OMG, babies have thin skulls! They can be pierced!
That’s the kind of nonsense we get in bad popular science articles — a True Fact that is cited as demonstrating a real danger to children. Buzzfeed points to the sensationalist media hype over a terrible article that claims cell phones are warping babies innocent helpless brains.
The journal Child Development published what was described as a “review article” –an assessment of existing literature – by Cindy Sage and Ernesto Burgio. It was titled “Electromagnetic Fields, Pulsed Radiofrequency Radiation, and Epigenetics: How Wireless Technologies May Affect Childhood Development”, and was published in a “special section” of the journal addressing technology risks.
The paper got picked up by the UK national media. An article in the Express, published in May, asked: “Could wireless technology be causing MAJOR health problems in your children?”
It said: “Wireless mobile phones, laptops and tablets could be causing major health problems in children and contributing to autism and hyperactivity, a new study warns,” and said that these devices, “which even include baby monitors, emit radiation and electromagnetic fields that pierce thin skulls, harming memory, learning and other mental skills”.
However, a new paper published in the journal PeerJ by Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Oxford who specialises in developmental conditions such as autism, and David Robert Grimes, a medical physicist also at the University of Oxford, has issued severe doubts about the study. They said its claims are “devoid of merit” and “should [not be] given a veneer of legitimacy”.
The Child Development paper claimed that phones, Wi-Fi, and other sources of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) “are widely documented to cause potentially harmful health impacts that can be detrimental to young people”.
The actual article in Child Development isn’t quite that sensationalist, but it’s bad in other ways. As is usual in this kind of article about the horrors of electromagnetic radiation, I always wonder if, after they get rid of our cell phones, they’re planning to get rid of that great big thermonuclear-powered source of radiation and electromagnetic fields in the sky — after all, it’s silly to go after the piddling sources of feeble EMR while ignoring the many orders of magnitude greater zapper of rays that is bathing our whole planet in a seething stew of wavelengths and photons and rays and all that sciencey crap.
I wonder what the mechanism might be that causes autism in response to EMFs. This is always the problem with these kinds of ‘studies’ — they’re long on hypotheticals, and weak on the causal links that might be testable and might actually give some substance to the vapor. The Bishop and Grimes paper does a good job on dismantling their arguments there, too, because I was really annoyed when Sage and Burgio trot out their “Plausible Biological Mechanism for EMF/RFR Effects” and it’s…epigenetics. Epigenetics is the new buzzword that gets inserted in place of “magic” nowadays, and it’s getting obnoxious. You have to do real experiments and measurements of epigenetic phenomena to be able to make that claim — and simply noting that DNA repair is slower when your cells in culture are exposed to low-intensity non-thermal radiation, which might make them more prone to cancer, does not imply “epigenetics did it”. I don’t even know what they mean by epigenetics! It seems that whenever they observe an effect for which they have no causal mechanism, they just label it epigenetic and call that the mechanism, as if that explains anything.
Bishop and Grimes summarize it well.
Sage and Burgio make liberal use of epigenetic terminology, but in a nebulous and non-specific fashion, being deployed as an apparent deus ex machina to attribute negative health effects to WiFi in the absence of any evidence. Epigenetics is a term used to refer to the case where environmentally-induced modifications persist across generations, but Sage and Burgio treat it more as a synonym for gene-environment interaction. This usage is common among advocates of complementary and alternative medicine, but unhelpful as it confuses rather than clarifying the role of environmental effects.
Anyway, relax. There is no plausible mechanism for cell phones or WiFi to fry your baby’s brain, so go ahead, pierce their thin little skulls with radiation. I’m a big fan of holding babies close so that the infrared radiation you are emitting from your chest (more wattage than is coming out of your phone!) toasts their little heads with warmth. I think we humans have been doing that for a few hundred thousand years, so it’s probably not harmful. Probably. Studies pending.