Cell phones are a truly wonderful convenience. How many times do I recall when a cell phone instantly turned confusion and worry into clarity and comfort…travel delays, a change of plans, coordination with family and friends. Cell phones are the glue that connects us, as we live in a mobile, fast-paced world.
Some of you have asked me to write on cell phones, a topic I have resisted because I do not understand the technology and because the field is so young and untested. How I wish I could title this newsletter “Tips for Cell Phone Safety.” But realistically, we do not yet know what “safety” means when it comes to cell phones. As the first generation of cell phone users, we are the experimental group. Much research will ultimately be conducted on us, but it may be years before we truly understand the impact of cell phones on overall health, and particularly the health of the brain.
What we do know is that the brain is vulnerable to a host of threats from modern invention, from excitotoxins in foods to aberrant radiation from technology. This is particularly true for children and teens, whose brains are still in the formative stages of development. But, we also know that cell phones are an important and integral part of modern life, woven tightly into the social and professional fabric of our daily routines and lifestyle. As we continue to rely on them, we can try to raise awareness and take as many precautions as possible.
While definitive research remains sparse, in the course of some recent reading, I did discover some excellent advice about using cell phones. It comes from David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., an expert in cognitive neuroscience and the author of the just-published Anticancer: A New Way of Life. Dr. Servan-Schreiber, a cancer survivor and cell phone user, offers this:
“Existing epidemiological studies are insufficient to conclude definitively that the use of cell phones is associated with an increased risk of cancer and other health problems. The most recent studies, though, which include subjects with a history of cell phone use of ten years or more, show a probable association with certain benign tumors (neuromas of the acoustic nerve) and some brain cancers on the side the device is used.
Given the absence of definitive proof in humans of the carcinogenic effects of electromagnetic fields of cell phones, it is not appropriate at this stage to talk about preventative measures (as for tobacco or asbestos). But the existing data suggest that it is important to publicize precautionary measures for cell phone users. These measures are also important for people who are already suffering from cancer and who must avoid any external influence that may contribute to disease progression.
- 1. Do not allow children under 12 years of age to use a mobile phone except in emergencies. The developing organs (of a fetus or child) are the most sensitive to any possible effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields.
- 2. While communicating using your mobile phone, try to keep the phone away from the body. The amplitude of the electromagnetic field is four times lower at a distance of 10 cm (4 inches), and fifty times lower at 1 m (3 feet). Whenever possible, use the speaker-phone mode, or a hands-free kit equipped with an air tube in the last 20 centimeters, which seems to transmit fewer electromagnetic waves than a traditional hands-free kit or a wireless Bluetooth headset.
- 3. As much as possible, stand away from a person using their mobile phone, and avoid using your mobile phone in places like the subway, the train or the bus, where you can passively expose your neighbors to your phone’s magnetic fields.
- 4. Avoid carrying your mobile phone on your body constantly, even on standby. Do not keep it near your body at night (under the pillow or on the bedside table), particularly if you are pregnant. You can also put it on “flight” or “off-line” mode, which stops electromagnetic emissions.
- 5. If you must carry your mobile phone on you, make sure that the face (key pad) is positioned toward your body and the back (antenna side – stronger magnetic field) is positioned toward the outside.
- 6. Only use your mobile phone to establish contact or for conversations lasting a few minutes (biological effects are directly related to the duration of exposure). It is best to call back from a land line with a corded phone (not from a cordless phone, which uses microwave technology similar to that of mobile phones).
- 7. Switch sides regularly and, before putting your mobile phone to the ear, wait until your correspondent has picked up (which limits the power of the electromagnetic field emitted).
- 8. Avoid using your mobile phone when the signal is weak or when you are moving at high speed, as in a car or train (this automatically increases power to a maximum as the phone repeatedly attempts to connect to a new relay antenna).
- 9. When possible, communicate via text messaging rather than making a call (thus limiting the duration of exposure and the proximity to the body).
- 10. Choose a device with the lowest SAR possible (SAR= specific absorption rate, which measures the strength of the magnetic field absorbed by the body). SAR rankings of contemporary phones by different manufacturers are available on several websites. (You can access these by typing “sar ratings mobile phones” in a search engine.)
Cell Phones and Children
Growing numbers of children are now using cell phones for safety, convenience, and connection. The benefits may out weigh the risks, particularly if we consider the number families with both parents at work and not at home and available, as well as the number of children who take themselves to and from school and to activities after the school day.
Mindful of the benefits, we still need to emphasize precautionary measures to the young: the developing brain is “plastic,” which means it continues to grow and re-program and mature well into late adolescence. Also, round-the-clock cell phone use is distracting, undermines study skills, and makes it difficult to develop a sense of sustained focus.
My daughters, now in their twenties, were truly among the first teens to grow up with cell phones. As a mother new to cell phone culture, I neglected to see the implications of cell phone social life on family time, quiet leisure, and concentration.
Looking back, I wish I had had the foresight to adopt a practice suggested by a friend: The mother of three active children who took themselves to a variety of afterschool activities, my friend placed a cell phone basket at the front door. Upon safe arrival each afternoon, her children deposited their cell phones in the basket, where they remained until school departure time the following morning.
I really like this idea. It allows for more quality evening time and slows the pace for all. Social calls can come through the land-line family phone and whatever family guidelines for phone use can be monitored from “on high.”
Cell Phones and Teens
Cell phones are a wonderful boon to teens and become an integral part of their lives as they go about the normal growth process of separation from family, individuation, and connection with the peer culture. A cell phone basket which might work for children may no longer “fly” with teens. A different approach might simply be to educate your teen about what science tells us regarding the adolescent brain, so that this knowledge might breed inner cautionary behaviors:
Research indicates that the communication networks based on chemical signaling processes are growing and expanding throughout the teen years. During these years, the potential for cellular excitement and chemical stimulation at synapses between neurons in the brain moves to higher and higher levels, a factor that allows for high skill attainment by teens in such areas as music, mathematics, and languages.1 But, as Francis E. Jensen and David Urion, professors of neurology at Harvard Medical School, point out, with the enhanced level of excitability in the teenage brain that allows for sophisticated learning, there is also a greater sensitivity and vulnerability to external stressors. Barraged by electronic stimuli, from computers, to video games, television, and cell phones, the teen brain has never been exposed to such sensory overload. Perhaps by helping our teens develop understanding and awareness, we can help them balance and manage wisely the myriad of sophisticated technological tools now at their disposal.
Nutrition to Support Neurological Health
Recall three facts about the brain: First, the brain is composed of fat, about half of which is cholesterol. Second, essential fatty acids (EFAs) are necessary for brain and neurological/electrical function. Third, while composed of fat, the brain actually runs on glucose. These three concepts suggest that to support a healthy brain, a varied diet should include:
- Healthy saturated fats found in butter and organic meats, poultry, and eggs from grass-fed animals;
- Good quality fats such as those found in wild fish, quality fish oils, and nuts and seeds; and
- Complex carbohydrates to fuel brain activity derived from such sources as beans, whole grains, and starchy vegetables, particularly winter squashes and root vegetables.
Why are omega-3s and omega-6s important for proper brain function, and why are they called essential fatty acids (EFAs)? Omega-3 and omega-6 oils are vital for our neurological health: Our body needs these to carry out sophisticated “electrical” functions involved with brain activity, cellular regulation, and nerve impulses. They are called EFAs because we cannot make them ourselves. We must depend on plants and animals to supply them to us.
- Harvard Magazine, September/October, 20008, pp. 8-10. [↩]