By Mike Martin
NewsFactor Sci::Tech,
Part of the NewsFactor Network
June 10, 2003
"We recommend all new [pacemaker] models be equipped with [ceramic] filters," Giovanni Calcagnini of the Italian Institute of Health told NewsFactor, "since it is difficult to change cell-phone technology to avoid them producing low-frequency ... signals."
Update July 2003: The FCC has now made new rules that force the wireless industry to control RFR interference
The new generation of digital mobile phones can interfere with many types of heart pacemakers, claims a new study in the Institute of Physics journal Physics in Medicine and Biology. Pacemakers can confuse mobile-phone signals with the heart's own electrical signals, causing a malfunction.

"This phenomenon could pose a critical problem for people wearing pacemakers because digital mobile phones use extremely low-frequency signals, which can be mistaken for a normal heartbeat," says biomedical engineer and lead investigator Giovanni Calcagnini of the Italian Institute of Health in Rome. "If a pacemaker detects a normal heartbeat, it will not function properly and could be very dangerous for the wearer."

Newer pacemakers fitted with a ceramic filter, however, are immune from the problem, say the authors of the paper. They recommend that all manufacturers use these filters.

"There is a body of literature about pacemakers and cell phones , and I had thought that there was shielding also in the newer phones," cardiologist and pacemaker expert Richard Page told NewsFactor. Page, who heads the division of cardiology at University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, added that he does not have a patient with that problem.


Stray Signals

Electromagnetic interference between mobile phones and cardiac pacemakers has caused concern among physicians since 1994, when reports first surfaced alleging that mobile phones could cause the life-saving implants to malfunction. Early research suggested pacemaker wearers keep a safe distance from mobile phones.

The original studies did not, however, look at the cause of the interference, so it was not known which pacemaker patients were most at risk, Calcagnini explained. Some electrical components of pacemakers act like aerials, picking up outside radio signals and transmitting them to the pacemaker's sensitive electronic circuits, according to Calcagnini's latest research.

"While the problem is relatively rare, it can cause major problems if it occurs, such as lack of pacing the heart," Dr. Page told NewsFactor.

Cell Signal Meets Ceramic Shield

A research team that included Calcagnini and colleagues at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health of the Food and Drug Administration tested three versions of the same pacemaker model. A conventional filter, used to block high-frequency radio signals, equipped the first type of pacemaker. The second used newer ceramic filters connected directly to its internal circuits. The third pacemaker contained both devices.

While exposing the pacemakers to radio signals from mobile phones -- including the GSM (global system for mobile communications) phones used throughout Europe -- Calcagnini and his team monitored each pacemaker's output signal, which helps control the patient's heartbeat.

Radio-frequency signals from GSM phones passed straight through the standard filter. The pacemaker equipped with the ceramic filter, however, did not respond to the stray signals.

"Most manufacturers have started to equip their new models with ceramic filters," Calcagnini told NewsFactor. "We recommend all new models be equipped with these filters, since it is difficult to change cell-phone technology to avoid them producing low-frequency radio frequency signals."


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