Radiation Safety: Interview with Belly Armor Founder, Aileen Chen

Nine Naturals sat down with Aileen Chen, founder and CEO of maternity radiation protection wear company, Belly Armor, to learn more about her inspiration for founding Belly Armor and to learn more about managing radiation exposures during pregnancy.

What was your inspiration for starting Belly Armor?

Like most parents, becoming pregnant with my first child made me think about the environment around me and how I could give my child a healthy start in life.  There was plenty of advice out there about good nutrition, exercise and avoidance of toxic chemicals for a healthy pregnancy – all of which are incredibly important.  However, I was also concerned about the wireless devices that I was surrounded by and used regularly, and the potential impacts of the radiation to and from these devices.  Researching more into this and connecting with the scientific community opened my eyes to the emerging health issue that experts and governments worldwide are warning and taking precautionary measures against.  Even the device manufacturers themselves advised in the manuals against direct body contact during use.  It was surprising to see the gap between what the science was saying and what was public knowledge.  Much like tobacco, asbestos and lead, it can take decades for the science to conclusively confirm the health risks, followed by public policies to address it and then common public awareness.

I have been a huge fan and beneficiary of technology, but I heeded the health experts’ precautionary advise.  I wanted to figure out how to use technology more safely during my pregnancy.  The lack of good, practical consumer solutions out there inspired the creation of Belly Armor products that pregnant women can use to reduce their exposure.  I also felt compelled to inform others about the potential health impacts, especially on our children who are now exposed to unprecedented levels of radiation and will be more exposed for longer durations throughout their lives.  From the positive feedback we have received in the 30-plus countries that Belly Armor is now selling in, it is incredibly fulfilling to know that Belly Armor is making a positive impact and increasing awareness about the issue.

Why should pregnant women in particular be cautious about radiation? 

Everyone knows that ionizing radiation – or high-energy radiation such as those coming from X-rays and nuclear power plants – is very dangerous because it can break electrons and cause cell damage immediately upon exposure.  Non-ioning radiation – or the radiation emitted by electronic devices, cell towers, microwaves – does not break electrons but research shows that they do have a biological impact, affecting DNA replication and functionality.  Extended exposure to non-ionizing radiation, or what we call “everyday radiation”, is shown in more research to lead to increased likelihood of health issues like developmental and fertility problems, miscarriages, and cancer.  Fetal development in the womb and early childhood are stages with the highest risk due to the rapid and complex cell development that occurs.

In light of the emerging research around the health impacts, policy changes are starting to take place: the WHO has labeled cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen, the FCC has agreed to review its 17-year old regulations for cell phone standards, the French government has banned the advertising of cell phones to children under 14.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has publicly urged the FCC to reconsider wireless standards for children, who are more vulnerable to environmental exposures and are increasingly using cell phones / tablets for long durations.  Many prominent health experts and organizations are advising precautionary measures, particularly for pregnant women and children. There is much research out there that you can read about; we highlight the key ones in the Radiation section of our website, where we try to responsibly inform the public about the emerging research.

What does the current line of Belly Armor products include and how are they meeting women’s needs during pregnancy?

We designed Belly Armor products to be wardrobe essentials that expecting mothers can easily use to shield their pregnant bellies during their daily activities.  Our products are easy to use and to care for (throw it in the wash with your other laundry), and easily portable (super light and portable for your work commute or your travels).

We have two types of maternity bands – the Belly Band, which is super comfortable to wear over or under clothing, and the Embrace Band, which has a more snug and smooth fit for those looking to wear the band under clothing.  Both are discrete and easy to match with your clothes, and can be used throughout your pregnancy.

The Belly Blanket is very popular due to its versatility – it’s a small blanket that can be draped over your belly while you’re sitting with a laptop at a cafe, or lying down with a tablet over your belly at home, or keeping you warm while shielding you on the airplane.  It can also be a baby blanket after the baby is born.  It comes in two styles – Belly Blanket Chic with 100% super soft cotton in 3 colors, and the Belly Blanket Luxe with a snuggly microfleece and satin trim in two colors.

The Belly Tee is great for people who like the comfort of t-shirts and want to simply pull on a top, add an accessory and go about their day.

Along with using Belly Armor, what are the other ways women can minimize their risk of radiation during pregnancy?

We love and depend on our technology, but it is fairly simple to reduce your exposure with these easy tips:

1. Create some distance from body – Try to keep some distance between your laptops, tablets, cell phones and your body.  As mentioned, even the device manuals advise users to maintain some distance from the device.  So, use headsets or speaker phones while on the phone, keep the phone away from your body when you sleep, put cell phones in bags and not in pockets, and keep baby monitors at least five feet away from the crib.

2. Put devices on airplane mode – Many of us give our children devices to play with from time to time.  Putting the device on airplane mode will cut the sending and receiving of cellular / wireless signals, and not having the device rest directly on the child’s body is always good practice.

3. Choose wired technology – When possible, choose to speak on a landline or connect your laptop with a wired cable.  Or simply place your wi-fi router farther from where you sleep or sit for long durations, and turn off the router when not in use (which also saves electricity!).

4. Shop smarter – Buy cell phones with lower SAR, or specific absorption rates, which is a measure of the maximum radiation absorbed by the user from a given device.  Every cell phone manufacturer has to show the devices’ SAR.  Buy baby monitors and cordless phones that are not made with DECT technology, which emit more radiation than analog-based devices.  Buy wi-fi routers that have the easy option of turning off the wireless while keeping connectivity on the wired cables.

To learn more, please check out our website and the educational brochure produced with our partner Healthy Child Healthy World.

What has been the biggest challenge in creating and running this company

Prioritizing and focusing my time and energy on the most important matters.  There are many aspects of the company to oversee and projects to push forward, as well as things to take care of daily in my other roles as a mother, spouse, and daughter.  I find it helpful to, before I go to bed each night, lay out (as realistically as possible) my key to-do’s and how to maximize my time the next day.  This way, I can also sleep more peacefully, having gotten these things off my mind.

What do you find to be the most rewarding part of running Belly Armor?

Being able to make a positive impact on other people’s lives, especially on our children’s generation.  It is immeasurably rewarding when customers tell us about the peace of mind they have from using our products, whereas they were previously worried but unsure of what to do when using devices for hours on end on or near their pregnant bellies.  Or when people tell me about the simple changes they are making in their homes, like turning off their wi-fi router when not in use, or seeing my friends’ teenage kids putting their cell phones in their bags instead of their pockets.  The hope is that the general public will leverage technology a bit differently and more safely over time, and that our kids will learn to do the same throughout their lives.

What has been the most profound change for you since becoming a mother? 

I reflect on my behavior and words more than ever before, knowing that my actions set examples for my children and my words become their voice. Every day can be quite hectic and challenging with two little ones and running a business, but surprisingly I feel calmer and more present. I’ve learnt that unexpected things can arise everyday and that change is constant as kids develop so quickly. So I have to adapt and problem solve quickly as best that I can, and try to enjoy the present because every stage of their lives is so precious yet so fleeting.