1 May 2008

Electromagnetic Fields Disrupt Newborns' Heart Rates

by Kate Melville

The electromagnetic fields produced by hospital incubators can interfere with newborn babies' heart rates, potentially creating problems for infants born prematurely who may spend extended periods in incubators, reveals a study in the latest issue of Archives of Disease in Childhood.

The small-scale study assessed the variability in the heart rate of 43 newborn babies, none of whom was critically ill or premature. Heart rate variability was measured over 5 minute periods with the incubator both running and switched off. To assess whether noise might be a factor, some of the newborns were exposed to incubator background noise by playing a recording of an incubator while the incubator motor itself was switched off.

While there were no differences in heart rate variability in the tape recorded babies, there were significant differences in the heart rate variability of babies in the incubators. The researchers said that the infants' heart rate variability fell significantly during the periods when the incubator was switched on. Decreased heart rate variability is a strong predictor of a poor prognosis in adult patients with heart disease, they noted.

Heart rate variability is made up of low and high frequency components, and the ratio between the two is higher in premature babies than it is in adults. The researchers suggest that this may be influenced by the powerful electromagnetic fields created by incubators.

They conclude that modifications to the design of incubators could help, but they add that as yet it is unclear what long term consequences there may be of exposure to electromagnetic fields at such a tender age. "International recommendations and laws set levels to safeguard the health of workers exposed to electromagnetic fields: newborns should be worthy of similar protection," they concluded.

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Source: British Medical Journal