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Dying Too Soon: Why Children Need the Precautionary Principle

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The same day news spread that 29 year-old right-to-die advocate Brittany Maynard had ingested the barbiturates prescribed to her by her doctor and had made her choice to die with dignity a couple of days prior, another story hit the news. Nineteen year-old Lauren Hill, also a terminally-ill young woman, scored her first, and possibly only, basket of her life in her college basketball game. Apparently, Lauren has only weeks to live. Lauren was also diagnosed with an untreatable glioma, much like the one that lead to Brittany's death. Lost amid the tragically sad human-interest angle of these two stories is the question paramount in my mind: why did these two healthy, vibrant young women at the beginning of their adult lives contract these deadly brain tumors and why is no one discussing this question?

Rather than suffer the excruciating pain of therapies (radiation and chemotherapy) that would do little to prolong her life but cost much in terms of horrendous side-effects, or rather than suffer the agonizing pains of deterioration from the disease, Brittany chose to die when it was right for her. Commendably, Brittany sought to increase awareness of terminally-ill patients' right to choose their own path toward death. Similarly, Lauren wants to bring attention to brain tumors, for her and the numerous other young children suffering from them, and help to raise funds for research into treatments. These strong and caring young women surely serve as examples for others with their giving and selfless natures and they are certain to effect some much-needed change, but neither will change the fact that young people are being diagnosed with terminal brain tumors and little is being done to prevent them.

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No one knows the precise etiology of brain cancers. Numerous environmental pollutants such as air pollution from automobiles, petrochemicals, pesticides, x-rays, and CT scans have been correlated with brain cancer incidences. Radiofrequency radiation, one of our newest and most prevalent pollutants, has also been provisionally linked to brain cancers. Radiofrequency energy is the non-ionizing radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum that emanates to and from our wireless electronic devices like computers, tablets, smartphones, cordless phones, and the "smart" meters that read our water and/or electric usage outside our homes. We are now completely bathed in this potentially harmful energy, which the World Health Organization classifies as a Class 2B carcinogen, even before we have gathered sufficient data as to its safety. But absence of evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of the absence of harm. Toxicological studies have demonstrated that radiofrequency radiation may damage DNA (among other cellular impairments) and lead to cancer (among other deleterious health effects). The epidemiological studies have been inconclusive; some say that there is no evidence of an increase in brain cancers; others show a link between brain tumors and heavy cell phone use. Moreover, we know that embryos, children, and teens at crucial stages in their development are even more vulnerable to the effects of environmental toxicants, like cell phone radiation, than are adults.

Now, think about the age of these two young women. They both belong to the Millennial generation. Both of their childhood and teenage years corresponded to the early-mid 1990s and early 2000s, when cell phones came into common use -- especially held to one's head and used as an oral communication device rather than for texting or internet. Given the lag time of cancer, it would not be a stretch to question whether their cancers could have been caused by cell phone usage.

I heard someone say the other day, when discussing Brittany Maynard, that it is likely the issue of the right-to-die may soon be cropping up more and more. When I learned of Brittany Maynard's story, I thought of what myself and some of my colleagues studying environmental health had said when cell phone usage seemed to become ubiquitous: it is likely that the issue of brain tumors may soon be cropping up more and more.

It may be that cell phones had nothing to do with these devastating cases of brain cancer in these young women. It may also be that radiofrequency radiation is not nearly as potentially harmful as I suggest it could be. However, independent scientific research (not compromised by government or industrial stakeholders) continues to mount that the toxicological and potential health effects of radiofrequency radiation are not negligible. And anyone who studies science knows that scientific findings are always conservative, and that they tend to err on the side of minimization rather than exaggeration. Furthermore, anyone who studies science history knows that no damage has been done by taking precaution against scientifically-suggested potential harms, but much damage has been done by waiting for definitive proof of these harms, as the European Environment Agency has shown in its two reports called Late Lessons From Early Warnings (1 and 2). Definitive proof of the direct health effects of cell phones and radiofrequency radiation may never be established now, since few to no one is unexposed to these transmissions; therefore, we have no control groups for adequate analysis.

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Nevertheless, might we use these young women's heartbreaking stories to think more about the state of our health and our environments? Doctors have already warned that children should not be holding cell phones to their heads at young ages. Perhaps children should not be holding smartphones and tablets on their laps either. Perhaps young women should not be storing smartphones in their bras. Perhaps many areas in Europe are right to eliminate WIFI and reinstate wired internet connections. Perhaps we should keep wireless-transmitting meters off of the sides of our homes, near where children sleep. Isn't the scientifically-established possible threat of these devices enough to make us do something for our children and their future? Any story of a young person suffering and dying before their life has really begun should be enough to make us scream to ourselves, "How could we have stopped this?!" Brittany Maynard and Lauren Hill should be reminders that we have not yet done enough, and we should be spending more time examining the myriad ways we may prevent such tragedies in the future.

Copyright 2014 Kristine Mattis

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(Article changed on November 7, 2014 at 12:32)

(Article changed on November 7, 2014 at 14:56)

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Kristine Mattis holds a PhD in Environment and Resources. She is dedicated to social and environmental justice, public health protection, and ecological sustainability.

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