Does using a cell phone during pregnancy trigger behavioral issues in the child?

Updated May 20, 2008

I have to admit it.  I was a little taken aback by the latest study linking cell phone usage during pregnancy to behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity and emotional problems.  In brief, the study found that using a cell phone just 2 or 3 times a day during pregnancy elevated the child’s risk of experiencing behavioral issues by school age.  Please note that very few used a hands-free set, which is much more common today than in the late 1990’s.

Pregnant on cell phoneBefore you panic, and wonder if you did something wrong by using your cell phone during pregnancy, let me caution you that the authors readily admit that the associations may be noncausal and due to unmeasured confounding (meaning that other factors may explaing the relationship).  The researchers emphasize that the findings must be replicated before they are taken too seriously. 

In any event, the study, to be published in the July issue of Epidemiology, is already available online.  It has surprised many experts in the field.  And this is why it surprises me too.  Fetuses are unlikely to receive any radiation exposure during maternal cell phone use.  Nonetheless, one expert postulated that it may be the electromagnetic signals instead of the microwave transmissions that are causing the problem, if one exists, as reported by Microwave News.  Another theory is that the cell phone radiation causes biochemical changes in the mother, that then in turn affect the fetus.  So it seems that we may know something happens, but not how it happens.    

How was the study conducted?  The U.S.-Danish team surveyed the mothes of over 13,000 children born in Denmark in the late 1990s about cell phone use in pregnancy, and their children’s use of cell phones and behavior up to the age of 7.  About half of the mothers had used cell phones infrequently or not at all, allowing the researchers to compare results. 

The detailed results?  Mothers who did use the handsets were 54 per cent more likely to have children with behavioural problems and that the likelihood increased with the amount of potential exposure to the radiation.  And when the children also later used the phones they were, overall, 80 per cent more likely to suffer from difficulties with behaviour. They were 25 per cent more at risk from emotional problems, 34 per cent more likely to suffer from difficulties relating to their peers, 35 per cent more likely to be hyperactive, and 49 per cent more prone to problems with conduct.

Cindy Sage, on her blog, explains that the results may be explained by:

“The BioInitiative Report (Chapter 8 – Immune Function) reports a long history of studies documenting allergic and inflammatory conditions with EMF exposure. Inflammatory responses to illness in mothers during pregnancy has alrready been suggested as a plausible biological mechanism for altered brain development in the child, with potential impacts on mental health (Scientific American, April 2008, Melinda Wenner). Cytokine production is an inflammatory response in the mother to infection, and may be triggered by other environmental exposures including EMF. Cytokine production is known to affect neurons in the developing brain of the fetus.

Prenatal exposure to cell phone radiation, either by indirect effect on the immune system of the mother, or by direct effect of cell phone radiation on the fetus has enormous public health consequences.

If it is phone-to-fetus exposure that is important, it might be the ELF component of the exposure (from battery switching of the phone) that is important rather than the RF component which is presumably very low. We reported in 2007 that ELF levels from cell phones and PDAs can produce excessively high ELF emissions when worn on or close to the body (Sage CL Johansson O Sage SA. Personal digital assistant (PDA) cell phone units produce elevated extremely-low frequency electromagnetic field emissions . Bioelectromagnetics 28, No.5, July 2007).”

So, what’s a Smart Mama to do?  To be honest, I don’t know what to tell you at this point since it appears that much more work needs to be done in this area.  I think the best solution is probably to consider using a hands free system in the car (as required in some states now).  Not much of a help, I know.  Or go the old fashioned route . . . use snail mail. 


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