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You Zapped Me at Hello: Ten Rules for Safer Cell Phone Use

Reduce cell phone toxicity with these simple guidelines.

brain damage from cell phone
Are we damaging our brains?
As evidence mounts for the health hazards of cell phone use, the general public slowly becomes aware.  Meanwhile, mobile device ownership grows at breakneck speed.  Not only do kids feel increasingly pressured to own one (one in three ten-year-olds has a cell phone), but both children and adults are using their mobile phones more and more as a handheld computer for texting, internet use, game playing, tv/video watching, and conducting work or school tasks.  But why should all this cause concern?

Aside from cell phone radiation now being classified by the World Health Organization as a potential carcinogen, the fact that cell phones emit electromagnetic fields (EMFs)--in the form of microwaves--means there may be other ill effects on the brain and body. 

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As a psychiatrist, I'm less concerned with the cancer risk and more concerned with the potential  effects on sleep, cognition, and memory:

  • A meta-analysis of nineteen studies demonstrated effects on attention and memory (Barth et al, 2008)
  • At least one study demonstrated EEG changes during sleep following cell phone exposure.
  • Texting and talking after lights-out has been associated with self-reported tiredness in adolescents--with "no safe dose" (Van den Bulck, 2007)--suggesting any texting or talking at bedtime disrupts restorative sleep.
  • Neuroscientists theorize that mobile phone radiation compromises the blood brain barrier (which protects the brain), making the barrier "leaky"; there is substantial evidence to support this.
    cell phone radiation

But cell phone-related effects may take root much earlier than we imagined: a disturbing study from Finland showed an eighty percent increase in emotional-behavioral issues in children exposed to mobile phones either pre- or post-natally  (Divan, 2008).  

I believe the ramifications related to cell phone use are underestimated--for adults too--but especially for children.  Although it may seem that our mobiles are so ubiqutitous that it's impossible to get away from them, the fact is you can reduce exposure to mobile radiation dramatically by following some guidelines.  Follow them for yourself, and be even more strict with your children, whose brains and other organs and still developing.

The Cell Phone Rules:

1. Use a landline whenever and wherever possible.   "Wired"--whether in respect to a phone or a computer accessing the internet--is always safer and healthier than "wireless."  This is an inconvenient truth we need to accept and work around.

2. Avoid using a mobile in cars, trains, subways, or elevators.  The EMFs bounce around the metal structure, magnifying your exposure. 

3. Turn your cell phone off as long and as often as possible.  Although some may find it impossible to turn it off, being constantly available is highly distracting and reduces efficiency.  Multi-tasking affects the brain's learning systems and dampens the creative process.  You are respecting your brain when you do self limit your access.

4. Never carry your cell phone on your body.  If you must, move it around to different spots to reduce exposure to any particular area--cell phones literally cook your organs with microwaves even when not in use.  In boys and men, cell phone use and proximity to the body has been associated with sperm abnormalities and potential infertility.  Sperm cells are actively developing at any given time and are therefore more vulnerable than other types of cells to EMFs.  (Brain cells in general, and children's brain cells in particular, are also more sensitive.) 

5. Keep your mobile away from your head.  Use the speakerphone or a wired headset with the phone as far away as the headset allows.  Some guides recommend texting instead, but your hands (with their abundant sweat glands) act as conductors to electricity, so I feel it's best to not touch the phone at all.  Texting also means visual exposure a screen, which has it's own set of problems

6. Avoid using a cell phone in places where it's difficult to get a signal.  This should be a  signal to you that your phone has to work harder to get service, emitting more EMFs while doing so.

7. Avoid having the phone touching you at all while it's dialing or trying to connect.  This is when the EMFs are strongest.   If you have a handheld gauss meter (try CellSensor for about $30), it will light up and beep like crazy if you hold it next to a phone that's actively calling.  It will in fact, beep just being near a phone--a real eye opener. So dial the number, then put the phone down on a table (for instance) while you use your headset or speakerphone.

8. When accessing the internet with a mobile device, try to put the device down while a page is loading.  When you download a page wirelessly, imagine the amount of information that is being transmitted, albeit invisibly.  Studies show that when downloading occurs using wireless access the amount of radiation increases by as much as 100-fold.

9. Do not sleep with your mobile in the bedroom.  Do not charge your cell in your bedroom either, even if it's across the room.  Although EMFs drop inversely with distance (quickly), low exposure over extended periods of time may be even more harmful than bursts.  Don't try to guess how far away it needs to be, just get it out of the room.

9. Do not let children aged ten or younger use a cell phone, period.  At this age and below, a child's entire brain lights up with radiation when using a cell phone, due to a smaller skull and more actively dividing brain cells.  (See University of Utah's Dr. Om Gandhi's presentation here at the Conference for Cell Phones and Health in Washington, D.C.)

young boy on cell phone

10. For tweens and teens, be conservative with their cell phone privledges.  Some groups are recommending these groups not use cell phones either until we know more about the effects, which may take years or even decades.    Since a cell phone is an electronic screen, it can be a source of nervous system irritation--above and beyond the EMF issue.  So if your child is experiencing problems with grades, anxiety, irritability, or disorganization, try a three week "electronic fast" and see if they improve, then adjust cell privledges accordingly.

Remember that we all are bio-electrical beings--our brains, hearts, muscles, and cell membranes all have electrical properties.  We each have an electromagnetic field, and to say that cell phones  and other electronics (which have man-made electromagnetic fields) do not affect us belies the laws of physics.  Better to be conservative now than sorry later.

For a good summary of the research on mobile phones' health effects, check out Environmental Working Group's executive summary here.

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist specializing in treating children with complex diagnoses and/or treatment-resistant conditions.

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