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Wearable Technology Devices

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  • Wireless phones and other gadgets have the potential to cause all sorts of health problems, from headaches to brain tumors
  • Wearable technology devices are reasonably safe, provided they do not have a 3G connection built in
  • Children are especially vulnerable to cell phone radiation because their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner, and their relative size is smaller

Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?

April 01, 2015 | 51,286 views
| Available in EspañolDisponible en Español

By Dr. Mercola

In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared cell phones a Class B Carcinogen, meaning a "possible cancer-causing agent," based on the available research.

Yet, cell phones have become so intertwined with our daily lives that most people continue to use them, despite the mounting evidence attesting to their risks. Some do so with caution – using speakerphone or texting, for instance, instead of holding the phone up to their ear (and right next to their brain).

Others, however, continue to refute the facts that the risks are real. Meanwhile, we're seeing a new category of technology growing – wearable technology – quickly flooding the marketplace.

It could be that one day such wearable devices could overtake cell phones, but, given the risks of radiation exposure, is wearing a computer on your body safe?

New York Times Asks if Wearable Computers Could Be as Harmful as Cigarettes

There was a time, in the late 1940s, when doctors appeared in cigarette advertisements. It wasn't yet widely known that cigarettes cause cancer, just as, someday, the same might be said about cell phones.

Wireless phones and other gadgets have the potential to cause all sorts of health problems, from headaches to brain tumors. The link between brain cancer and cell phone use has been a particularly persistent one, and mounting research has only made this association stronger…

Take a recent analysis performed by Dr. Lennart Hardell, a professor of oncology at University of Örebro in Sweden, and statistician Michael Carlberg from the same university. The pair looked at data from two previous case-controlled studies on Swedish patients diagnosed with malignant brain tumors during the periods of 1997-2003 and 2007-2009.1

Using regression analysis, adjusted for gender, age, year of diagnosis, and socioeconomic index, the odds of developing a malignant and highly lethal brain cancer called glioma rose concurrently with increased cell phone use. The more hours spent with a cell phone pressed to their ear, and the more years they'd spent using a mobile phone, the higher the odds were.

  • Those who logged the most amount of hours on their cell phones were twice as likely to develop glioma compared to those who used them the least
  • Those who used either a cell phone or cordless house phone for more than 25 years had triple the risk of glioma, compared to those who had used wireless telephones for less than one year

As reported in the New York Times:2

"We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms and other health problems if held too close to the body for extended periods.

Yet here we are in 2015, with companies like Apple and Samsung encouraging us to buy gadgets that we should attach to our bodies all day long. While there is no definitive research on the health effects of wearable computers (the Apple Watch isn't even on store shelves yet), we can hypothesize a bit from existing research on cellphone radiation."

Built-In 3G Connections Could Be a Problem

To be clear, I'm a technology junkie. I often recommend using wearable fitness trackers like the Jawbone UP, because they can help you keep track of your daily movement and sleep patterns. In fact, I wear one myself.

However, I believe such devices are reasonably safe, provided they do not have a 3G connection built in. I was interviewed for the New York Times piece, which quoted me as saying:3

"The radiation really comes from the 3G connection on a cellphone, so devices like the Jawbone Up and Apple Watch should be O.K. …But if you're buying a watch with a cellular chip built in, then you've got a cellphone attached to your wrist."

This latter scenario is definitely one you want to avoid. Dr. Hardell's study showed that technology is progressively getting more harmful—not less so – due to progressions in amplitude and frequency... As noted by the Institute of Science in Society:4

"The case control studies covered periods during which phone technologies had changed considerably. It started with first generation analogue phones that had an output power of 1 W at about 900 MHz…

The 2nd generation GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) phones (2G) with either 900 or 1800 MHz frequency had pulsed output power averaging tens of mW.

The 3rd generation (3G) phones UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System) are more amplitude modulated than pulsed, and typically use a broad frequency band (5 MHz width) from 700-3 590 MHz on a worldwide basis, and from 900-2 170 MHz in Europe with output power of the order of tens of μW."

The findings show that 3G phones may cause more harm than earlier versions, raising the risk of brain cancer four-fold. It also appears to have shorter latency period—just five to 10 years, compared to about 25 years for earlier mobile phone versions.

'Ignorance Drowns Out Precautions'

It should be noted that Nick Bilton, who wrote the aforementioned New York Times article, received considerable backlash for even suggesting that cell phones or wearable electronics could be dangerous. But as Microwave News put it, this is a case of ignorance drowning out precaution.5 They stated:

"What got lost in all the name-calling is Bilton's clear message. 'After researching this column, talking to experts and poring over dozens of scientific papers,' he wrote, 'I have stopped holding my phone next to my head and instead use a headset.'

