Think back to the last time you spoke on your cell phone for more than a few minutes. If you didn’t use hands-free headphones or put the phone on speaker, did you notice its surface gradually growing warmer against your ear?
That warmth is caused by the transfer of radio frequency (RF) energy (a form of electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation emitted from mobile devices) from your phone to your ear. For years, it has been theorized that the heating of tissues caused by this transfer of EMF radiation is what leads to unhealthy changes within our cells (which, in turn, leads to various types of disease), but scientists now believe that physiological changes can be induced by EMFs at levels well below what it takes to cause a temperature change. Essentially, this means that exposure levels long considered safe, levels that most of us receive on a daily basis, may be quietly impacting our long-term health.
However, EMF radiation does not affect the entire body the in the same ways. Certain parts of the body such as the head, torso (heart and breasts etc) and and reproductive area, are much more susceptible to harm then the limbs. So while you should always be concerned with how much you are exposing yourself to EMFs, you may not have to worry as much about the exposure to your arms and legs.
Below, we’ll describe some of the ways that EMF radiation from wireless technology has been shown to act on the physical body, highlighting the parts of us that are most likely to suffer the consequences of consistent, close proximity to EMF-emitting devices.
1) Heart and Breasts
Ladies, if you have ever been faced with the dilemma of going somewhere without a purse, or not knowing where to put your phone while on a walk or at the gym, it’s very possible that you’ve resorted to stashing your phone in your bra. This may seem completely harmless, but it’s not! The human heart and breasts are two of the most vulnerable parts of the body when it comes to the effects of EMF.
To understand how EMF radiation can affect the heart, it helps to have a basic understanding of the cardiovascular system. Our heartbeat is regulated by a natural “pacemaker” called the SA node that sends electrical impulses through the cells of the heart muscle, causing the heart to contact at the optimal rate for the body’s oxygen needs at that moment. This pacemaker is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, and by the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (also known as catecholamines).
There is new evidence that the heart’s delicate electrical system can be disturbed by EMFs, even at exposure levels considered safe by the FCC. In this animal study, adult male rabbits were placed in close proximity to a WiFi antenna for one hour. The exposed rabbits were shown to have an increased heart rate (+22%) and arterial blood pressure (+14%), and the effectiveness of catecholamines on the heart were also altered. This was after only a single session, so the study tells us nothing concerning the chronic effects of long-term exposure.
It seems that the human cardiovascular system may respond to EMFs in a similar way, according to this 2010 study. Twenty-five subjects were exposed to EMF radiation emitted by a cordless phone over three-minute intervals, and also were given a sham exposure. Throughout the sessions, researchers monitored the subjects’ heart rate variability (HRV).
In ten of the twenty-five subjects, changes in HRV and the autonomic nervous system were observed, with some of the more severe responses manifesting as a rapid heartbeat. All of the subjects’ physiological responses returned to normal during the sham exposure. The researchers concluded that “this is the first study that documents immediate and dramatic changes in both heart rate and HR variability associated with microwave exposure at levels well below federal guidelines in Canada and the United States.”
While both men and women could potentially experience cardiovascular changes from keeping an EMF source close to their chest, women also should be concerned about possible adverse effects on breast health. This case study of four female subjects with multifocal breast cancer. All four women carried their smartphone in their bra for up to 10 hours a day, over a period of several years. None of the women had genetic predisposition or family history of breast cancer. In all four women, the tumors developed directly beneath the area where the phone sat against their skin.
Though there have only been a handful of studies on the relationship between EMFs and the chest/heart, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and keep your wireless devices away from these sensitive areas.
2) Reproductive Organs and Fertility
An overwhelming number of studies show that EMFs have various negative effects on the reproductive systems of animals, and some of these findings are similar in human subjects. This is because our reproductive organs are regulated by the body’s nervous and endocrine systems, both of which are highly sensitive to environmental toxins (EMFs are considered an environmental toxin).
This review of findings on the connection between EMF exposure and problems with fertility and pregnancy gives a basic overview of research done in the past couple decades. Below are just a few examples of many that were referenced:
“A 2015 study showed that exposure to 2.4 GHz WiFi decreased sperm function. The researchers concluded that “there should be major concern regarding the exposure to WiFi networks existing in the vicinity of our living places. (link)”
“In rabbits, a 50 Hz of super low frequency EMFs can cause changes in sperm’s motility and reduce their viability. This process takes place by interfering with the intracellular calcium homeostasis, resulting in disability in sperm function. (link)”
“Spontaneous abortion and fetal abnormalities are two interrelated issues that have attracted the attention of many researchers. Clinical studies on pregnant women exposed to Video display terminal (VDT) have indicated a significant increase in spontaneous abortions. (link)”
“This study suggested that exposure to EMFs in the implantation period can have deleterious effects on the development of embryos. Radiation for 4 hours before ovulation showed that SLF-EMFs have negative effects on the early development of the embryo. (link)”
If you’re planning to have children soon or want them in the distant future, this is definitely something you should be concerned about. If you habitually keep your phone in your pants pocket, your reproductive organs may be receiving high exposures of EMF on a near-constant basis. Even if you aren’t planning on having children, there may be unknown related health consequences that come with years of external influence on the body’s reproductive center.
