Airport scanners, mobile phones, ultrasounds and WiFi: do you need to worry?

Airport scanners, mobile phones, microwaves, ultrasounds, WiFi: all these things did not exist a few years ago, at least not to the extent we have them now….

The question is - how (potentially) harmful can they be during the delicate process of a very small and growing person?

Instinctively, when I was pregnant and travelling (a lot) through airports, I always opted for a pat down rather than going through the scanner wherever I could. I also wasn’t keen on having my phone near my belly , I don't own a microwave and I kept my phone out of the bedroom at night when I was sleeping. Question is - is there really any real risk from this (and other sources of modern radiation) if you’re pregnant or if you’re a very small person? Or was I just paranoid?

As always: it’s time to look at the science: starting with the basics:

The issue with these things is ‘radiation’.

So, what is radiation in this context and can it hurt us/a growing person?

In simple terms radiation is where energy is emitted in the form of waves/movement of particles. There are broadly (for our purposes) two types: Ionising radiation (high energy particles) and non-ionising (lower energy).

You want to watch for the ionising form: this is the higher energy form which can potentially pose more damage to DNA: not what you want at any stage in life, but particularly not at the vulnerable stage of rapid development.  

Where do you find ionising radiation?

This can come in various forms and from various sources but most commonly in terms of day to day potential exposure it is associated with things like certain type of medical imaging: X-Rays and CT scans, tobacco products, phosphate fertilisers and in some manufacturing processes. (1)

However, as with everything in life it is about how much you get and what stage of your life you are in:

Low doses of ionising radiation have NOT been associated with miscarriage, however, doses higher than normal within two weeks of conception could potentially present a risk. (6)

So what is ‘higher than normal’?

Firstly, to put this in context: we all experience naturally occurring background radiation from natural sources such as radon (from the earth) or from air travel. An average person in the world will receive a background radiation of 3 milliSieverts (a ‘milliSievert’ is a thousandth of a Sievert: which is how radiation is measured in this context) in one year. An unborn baby will have received a very small volume of background radiation before birth: between 0.5-1 milliSieverts. (3, 4, 5)

For context and in comparison: a single CT scan in one dose can be (depending on where in the body) between 2 to 16 milliSieverts - so that is higher. (2)  

This is why most doctors and dentists will seek to avoid an X-Ray or other medical imaging until you have given birth unless there is an urgent medical reason and even then they will likely use the lowest dose of radiation possible and provide shielding to reduce the risks of ionising radiation as much as possible. So, first and foremost if you are seeing your doctor or dentist tell them if you are pregnant or think you may be as it is important.

Why might you need these tests if you’re pregnant?

Well there are a lot of potential reasons of course, but, when it comes to during pregnancy, if a doctor suspects you may have a blood clot (DVT) you will need this checked as pregnancy increases the risk of DVT by as many as 5x. A CT scan may well be used and be very necessary in this case. That being said, some hospitals may be able to offer an alternative nuclear medicine tool called a V/Q scan which may have a lower radiation dose but this is dependent. Worth discussing with your doctor if you find yourself in this position. (9)

That being said it is important to note that there is no evidence that the risk to the unborn baby after a single imaging test is significant and it would likely only be performed if necessary, so if you need one just have a discussion with your doctor before about how to minimise any risks associated with it. (6)

Once again it is related to the dose and also the stage of pregnancy:

Firstly, how do we know the effects of all of this? So it is not a perfect sample as this data is only collected from those who survived and were pregnant during atomic bomb exposure. However, it appears that the most sensitive time for miscarriage risk is immediately following conception so if you are trying for a baby and suspect you may be pregnant in the early stages it is absolutely worth mentioning to your doctor if you are having any form of imaging tests being done. Sensitivity during the rest of the pregnancy relates to risks around: brain development, IQ impairment and cancer risk.

What about an Ultrasound or MRI?

Obviously when you’re pregnant ultrasound is used and this is because this (plus MRI) does not involve Ionising radiation. That being said, the received wisdom is that you should still avoid having unnecessary scans.

What about other sources: Airports/Tobacco/WiFi etc?

Well first and foremost when it comes to Airport Scanners: these essentially use very low-dose x-rays and studies show you would need around 2,000 trips to = the level of radiation from a single chest x-ray. That being said, they can increase your lifetime risk to low-level radiation which can of course present risk for damage to DNA and cells. Children as always are more vulnerable. So, nothing to lose sleep about, but, opting for a pat down when you’re pregnant where you can will definitely not hurt.

