Answer to Question #4512 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Pregnancy and Radiation — Power lines, magnets, computers, airport screening, cell phones

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:

Q

With regard to prenatal radiation exposure and autism, current media buzz reports there is a link between radiation exposure and a rise in autism. Over the last decade there has been a rise in the use of cell phones, laptops, and now iPods. There has also been a severe rise in autism in this country. Should pregnant women try to avoid this new technology given a potential health risk? Are there reliable studies making a correlation or is this just media hype?

A

The main problem with determining the incidence of autism is the broad category of neurological symptoms and signs that are used to described autistic behavior. In California, for example, reimbursement for care is better when there is a diagnosis of autism. Compassionate physicians are making the diagnosis in children who were not included in this category before so that the families can receive medical care. That is one explanation for the changing incidence. It is also possible that the incidence of autism is increased. Therefore, the changing incidence may be real or it may be due to reclassification of other neurological problems. Ongoing research will answer some of these questions. The National Institute of Mental Health has reviewed the subject of the causes of autism. Many cases of autism are due to genetic mutations. Other causes that have been discovered are thalidomide and valproic acid (depakote) exposure very early in pregnancy. But these two drugs are very rare causes. There is no scientific basis for all forms of nonionizing radiation to produce autism. Cellular phones have been studied in several epidemiology studies for the risk of cancer and they have all been negative. If nonionizing radiation resulted in autism in exposed pregnant women, why would it produce such a narrow category of neurological problems? It is easy to raise numerous frightening hypotheses about the cause of a disease when the definitive answer has not yet been found. It gets headlines and is anxiety provoking. Unfortunately, that is what sells newspapers.

Robert Brent, MD, PhD

Ask the Experts is posting answers using only SI (the International System of Units) in accordance with international practice. To convert these to traditional units we have prepared a conversion table. You can also view a diagram to help put the radiation information presented in this question and answer in perspective. Explanations of radiation terms can be found here.
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