Not the ‘cell phones cause autism’ crap again

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.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    If I use a whole bundle of cellphones at once, will I be able zap Trump’s brain? What effective range are we talking about?
    Methinks the authors have been reading a certain Stephen King novel.

  2. davidnangle says

    Is this any different from working a crowd up into a mob to murder some people for being witches? Because of a new type of tool or jewelry, or musical instrument? No. No, it isn’t different.

  3. says


    Is this any different from working a crowd up into a mob to murder some people for being witches?

    Are there mobs working up a crowd to murder some people for having phones or tablets? Is there a new Luddite movement sweeping one land after the other? From what I see whenever I venture out, most people have a phone fucking plastered to their head at all times. I wouldn’t be terribly concerned about a cellphone hunt just yet.

  4. blf says

    If I use a whole bundle of cellphones at once, will I be able zap Trump’s brain?

    If you can determine the frequency Putin transmits on, then you could jam the signal…

    Whether or not that would cause hair furor to flop over immobile until he can be re-energized I’ve no idea, but it seems worth a try. Of course, there are risks; e.g., instead of deanimating, he might barge around unsteered.

  5. says

    In my experience they have got it the wrong way round (as usual) it’s not phones that are a “real danger to children”, young children (especially if inquisitive) are a real danger to phones!!!

  6. robro says

    There’s another problem with such claims: There’s no physical, definitive test for the condition called “Autism.” As a parent of a child who was variously diagnosed with OCD, ADHD, Aspergers, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and more recently schizo-affective disorder, I would ask that any one claiming to have identified a “cause” for Autism start by providing a test for Autism or any other cognitive or psycho-emotional impairment…beyond observation and knowledge of the DSM.

    As far as I know, and stated repeatedly by doctors and therapists at Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, “there are no blood tests” for any of these things. In other words, there are no reliable biological markers that can be used to identify what people with these diagnoses actually have, and whether they have the same thing or different things as other people.

    What these sorts of claims are most likely doing is exploiting the fears and distress of parents. My guess is somewhere down the line someone is expecting to make money off parents looking for a cure to fix their children that they feel guilty for having “damaged” by exposing them to trivial cell phone radiation or vaccinating them against dangerous diseases. Having lived through the depression and anxiety of raising an “Aspy” child, I can assure you the impulse to grasp for any hope is formidable.

  7. Snarki, child of Loki says

    FOX NEWS causes brain damage, it’s true.

    But it’s the content, not the medium.

  8. Ed Seedhouse says

    Damn it P.Z., you took away my whole reason for having become a HAM radio operator. My neighbour’s children will not spring extra limbs or external brains? All is bleak…

  9. jacksprocket says

    They don’t need to postulate a mechanism. All they need to do is demonstrate a connection between cellphone radiation and autism (or any other condition). If they can do that, it’s everyone else’s problem to find the mechanism, and we’ll expect to have to find a lot of new science because there aren’t any obvious candidates at the moment. If they can’t demonstrate a connection, we don’t need to do anything, and no amount of postulating possible mechanisms on their part is of any interest, because there’s nothing to explain.

    I haven’t read the paper, but if it appears in the Deadly Excess simple Bayesian analysis shows it’s probably crap.

  10. blf says

    [Y]ou took away my whole reason for having become a HAM radio operator. My neighbour’s children will not spring extra limbs or external brains?

    The usual reason for becoming a ham radio operator is to construct a giant antenna to “suck in” all your neighbours’s TV and radio signals. Or at least that was the case back when I was a ham, which admittedly was so long ago spark-gap was still a gleam in Marconi’s eye.

  11. davidnangle says

    Caine, it’s the attempt at stirring up fear and anger of the unknown. Just not to the same level of success.

  12. says

    davidnangle @12:

    Caine, it’s the attempt at stirring up fear and anger of the unknown.

    No, I don’t think it is. It’s targeting people like Robro (see #7). It’s very easy to make any claim about autism, because there are a whole lot of desperate parents out there, looking for any cause of their child’s problems. The claims about emf and the rest are quite old, actually, and they get recycled at regular intervals. There are always people who are easily spooked by anything newfangled and all that, however, the overwhelming amount of people happily embrace technological advances.

  13. Rich Woods says

    @blf #5:

    instead of deanimating, he might barge around unsteered.

    Er, doesn’t he already do that?

  14. blf says

    [hair furor] might barge around unsteered.

    Er, doesn’t he already do that?

    Not quite. Or at least only most of the time. There are coal-fired tugs named Faux, Breitbart (also known as the Bannon), and Putin — at least — nudging him. Jamming those signals could remove any semblance of control.

    On the other hand, there’s also the slimy, viscous, vicious morass he floats in, known to be composed of thug (short for rethuglican), bigotry, and similar substances, all very corrosive and toxic. Those currents attract to money, so even with jammed control signals and no nudges, he could continue to drift in the direction of increasing inequality, intolerance, and pollution.

  15. microraptor says

    Aren’t the same groups who spread this kind of junk also the types who like promoting the “health benefits” of magnetic jewelry?

  16. chrislawson says

    jacksprocket@10: not quite, because it takes very little to find an association between any two things. It does not automatically follow that we have discovered a new effect that needs a new theory to explain it. If you regularly read the health literature (which this paper comes from) you will find that even respected journals often publish articles about some nebulous marginally-significant association that turned up in a secondary outcome in one subgroup in a non-intervention study that therefore cannot demonstrate causality.

  17. DonDueed says

    It’s all true! Virtually every autistic child in the developed world has been exposed to cell phone radiation!1 Q.E.2.

  18. jrkrideau says

    I have not read the Sage and Burgio paper (paywall and it’s not worth the time walking down to the university to grab it) but from the abstract and the Bishop & Grimes paper it sounds like your common or garden kooks with a bee in their bonnet. We have a woman somewhere in the province, can’t remember her university, who has been trying to get school boards to shutdown WiFi networks for similar reasons. I would not be surprised if she was one of the authors of the Bio-initiative report.

    For some god-forsaken reason some idiot at CBC Radio talks about her or even gives her air time occasionally.

    This crap in Child Development has the potential to cause all sorts of havoc. Nothing as horrible as Wakefield but a huge waste time and resources.

    I guess the Bishop & Grimes paper helps explain why Bishopblog has been quiet recently. The emergency response team was in action. I do not know anything about Grimes but, from the little I know about Bishop, she’s a pretty heavy hitter.

  19. Ed Seedhouse says

    Trav Mamone@19: “Jokes on them because I was autistic BEFORE the advent of cell phones!”

    Thus, by “post hoc ergo propter hoc”, *you* are the cause of cell phones. Nice to have someone to pin the blame on.

  20. gedjcj says

    A quick glance at the CDC data shows that the number of autism diagnoses grew dramatically under Bush 43 then pretty much leveled off under Obama. I think there’s only one logical conclusion.