(Reuters Health) - Pregnant women exposed to high radiation levels from sources like cell phones, wireless devices and cell towers miscarried at nearly three times the rate as those exposed to low levels, according to new research.
“I hope this study makes us rethink the notion that magnetic field non-ionizing radiation exposure is safe or has no health risk,” said lead author Dr. De-Kun Li, a senior research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, California. “This is certainly something we can’t just ignore.”
Cell phones, cordless phones and other wireless devices, appliances, power lines, smart-meter networks and cell towers generate non-ionizing radiation from magnetic fields. Writing in Scientific Reports, Li and his team call rapidly proliferating electromagnetic field emissions “a ubiquitous environmental exposure and a serious looming public health challenge.”
For the study, more than 900 pregnant women in the San Francisco area carried meters that measured their exposure to electromagnetic field radiation for 24 hours. After accounting for age, race, education and smoking, expectant mothers with the highest exposure levels during their typical weekday routines were 2.7 times as likely to miscarry as women with the lowest levels.
Researchers could not determine the emission sources of the radiation. But they write that traditional sources, such as power lines and appliances, generate low-frequency magnetic fields, while emerging sources, such as cell phones and smart-meter networks, generate higher frequencies.
The results underscore the need for additional research into possible health harms of a technology to which virtually everyone in the U.S. is now exposed, whether by choice or circumstance, Li said.
“We really want people to start rethinking the assumption that magnetic-field exposure is safe,” he said in a phone interview. “We really, really need more research because everybody is exposed, including the genetically vulnerable and fetuses.”
Olga V. Naidenko, a senior science advisor with the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. who was not involved with the study, described the findings as “very compelling” and “very alarming.”
Like Li, she called for more research into the biological effects of electromagnetic radiation.
“We need a better understanding about what sources of non-ionizing radiation around the house most contribute to health risk, so that families - and everyone - have the necessary information to protect their health,” she said in an email.
In the meantime, she advises children and adults, especially pregnant women, to decrease exposure to electromagnetic radiation by keeping cell phones and other wireless devices away from their bodies.
“If someone is really concerned, distance is their friend,” Li said. “Keep away from the source. You don’t have to stand right next to the microwave. There’s nothing to watch anyway.”
Li said Kaiser, an integrated healthcare delivery system whose members comprise nearly one-third of the residents in its Northern California catchment area, would not issue a warning to pregnant women about electromagnetic radiation. But the California Department of Public Health did issue guidance last week that long-term use of cell phones could pose health harms.
“Although the science is still evolving, there are concerns among some public health professionals and members of the public regarding long-term, high use exposure to the energy emitted by cell phones,” Dr. Karen Smith, California’s public health officer, said in a written statement.
“We know that simple steps, such as not keeping your phone in your pocket and moving it away from your bed at night, can help reduce exposure for both children and adults,” she said.
Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved with the new study, said it builds on previous research, which found that electromagnetic exposure during pregnancy increased the risk of miscarriage.
“Pregnant women and couples trying to conceive children should minimize their exposure to the electromagnetic fields produced by household appliances and wireless devices, including cell phones,” he said by email.
Previous studies have linked radiation from long-term cell phone use to an increased risk of brain cancer and lower sperm counts, Naidenko said.
A federal study last year found an increased risk of cancer associated with magnetic field non-ionizing radiation exposure in rodents. Li called the findings from the National Toxicology Program “stunningly important.”
“They found the exact cell type of tumor observed in humans. To me, it’s very strong evidence it might be the same,” he said.
“We are never going to say we’re going to take away your device,” he said. “Engineers are going to figure out a way to use the device in a safe way. But if we bury our heads in the sand, that’s a travesty.”