investigates inherited and non-inherited changes in gene expression that occur without a change in DNA nucleotide sequencing. Epigenetic mechanisms include changes in cell nuclear structures that broadly affect cell regulation. These include DNA methylation, histone modifications, and microRNA (miRNA) expression.
Methylation (adding a CH3 molecule) of DNA nucleotides is a frequently used epigenetic signaling tool used to turn genes in the “off” position. This is done by DNA methyltransferases which are pivotal to normal development and healthy cell functioning. Disruption of this system can lead to human disease. Researchers are investigating methylation defects and congenital abnormalities as well as cancer promotion whereby tumor suppression genes are shut off by environmental factors. (133-135) Micro RNA consists of non-coded RNA with about 20 nucleotides which function to regulate gene expression, controlling diverse cellular and metabolic pathways, including acting as a gene silencing mechanism. (149)
Toxins cause epigenetic changes. A variety of environmental toxicants are known to cause detrimental epigenetic changes. These include alcohol, asbestos, benzene, endocrine disruptors, nanomaterials, metals and ionizing radiation. This constitutes another indirect mechanism whereby toxicants can cause a heritable change in DNA that can alter function. (123-128)
Non- ionizing radiation causes epigenetic changes. Recent studies are now indicating that non-ionizing radiation from cell phones and wireless devices can, like other toxic exposures, cause deleterious epigenetic DNA changes. (38) The RF radiation can alter DNA methylation which functions to down-regulate gene expression. Micro-RNA alterations also can occur. (147,148) Both epigenetic changes are presumably due to the actions of reactive oxygen species created by radiofrequency radiation. Wireless devices thus can cause permanent changes in the DNA with biological dysfunction without breaking DNA bonds. This research underscores a paradigm shift in our thinking and highlights even more the silent threats of increasing microwave radiation especially to children and the developing fetus.
Synergistic and Co-Carcinogenic Effects
Another concerning aspect of RF radiation is that the combination of low doses of hazardous chemicals along with RF radiation exposures could result in greater harm than either one alone. (29, 16) Just as studies show an increased risk of cancer or other illnesses from multiple simultaneous toxic exposures there is growing research showing that EMR from wireless devices can act as a carcinogen as well as a co-carcinogen. (16, 34,35,36,37,38,39)
Acute Effects: Electrosensitivity as a Clinical Diagnosis
The rising use of wireless devices and computers has not only revealed over time a variety of long term health concerns but also an increasingly recognized syndrome called electrosensitivity. More people in all walks of life are reporting vague symptoms of headaches, insomnia, mental confusion, heart palpitations and fatigue in the presence of wireless devices and when in close proximity to cell towers. These are classic signs of microwave illness described in reports by NASA, the Department of Defense and the EPA. (23,24,25,51) In addition, the United States Access Board recognizes “that multiple chemical sensitivities and electromagnetic sensitivities may be considered disabilities under the ADA if they so severely impair the neurological, respiratory or other functions of an individual that it substantially limits one or more of the individual’s major life activities.” (45) Various population based surveys internationally report 1.5% to 13.3% of the population are electrosensitive. (64)
Over a decade ago firefighters studied and reported the development of symptoms of electrosensitivity after cell towers were placed on fire stations. They noted severe headaches, sleep deprivation, depression, lack of focus, lack of impulse control, slowed reaction time, tremors and vertigo after cell antennas were installed. The International Association of Firefighters were so concerned they commissioned a study which confirmed adverse effects on the firefighters, and then authored a policy statement asking for exemptions from placement of cell towers on their facilities so they could maintain “optimal cognitive and physical capacity at all times”. (72)
Research is advancing with evidence that electrosensitivity may be related to multiple chemical sensitivity as a toxic exposure. Common pathological mechanisms are suggested as illness appears related to oxidative and inflammatory processes as noted above. Biomarkers for electrosensitivity have been proposed to help diagnose the condition. (17,18)
Chronic Disease Rising Along with Rising Health Care Costs
Physicians are tasked with both treating disease and promoting good health for their patients. The development of a chronic illness affects an individual’s well-being and their ability to work, while increasing health care costs for the individual and for society. Preventing illness is both a moral and an economic imperative.
The growing epidemic of chronic diseases in the U.S. has increased awareness of certain health risk behaviors. It has also highlighted the need to identify causes in order to prevent debilitating disease and not just treat episodic illness. The CDC estimates that over 50% of all Americans have one or more chronic diseases, up to 40% being preventable. (1, 2) Currently, chronic diseases account for 86% of our nation’s health care costs or about $3 trillion annually. (3)
Electronic Devices: A Modifiable Health Risk Behavior?
In light of the research it appears that the use of electronic devices should be considered a health risk behavior accompanied by appropriate preventative cautions. Those individuals who are more vulnerable to harm from toxic exposures need special consideration e.g. pregnant women, children, the elderly, those with chronic illness and people with hypersensitivity to EMR and chemicals.