And then he let a few drops of rain fall on the iWatch love parade. '[W]hen it comes to wearable computers, I'll still buy the Apple Watch, but I won't let it go anywhere near my head. And I definitely won't let any children I know play with it for extended periods of time.'"

The message that Bilton gave was one of sensible precaution, one that is certainly warranted if you take even a quick browse through the medical literature.

Interestingly, two days after the article was published, an editor's note was added to Bilton's article, further slapping his hands for, in their words, giving "an inadequate account of the status of research about cellphone radiation and cancer risk." This is interesting because the largest owner of New York Times stock is also heavily invested in a wireless company…

According to Microwave News:6

"In January, Carlos Slim, became the single largest owner of stock in the New York Times Co., outside the Sulzberger family that controls the newspaper empire. Slim, one of the richest men on the planet, is the co-chair of América Móvil, which has more than 289 million wireless customers in 25 countries.

He owns 16.8% of the Times, according to Reuters. Surely this potential conflict should have been cited by… the editors of the New York Times in their attacks on Bilton and their defense of cell phone safety."

Children Should Not Use Cellphones

One factor that should no longer be debated is the risk of cell phones to children. Dr. Devra Davis, one of the most well-respected and credentialed researchers on the dangers of cell phones, and founder and president of Environmental Health Trust, warned at the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) meeting in 2014 that Wi-Fi use might cause cancer.

In particular, Dr. Davis warned about the risks to pregnant women and their unborn children, noting that prenatal animal studies have shown exposure to radiation from cell phones:

  • Altered DNA
  • Altered brain metabolism
  • Compromised spinal cords
  • Affected learning abilities

Children's brains contain more liquid than adults', which impacts the amount of radiation absorbed (children absorb far more). Among teens who use cell phones from a young age, the risk of brain cancer is about four to five times higher than that of teens who didn't use cellphones.

Why Are Cellphones More Dangerous to Children and Pregnant Women?

As reported in the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure:7

"Children absorb more MWR [microwave radiation] than adults because their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner and their relative size is smaller. MWR from wireless devices has been declared a possible human carcinogen. Children are at greater risk than adults when exposed to any carcinogen. Because the average latency time between first exposure and diagnosis of a tumor can be decades, tumors induced in children may not be diagnosed until well into adulthood.

The fetus is particularly vulnerable to MWR. MWR exposure can result in degeneration of the protective myelin sheath that surrounds brain neurons. MWR-emitting toys are being sold for use by young infants and toddlers. Digital dementia has been reported in school age children. Belgium, France, India and other technologically sophisticated governments are passing laws and/or issuing warnings about children's use of wireless devices."

Pregnant women may even want to reconsider travelling by air due to exposure to cosmic radiation. Although this might not pose a serious risk for a short flight, it's a concern for women who fly frequently, such as pilots, flight attendants, or frequent travelers. There's also a possibility of short eruptions of radiation levels can occur that would pose a risk even for a causal traveler. As reported in Obstetrics and Gynecology:8

"During high-altitude flight, the cosmic radiation dose rate in an airliner is greater than it is at ground level. For a casual traveler, the impact on pregnancy from cosmic radiation exposure during flight is trivial. Pregnant frequent flyers, pilots, and flight attendants can, however, receive exposures that exceed current recommended values if they do not appropriately modify their work schedules.

In addition to the galactic cosmic-ray background that is the source of this radiation, severe disturbances on the sun may cause eruptions that significantly raise radiation levels at airliner altitudes for brief periods, possibly having an impact even on casual travelers."

One in Four Car Accidents Caused by Cell Phones

Another factor that cannot be ignored is the role of cell phones in "distracted driving" accidents. In the National Safety Council's annual injury and fatality report, it's revealed that cell phones cause 26 percent of car accidents in the US.9 Surprisingly, only 5 percent were related to texting, and the report suggests that "talking can be more dangerous than texting while operating a vehicle, and the use of talk-to-text applications is not a solution."

Research has shown that driving performance is equally affected while using either a handheld or hands-free phone,10 leading to effects such as increased reaction time. To date, 12 states have laws against driving while using a handheld device, and 43 states have banned texting while driving. Also on the rise are pedestrian injuries from cell phones, which are up 35 percent since 2010, according to data from US emergency rooms. It's estimated that 10 percent of the 78,000 US pedestrian injuries in 2012 were the result of "mobile device distraction."11

In this case, if you're walking research has shown that texting is significantly more dangerous than talking on a cell phone.12 All manufacturers of smartphones have warnings which describe the minimum distance at which phone must be kept away from users in order to not exceed the present legal limits for exposure to MWR. The exposure limit for laptop computers and tablets is set when devices are tested 20 cm away from the body.

