Is Electromagnetic Radiation (from Cell Phones other Electronic Gadgets) Harmful to Young Children?

by Warren Buckleitner

For more on this, see my New York Times Gadgewise blog post, here.

How much do you worry about radiation from cell phones?
a) A lot. Cell phone radiation can harm a developing child. 21st century parents and early childhood educators should be concerned about this issue.
b) None. Cell phone radiation does not effect children. There is nothing to worry about.
c) I'll tell you in 2000 years.

Dr. Helen Brewer, a physicist at Central Michigan University wanted to know if very strong static magnetic fields had any effect on cellular reproduction in an organism over entire lifespans of an organism. Dr. Brewer choose guppies as her victims. The (poor) fish were born and raised in narrow tanks, to keep their bodies exposed lengthwise to a static magnetic field. I was her lab assistant. I bought the magnets, built the tanks, fed the fish and collected data which included taking photographs of the guppy tails. In addition, I did a literature review on the effects of ELF (electromagnetic fields) on both the short term and long term (multi-generational) effects of ELF on living organisms. Dr. Brewers research was published as "Some preliminary studies of the effects of a static magnetic field on the life cycle of the Lebistes reticulatus (guppy), Biophysical Journal, Volume 28, Issue 2, Pages 305-314. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find an electronic version of this study.

In short, I can tell you that as hard as we tried, we found no effects from the magnets. Trust me, these fish were swimming in an magnetic field that could pull the fillings out of your teeth. My literature review at the time (1979) included studies of households with children growing up under power transmission lines where the radiation was strong enough to illuminate a florescent bulb.

There were also studies of workers constructing the first generation of magnetic trains, who were spending eight hours a day exposed to extremely strong magnetic fields. I could find no significant effects, but to be fair, no study was absolutely conclusive. It should also be noted that some of the research was sponsored by cell phone and power companies with a stake in benign outcomes.

Secondly, we’re all a pretty large involuntary experimental group, due to the fact that we’re swimming in various types of magnetic fields, radio waves and such. Unless you’ve been locked inside a lead vault underground for the past 100 years, you (and I) are part of this experimental group. Can anybody find me a statistically significant relationship in the general population that can’t be explained by other environmental relationships, such as food additives or plain old stress?

To be clear, it is important to define radiation. There are thousands of varieties, strengths and wavelengths (including regular light). The the bad type is called ionizing because it can change cell structure. X-rays are of this variety, as are the UV radiation that you get at the beach on a sunny day. Of course, these are typically very low doses. Nuclear radiation, of the variety given off by radioactive isotopes, is the really scary stuff. It will mutate your cells in days or weeks. Any parent (or political leader) should be very worried about this type of exposure, especially for pregnant women, babies or preschoolers -- humans with lots of cell division. But let's be very clear. Electronic toys, TV screens, bluetooth controllers or headsets, microwave ovens or cell phones do not emit this type of ionizing radiation. None.

Shuli Gilutz is an interface researcher (see Usability of Websites for Children: 70 Design Guidelines) and Ph.D. candidate from Columbia Teacher’s College. She’s also a new mom, who responded to my request for good iPhone apps with a caution about cell phone radiation. Is it the mother side of Shuli that is worried, or the researcher side? This is clearly an issue still up for discussion -- Here’s the first set of links she sent me on the issue.


And also here is a list of the levels of each brand of phone --

Did you look at the studies? What do you think? Clearly there's no shortage of emotion in this issue.

As people who study (and could be seen as "technology advocates") is there any conclusive evidence with the population we care about? Is the entire issue too new? I think all questions are fair game related to children and technology, so let's dust off the issue and have a closer look. As a parent and someone who uses technology all day, I personally am not worried. I have given my own children free access to all varieties of phones and technology, and so far -- no guppy tails. There wasn't enough conclusive evidence to convince me that there's anything to worry about.

But this is my own personal preference. The important thing is to know all the facts about "radiation" so you can parse out your worrying energy wisely. If anyone else wants to pitch in or spots a study worth mentioning, please list it here.