Biologic Harm to Living Organisms
Science is revealing harm to all living organisms including trees, plants, animals, insects and bacteria, from radiofrequency EMR exposure with levels at or below current U.S. safety guidelines. (11,40, 55, 56, 57)
There is great unease among birders and farmers with emerging research indicating that the decline in wildlife and bee populations could be associated with higher levels of ambient EMR. Bees are an important pollinator species. Songbirds are seeing a dramatic decline. Birds and bees use an iron ore mineral called magnetite in their brains for navigation and distant migration. Electromagnetic microwave radiation has been shown to disrupt this process. Research has demonstrated abnormalities in reproduction and behavior of birds nesting near cell towers and harm to amphibians. (54-63)
Trees Harmed by Radiofrequency EMR
In 2016 Waldmann-Selsam et al., wrote a seminal paper documenting cell tower radiation damage to trees over time. They completed a detailed rigorous long-term (2006-2015) field monitoring study in Germany. The researchers concluded, “These results are consistent with the fact that damage afflicted on trees by mobile phone towers usually start on one side, extending to the whole tree over time.” (40) Harm to plants is increasingly found. (55,56)
Other Adverse Health Effects of Wireless Devices and Digital Technology
There are a host of related health issues with the use of digital technology such as obesity, ergonomic back strain, computer vision syndrome, repetitive strain, technology addiction, psychosocial impairment and exacerbation of mental illness that are being studied and need to be addressed. (8,9,10,12,65,66,67,68,69)
Scientists Warn of Public Health Crisis
More than 230 scientists who have published peer-reviewed research on EMF and biology or health have signed an appeal to the World Health Organization calling for precautionary health warnings and stronger regulation of wireless radiation. (108)
They and others are concerned that the pervasive use and exposure to wireless devices represent an unidentified impending health crisis. We are exposed currently to 2G(phasing out), 3G and 4 G wireless telecommunications technologies. As new immersive interconnected wireless technologies are developed for 5G application, proposed new cellular antennas will proliferate on the ground and in the air, and we would see an increase in the complexity of EMR frequencies, pulsations and density which have not been shown safe for humans. Respected researchers have given us a much better understanding that this increased EMR exposure is a decisive threat to our health and the environment.
Organizations Recognizing Harm from Microwave Radiofrequency Radiation
In 2011 the International Agency on Radiation and Cancer listed wireless microwave radiation as possibly carcinogenic. (30)
The European Parliament in 2011 produced Resolution 1815 on the potential dangers of electromagnetic fields and their effect on the environment. The goals listed include setting preventable thresholds for long term exposure, raising awareness throughout the community, and protecting “early warning” scientists. (75)
The EUROPAEM EMF Guideline 2016 for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of EMF-related health problems and illnesses gives an “overview of the current knowledge regarding EMF-related health risks and provides recommendations for the diagnosis, treatment and accessibility measures of EHS to improve and restore individual health outcomes as well as for the development of strategies for prevention.” (14,76)
France in 2015 adopted a law regulating public exposure to electromagnetic waves. The French parliament regulations were developed to protect the public from overexposure to electromagnetic radiation and to provide transparency and monitoring. (77) Many municipalities have addressed wireless technology safety with policy actions. (78)
In June 2015 the Standing Committee on Health of the House of Commons in the Canadian Parliament issued a report on radio frequency electromagnetic radiation and health. After research and testimony was submitted at public hearings looking at safe human exposure to radio frequency (RF) radiation several recommendations were made by the standing committee. These included
- funding research on EMR and electro-sensitivity
- developing an awareness campaign relating to the safe use of wireless technology such as cell phones and Wi-Fi both in the home and at school
- consider marketing policy for advertising to children under 14. (79)
The American Academy of Pediatrics submitted a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that urges the FCC to adopt radiation standards that 1) protect children’s health and well-being from radiation emitted by cell phones and other wireless devices; 2) reflect how people actually use their cell phones; and 3) provide sufficient information that enables consumers to make informed decisions when they purchase mobile phones. (15)
Safety guidelines are considered obsolete and inappropriate for protection of health and the environment. (49,50)
Precautionary Principle and Harm Reduction
The only way to avoid potential harm by wireless EMR is to reduce or avoid exposure and use safer alternatives such as a wired connection, fiberoptics or coaxial cables. Many countries have adopted a precautionary approach regarding the use of wireless devices including France, Belgium, Germany, India, Israel, Spain, Venezuela, Russia, the European Environment Agency and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. (14,46,47,48)
The Precautionary Principle of Science Defined
When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm. Morally unacceptable harm refers to harm to humans or the environment that is
- threatening to human life or health, or
- serious and effectively irreversible, or
- inequitable to present or future generations, or
- imposed without adequate consideration of the human rights of those affected. (20)
Physicians for Safe Technology
The use of wireless devices and general use of technology is convenient and useful but can have significant health impacts on children, adults, the environment and our society at large. It poses a threat to all living organisms. There is significant scientific evidence that this technology should be considered as another health risk behavior with precautions advised. There are currently insufficient regulations or guidelines for safe use. The Physicians for Safe Technology website will present the scientific evidence, rationale and recommendations for the safer use of digital technology.
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