3) The Brain and Neurotoxicity
Our phone is positioned only a small distance from our brain when we use it to make calls in the traditional way. Given what we already know about EMFs, the fact that so little research has been done on how they affect this very important part of the human body (and the fact that cell phone companies say virtually nothing about limiting use of our phones in this way) seems negligent. What has been discovered so far suggests that EMR causes numerous physiological changes within the brain.
One 2011 study used PET scans to measure brain glucose metabolism in subjects who had a cell phone placed by their ear while either on or off for fifty minute sessions. The findings showed that on the side where the phone was placed, brain glucose metabolism was significantly higher when the phone was on. The brain primarily uses glucose to perform essential tasks like synthesizing neurotransmitters and ATP, thus glucose metabolism must be carefully regulated; changes in glucose metabolism may be involved with the development of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
EMFs may also have damaging effects on RNA found in brain tissue according to an animal study done in 2015. In the study, 16 rats were divided into two groups, with the first being exposed to 2.4 Ghz WiFi around the clock for a full year, while the second group was only given a sham exposure.
After one year had passed, researchers compared the brains of the two groups, and found that rats in the exposure group had alterations in miRNA expression. MiRNA (short for micro RNA) help to regulate gene expression as well as cell growth and death; researchers say that changes in miRNA expression may play a role in the development of neurological disease.
Researchers were also clear to mention that “the significant effects on microRNAs observed in this study were found from WiFi exposure that was well below the legal limit. The FCC’s whole-body exposure limit for the general population is 0.08 watts/kilogram. In this study, the average whole body exposure was 0.0001414 watts/kilogram, and the peak exposure was 0.007127 watts/kilogram.” Though it’s not clear exactly how this translates to the human body, this study does not paint a picture of WiFi as harmless.
A third study of 60 medical students investigated the connection between a frequently using a mobile phone near the head and changes in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. The students were divided into low and high use groups (less than or more than 30 minutes of daily use by the head, respectively). While no physical differences were noticed in the MRI scans of the high-use group, they did perform significantly lower in neuropsychological tests, implying that frequently using a cell phone close to the head can result in problems with concentration and memory.
More research needs to be done for us to understand the influence of EMFs on this very complex organ, especially when it comes to long-term exposure. But with signs pointing to potential neurological harm, it’s not a bad idea to avoid making phone calls with your phone pressed against your ear whenever it’s possible to do so.
Is There any Good News?
The fact that EMFs can negatively influence so many aspects of our health is not comforting, but it may help to know that we can still use our devices relatively safely by keeping them away from the parts of our body that house our most vulnerable organs. In other words, if we are careful not to use any wireless electronics close to the head and torso, we can reduce the risk of harm by a significant amount.
In 1996, the FCC created a standard for wireless technology called SAR. Basically, SAR (short for standard absorption rate) is a measure of the rate at which RF energy is absorbed by the body from the source being measured–for example, a cell phone. In order to be considered safe for human use, all phones sold in the US must fall below the maximum SAR levels allowed by the FCC. The SAR standards were formed over twenty years ago yet have remained unchanged; meanwhile, mobile phones have evolved near-continuously, so these standards are long overdue for revisions.
While the SAR measurement is inadequate in truly accounting for all the factors that determine how much EMf a person will absorb, it is still a good starting point in determining what parts of our bodies are more vulnerable to EMF exposure than others. According to the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNRP), the upper limit of safe exposure levels from a localized source of EMF (such as a cell phone or personal computer) are as follows:
ICNRP SAR Exposure Limits
|2 W/kg||Head & trunk|
|4 W/kg||Limbs (Legs, Feet, Arms & Hands)|
So our hands, arms, and legs can be exposed to twice the amount of EMF as our head and torso while still remaining within the currently accepted safe levels of absorption. Keeping this basic rule in mind, here are some changes you can make to reduce needless risk to the more vulnerable parts of your body.
Reducing the Risk of EMF Exposure on Different Parts of the Body
- Avoid using a laptop on your lap, where it will be just inches from the body’s reproductive organs. Instead, use a table or desk, and maintain at least 12 inches of distance between the laptop and your body. If you must use your laptop on your lap, put an EMF radiation laptop shield between your body and the device. Using your hands to type or use a mouse is fine, though.
- Don’t keep your cellphone in your pocket, or (if you’re female) put it in your bra. It’s better to keep it in your bag instead, or in an armband during exercise.
- Don’t fall asleep with your phone on the bedside table or underneath your pillow. Instead, leave your phone charging in a different room, or make a habit of enabling airplane mode before you turn in for the night.
- If you’re going to make a call that lasts longer than a couple minutes, switch to speakerphone, video calling, or a wired headset (better yet, EMF radiation-free air tube headphones), all of which are preferable to keeping the phone pressed against the side of your head. If you must have your phone up to your head, consider investing in an EMF radiation shield cell phone case.
- Using your phone to text poses minimal risk, but don’t forget to keep the screen at least a foot away from your face while doing so.
- If you’re someone who might have difficulty following these guidelines–for example, if you don’t carry a bag, or if you don’t have table space for laptop use–consider investing in protective EMF-shielding gear for the devices you use most.
- If you’re in an area where your phone’s reception is poor, it will emit more EMFs in an attempt to get a better connection. Try not to use your phone for long periods when you see that your phone has two bars or less.
- A good general rule to keep in mind is to simply limit how much time you spend using your devices–and leave them somewhere away from your body whenever you aren’t actively doing so.