January 2016

Radio and Microwave Impacts on Human Health: The Role of the Family Physician

By guest author Dr. Riina Bray
With the increasing use of cell phones and wireless devices, and in view of heterogeneous study results, there is worldwide concern and alarm among scientists and physicians about the potential health implications from chronic exposures to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in the radio and microwave range. EMFs are emitted from common items, including cell phones, cell phone towers and base stations, Wi-Fi routers and hubs, smart meters, baby monitors and microwave ovens. Cancers, neurodegenerative disorders, male infertility and neuro-behavioural abnormalities have been linked to these exposures, but not universally. [1]

Sensitivity to EMF has been termed Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS). It is thought to occur in 3-20 per cent of our population and poses the greatest risk to patients with pre-existing cardiac, neurological, dermatological and immunological conditions. However, healthy individuals are often affected as well and those affected complain of sleep disturbances, headaches, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Symptoms are reduced by avoidance measures. [2]

Children are at the greatest risk from exposure to environmental hazards.  Molecular biology and physiological studies support the real potential for adverse health impacts on children from exposure to EMF. These health impacts may not be immediately apparent, but may occur years later given the latency period of chronic disease development such as neurological disorders and cancers. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), labels radiofrequency radiation from wireless devices as a possible Class 2b carcinogen. The American Academy of Paediatrics has also called for a review of federal microwave safety limits due to the increasing number of wireless devices in children's lives, and the known vulnerability of children to microwave radiation. [4][5]

In its World Cancer Report, the World Health Organization (WHO) wants physicians to “identify and, if necessary, control factors in the environment that are known to have adverse health effects of relevance to the patient.[3] This could include taking remedial action in affected persons’ homes, work or school spaces to reduce EMF exposure through shielding, hardwiring, removal of sources or prudent reduction of use.

Family physicians can adopt the approach of ‘better safe than sorry’. They can conduct an EMF exposure history for their patients (using the OCFP’s Exposure History Tool) and advise them to reduce exposures by increasing distance from sources, hardwiring whenever possible, and turning off Wi-Fi/ cellular/ Bluetooth functions when not needed and during sleep. Doctors can suggest parents read the WEEP initiative and Citizens for Safe Technology (C4ST) websites for more information. Schools could exercise the precautionary principle and hardwire all devices in schools, when possible.

In time, Canada’s electromagnetic safety standards will be updated, but in the meantime, family physicians can play a protective and proactive role for their patients.
References:
  1. Carpenter DO Human disease resulting from exposure to electromagnetic fields. Rev Environ Health 2013; 28(4):159-172.
  2. Baliatsas C, Van Kamp I, Lebret E, Rubin GJ. Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF): a systematic review of identifying criteria. BMC Public Health 2012, 12:643.
  3. Stewart Bernard W and Wild Christopher P. World Cancer Report, 2014, WHO.
  4. Kheifets Leeka, Repacholi Michael, Saunders Rick, van Deventer Emilie. The sensitivity of children to electromagnetic fields, Pediatrics, Aug 2005,116(2)
  5. Funk RHW, Monsees T, Ozkucur N. Electromagnetic effects – from cell biology to medicine. Elsevier, Progress in Histochemistry and Cytochemistry; 43 (2009) 177-264.
About the author:
Dr. Riina Bray is the Medical Director of the Environmental Health Clinic at Women’s College Hospital, Toronto. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine, and has a cross-appointment with the Division of Clinical Public Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.