Cell Phone and Tablet Use Might Interfere with Your Vision and More

The blue light emitted from electronics such as cell phones, tablets, TVs, and computers suppresses your melatonin production, thereby preventing you from feeling sleepy. The research is quite clear that people who use their computer for playing, surfing, or reading on the Web, or those who use their smartphones for the same purpose, as well as texting, are more likely to report symptoms of insomnia.13

Beyond this, there is research showing that blue light may lead to retinal damage in your eyes, which could lead to macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. Although this damage is linked to direct exposure (probably closer than you would get from a cell phone), we're only beginning to understand the consequences of blue light exposure on vision. There has also been speculation, for instance, that blue light might be linked to cataracts, and it's widely known that exposure to such light at night may increase your risk of cancer and depression. As Business Insider reported:14

"…when nighttime screen usage convinces our brains that it's morning and they shouldn't produce melatonin, that starts to wreak havoc on our bodies. We can't avoid smartphones, computers, and tablets all the time. But we should try to limit our exposure at night. Sometimes, wearing amber glasses that block blue light or using apps that limit the amount of blue light coming from our screens may help. Taking breaks from screentime is a good idea too – especially right before and in bed."

Common-Sense Guidelines to Minimize Your Risk

I've only just begun to touch on the risks of cell phones and other wireless technologies. What experts in the area of the biological effects of electromagnetic frequencies and wireless technologies are finding is that there's virtually no doubt that cell phones and related gadgets are capable of causing not only cancer but also contributing to a wide variety of other conditions, from depression and diabetes to heart irregularities and impaired fertility.

Further, in a study by Dr. Davis and colleagues it's noted that "All manufacturers of smartphones have warnings which describe the minimum distance at which phone must be kept away from users in order to not exceed the present legal limits for exposure to MWR."15 However, the exposure limit for laptop computers and tablets is set when devices are tested 20 centimeters away from the body. This violates the "normal operating position" regulation, because most people use such devices at a much closer distance, which would amplify the health effects.

It's also important to note that researchers are in general agreement that there's a latency period of about 10 years or more before the damage shows up, which places children at greatest risk—a risk that is potentially exacerbated with more modern 3G technologies, which appear to be even more harmful than earlier versions. From my perspective, the evidence clearly indicates that we need to invoke the precautionary principle with regards to cell phone use, as well as other wireless technologies. Until the industry starts taking this matter seriously, the responsibility to keep children safe falls on the parents. To minimize the risk to your brain, and that of your child, pay heed to the following advice:

  • Don't let your child use a cell phone. Barring a life-threatening emergency, children should not use a cell phone, or a wireless device of any type. Children are far more vulnerable to cell phone radiation than adults, because of their thinner skull bones.
  • Keep your cell phone use to a minimum. Turn your cell phone off more often. Reserve it for emergencies or important matters. As long as your cell phone is on, it emits radiation intermittently, even when you are not actually making a call. Use a land line at home and at work.
  • Limit cell phone use to areas with excellent reception. The weaker the reception, the more power your phone must use to transmit, and the more power it uses, the more radiation it emits, and the deeper the dangerous radio waves penetrate into your body. Ideally, you should only use your phone with full bars and good reception.
  • Avoid carrying your cell phone on your body, and do not sleep with it below your pillow or near your head. Ideally, put it in your purse or carrying bag. Placing a cell phone in your bra or in a shirt pocket over your heart is asking for trouble, as is placing it in a man's pocket if he seeks to preserve his fertility. The most dangerous place to be, in terms of radiation exposure, is within about six inches of the emitting antenna. You do not want any part of your body within that area while the phone is on.
  • Don't assume one cell phone is safer than another. There's no such thing as a "safe" cell phone.
  • Respect others; many are highly sensitive to EMF. Some people who have become sensitive can feel the effects of others' cell phones in the same room, even when it is on but not being used. If you are in a meeting, on public transportation, in a courtroom or other public places, such as a doctor's office, keep your cell phone turned off out of consideration for the "secondhand radiation" effects. Children are also more vulnerable, so please avoid using your cell phone near children.
  • Use a well-shielded wired headset: Wired headsets will certainly allow you to keep the cell phone farther away from your body. However, if a wired headset is not well-shielded -- and most of them are not -- the wire itself can act as an antenna attracting and transmitting radiation directly to your brain. So make sure the wire used to transmit the signal to your ear is shielded. One of the best kinds of headsets uses a combination of shielded wire and air-tube. These operate like a stethoscope, transmitting the sound to your head as an actual sound wave; although there are wires that still must be shielded, there is no wire that goes all the way up to your head.

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