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Fear Over Wi-Fi and Pregnancy Isn’t Limited to China

A Chinese company faces backlash over ‘pregnancy’ setting on its WiFi router. Despite a lack of scientific evidence to suggest WiFi is a threat to a developing fetus, people are fearful in China and in the United States.

by Sydney Lupkin
Jun 25 2015, 9:06pm

This story is part of a partnership between MedPage Today and VICE News. 

Most experts agree there is no scientific evidence to suggest WiFi signals have any effect on a developing fetus, but that hasn't stopped a Chinese tech company from adding a "pregnancy" setting to its new router.

The company, Qihoo 360, told VICE News that the router is one of its flagship products, and the latest version has a setting for pregnant women. A competing tech company, Xiao Mi, took to social media to say WiFi was safe and Qihoo 360's setting was a marketing ploy.

Qihoo 360 spokeswoman Liang Yu denied any fear-mongering to VICE News and said even its highest WiFi settings are safe for pregnant women. She did not immediately respond when asked how much the WiFi frequencies differed in hertz, which is a measurement of frequency radiation.

"We didn't tell them it's scary. We didn't tell them it's not healthy or not safe to use this kind of strong WiFi signature," she said. "We didn't say anything, any words, about it. We just give our users several choices."

She then repeated a viral anecdote in China about a father-to-be knocking on every neighbor's door to ask them to shut down their WiFi for his pregnant wife.

"Sometimes people have that kind of habit or something. We just want to provide our users with different choices," Yu said. "We would never tell people this is dangerous."

Related: Woman Charged with Murder After Terminating Pregnancy with 'Abortion Pill'

But the fear isn't isolated to China. The BabySafe Project, a joint venture between two nonprofits, Grassroots Environmental Education and Environmental Health Trust, says women should reduce their wireless exposure by not carrying their cell phones on their bodies and avoiding "prolonged or direct exposure" to WI-FI routers.

"We can't — and I don't think anybody can — tie a specific exposure to a specific outcome. That doesn't meant that the threat isn't real," Doug Wood, associate director of Grassroots Environmental Education, told VICE News on behalf of the BabySafe Project. "If there are alternatives and things you can do to protect your baby, why not do them?"

However, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which has 58,000 members and is the largest organization of physicians specializing in women's health in the United States, says there is no evidence to suggest WI-FI is a concern for developing fetuses.

Wood quipped that ACOG was less concerned than most women.

Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, who directs North Shore University Hospital's Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center, in Manhasset, New York, said most WI-FI fears among pregnant women are not based on studies. Instead, they're based on a fear that society is rushing to embrace a new technology without weighing the risks, not unlike the way society hailed asbestos as a miracle product before learning of its carcinogenic properties.

Although WI-FI's effects on a developing fetus is worth studying, Spaeth said there's been no evidence to justify any fear.

"The scant number of studies that have looked at this have not demonstrated any clinical effect," Spaeth said. "From an epidemiological standpoint, I think the evidence is not there at this point."

Among telecom workers, he said there is some evidence that being near high intensity transmitters can have side effects, but "for the average person in the average home-type setting, there has never been any clear risk or clear health effects demonstrated."

A quick search on BabyCenter message boards, which are frequented by parents and parents-to-be, yields discussion threads titled "WI-FI effects on pregnancy?" "Is Wifi Bad For Pregnancy!?" and "Wifi harmful ???" Some are started by pregnant women who say they're afraid to keep their phones too close to their bellies, and they've come to ask the other mothers whether they think it's a real concern or paranoia. Others are started because a family member believes there's a risk and the expectant parent isn't so sure.

The Organization of Teratology Information Specialists, which runs the nationwide MotherToBaby hotline for pregnant women who have questions about medications, vaccines, and other exposures, also tells women not to be concerned about WI-FI or alter their behavior because of it.

"Based on what we know so far, no, the amount of radiation you're going to get, the amount of electromagnetic field you're going to get is extremely small, especially if you're not sitting right on top of it or next to it," said registered nurse Alfred Romeo, a teratogen information specialist at MotherToBaby Utah who said he's never had a caller ask about WI-FI. "It shouldn't be a problem at all."

Related: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Says Rape Victims 'Most Concerned' About Pregnancy in the 'Initial Months'

The BabySafe Project, which includes environmentalist Devra Lee Davis, mostly cites animal studies on its website that have yet to be replicated in humans. These include a study of 33 pregnant mice who were exposed to active calls for their entire 17-day gestations without pause and noticed ADHD-like symptoms in their offspring.

"Who are we scare-mongering if it's a matter of taking your phone out of your pocket and keeping it not next to the baby? I think that's a pretty simple thing to do," Wood said. "We're not telling people to throw their phones away. We're not suggesting people go back to their horse and buggy days."

VICE News producer Iris Xu contributed to this report

Photo via Flickr

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