Air Travel: speaking to one of our Better Babies expert board advisors gynaecologist and obstetrician Mahantesh Karoshi he advises against unnecessary air travel in the early stages of pregnancy (pre 20 weeks). To give an example of the radiation from flying: a flight from Los Angeles to New York is 2500 miles and on average a 6 hour flight. The radiation that you experience from that is equivalent to two chest x-rays and eight dental x-rays (10). So best, particularly at the earliest stages to cut down to just strictly necessary air travel.

Tobacco: goes without saying that this is a terrible choice if you’re trying to be pregnant, are pregnant or are around a child. There are many reasons but did you know that radiation is another? Smoking tobacco means you are exposed to a radioactive element called polonium-210. So, whether you chew, smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke from tobacco you are exposing yourself to radiation. Avoid at all costs.

Microwaves: these include microwave ovens themselves but also mobile phones, WiFi etc. The jury/the science continues to be out here with nothing absolutely conclusive, but, as always when you’re pregnant it is not going to hurt you to err on the side of caution, particularly as in 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organisation) released a statement adding radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (including microwave and millimetre waves) to their list of things that are possibly carcinogenic (ie. potentially destabilising to DNA) arguing that: ‘the evidence, which still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion that… there could be some risk’.

So what to do?

Once again the evidence is not conclusive here but no harm in being proactive against even potential risks when you’re in this vulnerable (and amazing!) time so some things to consider:

Help your body protect itself: eat foods that contain chlorophyll as this can help eliminate isotopes and free radicals from the body. Sources of chlorophyll (n.b. It’s what gives plants their green colour)

  • Spinach

  • Spirulina

  • Broccoli

  • Green Cabbage

  • Collard Greens

  • Asparagus

  • Matcha Tea

  • Green Beans and Peas

Sea vegetables high in Iodine: which can potentially protect block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid gland.

Some easy ways to reduce your exposure to non ionising radiation:

  • Wear headphones when you’re using a mobile phone

  • Avoiding microwave ovens

  • Using an Ethernet cable vs WiFi or switching the WiFi off when not in use

  • Using a desktop vs laptop where you can

  • Switch off devices that you’re not using

  • Do not put wireless devices on your body for long periods

  • Create a sleep sanctuary: unplug everything that is not necessary, use a battery powered alarm clock vs your phone and keep all your WiFi devices out of your bedroom.

Conclusion: nothing to lose major sleep over here but if you do fancy being cautious there are lots of easy things to do to reduce your risks and if you’re ever concerned just speak up to your doctor - even if you think you may be pregnant but its early days. No harm in that!

References:

  1. Environmental Sciences training centre: The State University of New Jersey RUTGERS: ‘What are the sources of Ionizing radiation’ https://www.nj.gov/dep/rpp/llrw/download/fact03.pdf

  2. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School: Radiation risk from Medical Imaging: https://www.health.harvard.edu/cancer/radiation-risk-from-medical-imaging

  3. https://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/pdf/prenatal.pdf

  4. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/diagnostic-imaging-in-pregnant-and-nursing-women

  5. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/radiation-related-risks-of-imaging

  6. McCollough CH, Schueler BA, Atwell TD, Braun NN, Reiner DM: Radiation Exposure and Pregnancy: When Should We Be Concerned? RadioGraphics: 2007; 27: 909-918

  7. ACOG Committee on Obstetric Practise: Guidelines for diagnostic imaging during pregnancy: ACOG Committee opinion no. 299, September 2004: Obstetric Gynaecology. 104: 647-651

  8. Wieseler KN, Bhargava P, Kanal KM, Vaisya S, Stewart BK, Dighe MK: Imaging in Pregnant Patients: Examination Appropriateness: RadioGraphics 2010; 30: 1215-1233

  9. Azdaki N, Hosseinzadeh MM, Kazemi T, Moeszi SA, Mashraghi Moghaddam HR: V/Q scans and computerised tomography pulmonary angiography in pulmonary emboli in pregnancy: Superiority for fetal or mother: Journal Res Med Sci 2014; 19(7): 683-684

  10. https://xkcd.com/radiation