“I would never drink or smoke while pregnant!” Most expectant mothers understand that carrying a child means taking extra safety measures to protect the growing life. Unfortunately, too many mothers-to-be are not aware that, along with chemicals, certain foods, and some beverages, they also need to avoid radiation from phones, wireless routers, and laptop computers in order to safeguard their babies. 

“The science is compelling and growing and women have an absolute right to know about it in order to make an informed decision,” said Patricia Wood, executive director of Grassroots Environmental Education, in her opening remarks during the BabySafe News Conference on Tuesday. BabySafe is a national campaign to raise awareness about an issue too few pregnant women understand: that their exposure to wireless radiation may interfere with their child's brain development, resulting in behavioral problems, including symptoms resembling ADHD. Though the BabySafe program is new — with an online quiz to help mothers understand exposure levels — it echoes an old theme familiar to pregnant women worldwide: better safe than sorry.

Hyperactive Symptoms

“Don’t keep your phone on you at all times,” advised Dr. Hugh Taylor of Yale University School of Medicine. “Move it away from you. Keep exposure to a minimum.” Taylor, who is chair of the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences, is author of a study on pregnancy, cell phone radiation, and behavioral changes in mice, published in Scientific Reports. Because it is so difficult to trace a specific environmental influence on a developing fetus — mothers are exposed to many potential influences so it is difficult to determine the exact effects of just one — he and his colleagues designed a special animal study in order to isolate cell phone use and study its effects on babies before they were born.

The experiment worked like this: Taylor and his team of researchers exposed one group of 42 pregnant mice to a muted and silenced phone that had been turned on and was actively receiving a signal, and, to compare, they also exposed a second group of 42 pregnant mice to a cell phone that was turned off and not receiving a signal. Otherwise, all environmental conditions, including food and accommodation, were identical.  The pregnant mice were exposed throughout their entire pregnancies and then their offspring were tested when adults.

What did Taylor and his colleagues observe? Compared to the mice who had not been exposed to cell phone radiation, the exposed mice had decreased memory, more likely to be hyper active, and, in Taylor’s words, “didn’t have a care in the world. They were very different from the mice who had not been exposed.” He likened their behavior to that of children with attention deficit hyper-activity disorder (ADHD or ADD), which is a common and increasing diagnosis for young children. In fact, the exposed mice had different electrical activity in their brains.

On the positive side, Taylor said very short exposures were similar to no exposure, and the change in brain activity generally increased with higher levels of exposure. In other words, by limiting her own exposure to radiation, a mother might effectively protect her unborn child.

Out-of-Date Standards

“Cell phones have never been tested for safety,” said Dr. Devra Davis, UC Berkeley and the author of Disconnect, which explores the issue of radiation exposure. She explained that though scientists performed limited investigations into safety when cell phones first came into popular use, the standards were established 18 years ago. She also noted that cell phones had never been tested in realistic ways, mimicking the habits of most people. No one has assessed safety, for instance, when a cell phone is held directly against the ear or carried in the breast pocket. Standards, then, are not only dated but also inaccurate.

“As someone who has been working in the field of public health… I’ve seen how America discusses issues of public health and safety,” Davis said. Generally, she explained, we insist on proof of human harm and human damage before we act and in the end “people pay the price for those delays.” Along with echoing Taylor’s advice, she suggested women avoid cordless phones, especially where they sleep.

“Eleven percent of children carry a diagnosis of ADHD,” said Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, integrative pediatric neurologist and founder of Brainmending. She added that currently, one out of every five children has been diagnosed with a mental illness. In her own practice, she finds the most common question she is asked by parents is: Why? Why is my child affected? Though Shetreat-Klein can give no real answer to parents — disorders are complex and can’t be explained by a single factor — growing scientific evidence supports the conclusion that in utero exposure is linked to behavioral problems in children.

“Parents have a right to know,” she said before advising pregnant women to turn off their phones and WiFi at night or whenever it’s not needed.