Currently there are 7.3 billion people on the planet and 6. 9 billion mobile phone subscriptions — almost one phone for every person! Few of us can even imagine living without our electronic devices like smartphones and computers. But what is living in a sea of electronics doing to our brains? There’s evidence that our electronic devices may be hazardous to both our physical and mental health.
The most obvious concern is whether mobile phones might cause brain cancer. But this isn’t the only way our electronic gadgets might be affecting us. Let’s examine what the latest science says about the safety of our electronic devices and their effects on our brains.
When researching the hazards of cell phones or other electronics, you’ll come across the term electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Obvious sources of EMFs include power lines, mobile phones, and WiFi. But electromagnetic fields are created any time an electric current flows through a wire, meaning you are exposed to EMFs from seemingly innocuous appliances like your hairdryer, dimmer switches, and coffee makers.
One thing that sets our computers, iPads, mobile phones, and fitness trackers apart is that we use them so much of the time in close proximity to our brains and bodies. More than two-thirds of adults sleep with their mobile phone next to their head and alarmingly, this figure rises to 90 percent in the 18 to 29 year old age bracket.
How EMFs Affect Your Brain
Unsurprisingly, the number one fear of mobile phone usage is brain cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies electromagnetic fields as a Group 2B carcinogen and recommends that consumers find ways to reduce their EMF exposure. By definition, a Group 2B carcinogen means it’s suspected of causing cancer. While that might not sound too serious, keep in mind that this carcinogenic group also includes lead, engine exhaust, DDT, and chloroform.
In a meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Oncology, Swedish researchers found significant associations between long-term cell phone use and brain tumor risk. Cell phone use is linked to both malignant and benign brain tumors after ten years of cell phone use.
But brain cancer isn’t the only concern. Other reported side effects of EMFs include headaches, dizziness, sleep disorders, benign tumors, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Here are some of the known mechanisms by which EMFs affect the brain.
The blood-brain barrier is a group of specialized cells that acts as a filter to keep the brain safe from toxins, heavy metals, pathogens, drugs, and other foreign substances. Many neurological diseases are linked to a compromised blood-brain barrier, including meningitis, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. EMFs increase permeability of the brain-blood barrier, making it leaky and allowing things like mercury, aluminum, and viruses to more readily enter the brain.
Long-term EMF exposure leads to a chronically increased level of free radicals. Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that attack cells much in the same way that they cause metal to rust. The brain is highly susceptible to free radical damage because it’s a heavy oxygen user — using 20 percent of the body’s total. Free radicals cause brain cell damage and aging down to the level of your DNA.
Brain cells communicate with each other via chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters regulate mood, sleep, motivation, ability to learn, addictions, and more. Long-term exposure to EMFs alters the expression of 143 proteins in the brain. EMFs cause significant disruption in levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine causing adverse effects on mood, memory, learning, and stress.
Another way EMFs disrupt brain cell communication is by rupturing brain cell membranes. This causes them to leak calcium ions needed for communication between brain cells. Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy of the Imperial College of London believes that an increase in accidents among cell phone users has less to do with distraction than with delayed reactions caused by the flood of calcium ions into brain cells.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 50 minutes spent on a cell phone disrupts brain glucose metabolism. This is important since your brain uses glucose as its main source of energy. Some experts believe that Alzheimer’s disease may occur when areas of the brain can no longer utilize glucose to feed brain cells. These parts of the brain have become insulin resistant, leading some experts to consider Alzheimer’s type 3 diabetes. Living within 150 feet of high voltage power increases the risk of dementia by 24 percent.
Sleep is a critical pillar of good brain health. It’s during sleep that your brain consolidates memories, repairs itself, and clears itself of metabolic debris. Dozens of studies show that low-level EMF exposure disrupts your natural production of melatonin. Melatonin is most commonly known as a natural sleep hormone that regulates circadian rhythm, but it does more than that. It’s also a potent antioxidant, which has been found to aid in the prevention of Alzheimer’s, depression, cardiovascular diseases, insomnia, mood disorders, tinnitus, and various cancers.
EMF exposure affects the structure and function of the thyroid. EMFs elevate levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). High levels of TSH are directly linked to hypothyroidism. Common symptoms of hypothyroidism include memory loss, depression, brain fog, fatigue, sensitivity to cold, dry skin, constipation, weight gain, and muscle aches.
One of the most unexpected findings has been that seamstresses have a four-fold increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. According to research done at the University of Southern California, “Seamstresses seem to be among the individuals with the highest occupational EMF exposure. They sit near motors of sewing machines for hours, and most industrial sewing machines are always on, and always produce magnetic fields.” This illustrates that it’s not only high-tech devices that emit substantial amounts of EMFs.
The Dangers Of Mobile Phones On Young Brains
In the United States, 46 percent of children between ages 8 and 12 use a mobile phone, and this is bad news for their developing brains. Dr. Ronald B. Herberman was the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Before that he was a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute. He testified in a Congressional hearing on Tumors and Cell Phone Use that EMF absorption rates are higher in a child’s brain than in an adult’s since their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner, and their relative size is smaller. A child’s brain may absorb twice as many EMFs as an adult brain. Electromagnetic radiation penetrates almost straight through the entire brain of a 5-year-old child.
Some common sense steps for reducing children’s exposure to EMFs include making their bedrooms electronic-free zones and not allowing kids to have their own mobile phone or wireless devices. If this sounds too difficult, keep in mind that Steve Jobs did not let his children have iPads! If he chose to limit his kids’ use of electronic devices, it’s something you may want to consider too.
Protect Yourself From EMFs
Mobile phone manufacturers will tell you their products are safe and, in fact, they must meet government guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission in the United States. But not every one is convinced that enough is being done to protect consumers. In May 2015, a letter signed by 195 scientists from around the world called on the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and governments to develop stricter controls on devices that create EMFs. Collectively these scientists have published more than 2,000 peer-reviewed papers on the hazards of EMFs.
This letter, which can be found on EMFScientist.org, states that, “Numerous recent scientific publications have shown that EMF affects living organisms at levels well below most international and national guidelines. Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans. Damage goes well beyond the human race, as there is growing evidence of harmful effects to both plant and animal life.” This letter goes on to accuse WHO of failing to impose sufficient guidelines to protect the general public, particularly children who are at greater risk.
You can’t trust the manufacturers of electronic devices or the government to keep you safe from EMFs. And, unfortunately, a lot of information on how to avoid EMF exposure is dispensed by people trying to sell you something that creates electromagnetic fields — and some of it is hype.
The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization, shares these common sense tips for using your cell phone safely: talk less and text more, use a headset or speaker when you do talk, and don’t carry your phone close to your body. Of course, don’t sleep with your phone next to you. Better yet, make your bedroom an electronics-free zone. Use your phone when your signal is strong — EMF exposure increases dramatically when signals are weak.
To find more ways to reduce EMF exposure, I highly recommend Ann Louise Gittleman’s book Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock And 1,268 Ways To Outsmart The Hazards Of Electronic Pollution. You’ll find plenty of common sense actionable steps to minimize EMFs throughout your home, without giving up the electronic devices you’ve come to rely on.