Life-saving incubators may cause babies to die later from cot death, startling new research suggests.
The findings will add to growing concern about the effects of the thickening "electrosmog" given off by electrical equipment which is thought to interfere with the tiny currents that help to drive the human body and govern the heart. The findings could also imply that placing infants near to clocks, radios and other electrical devices may be dangerous.
The research – at the General Hospital of the University of Siena, Italy – shows that even the very low electrical fields given off by the incubators interfere with newborns' heart rates. Experts add that this, in turn, impedes the development of the nervous system which can lead to cot death.
Ten per cent of all babies start life in an incubator, and most would have no chance of survival without it. But Professor Carlo Bellieni, who led the research, believes that incubators should be made safer as a matter of urgency.
Incubators work mainly by keeping the air around premature babies warm, but their motors create electromagnetic fields in the area where they lie.
Professor Bellieni and his colleagues – whose research is published in the current issue of the Fetal and Neonatal Edition of Archives of Disease in Childhood – found these fields cut the variability of babies' heart rates in half. Variability is healthy, and shows the nervous system is working well – and a reduction is known to be an indicator of heart disease in adults.
Dr Bellieni said: "This is not good at all," pointing out that similar changes have "been linked to arrhythmias and strokes in adults". He adds: "What we have proved is that the effects of these machines are not neutral – and they should be. The manufacturers of these incubators should take steps to shield babies from their motors and to move motors further away within the machine."
Professor Cynthia Bearer of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, said that the reduced heart-rate variability could lead to "inadequate nerve development" and cause cot deaths. "It is a worry. We know that premature infants are at risk for sudden infant death syndrome. Could this exposure be why?"
Emeritus professor Alan Preece of Bristol University said that the research "may well have highlighted a possible problem". And Professor Denis Henshaw, head of the Human Radiation Effects Group at the same university, warned that babies would be exposed to similar fields by electric pylons near the house, or clocks and radios near their beds.
Such electromagnetic fields have already been linked with asthma and other respiratory diseases, and leukaemia and other cancers. Professor David Carpenter, dean of public health at the State University of New York, believes that they are likely to cause up to 30 per cent of all childhood cancers.Reuse content