Electromagnetic Fields and Human Health

Electromagnetic fields (EMF) are caused by electrical currents. Every electronic device emits an electromagnetic field that does not linger in the environment, meaning the field disappears when the device is turned off. Electromagnetic fields are categorized by intensity. Appliances and power lines emit an extremely low frequency (ELF), while things like microwaves have super high frequencies (SHF). Super high frequencies do have the ability to affect molecules in humans, such as microwave energy that causes water molecules to vibrate and produce heat. Other electromagnetic fields, like x-rays, are used to break apart molecules and can cause cancer in human if there is too much exposure.

It is incredibly difficult to avoid EMF in the technological world. They are emitted by televisions, cellphones, laptops, florescent lighting, and even electrical wiring in houses. When people discuss the dangers of cell phones, they are referring to increased frequency emitted by the new phones. As demand for clearer connection and signal increases, so too does the frequency used by these devices. Since this is a relatively new phenomenon in human history, the effects of increased exposure to EMF are somewhat cloudy and debatable.

EMFs: Harmful to Humans?

EMFs are everywhere. The effects were largely unknown until around the 1990’s, when multiple studies were released, demonstrating contradictory results. The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States government began reviewing the available literature and studies available on the subject. Their conclusion is somewhat startling; the EPA recommended that EMFs be classified as a Class B carcinogen — -a “probable human carcinogen” that should join the ranks of other toxins like formaldehyde. After their initial response to EMFs, utility, military and computer lobbyists came down hard on the EPA, demanding hard proof and indisputable evidence for their claim. The EPA retracted their classification of EMFs as a carcinogen shortly thereafter, adding “at this time such a characterization regarding the link between cancer and exposure to EMFs is not appropriate because the basic nature of the interaction between EMFs and biological processes leading to cancer is not understood.”

The fact remains that, while a hotly debated topic among scientists, many researchers are of the opinion that as many as 30% of cancer occurrences in the United States are directly related to EMF exposure. While the FCC requires that all wireless devices sold in the United States follow safety guidelines that limit radiation exposure, there are no federal standards limiting occupational or residential exposure to power line EMF. In both cases, the U.S. government admits the possibility of a link to cancer, but refuses to take any more precautions than necessary.

EMFs and Cancer

Recently there has been concern over the incidence of cancer among those who are repeatedly exposed to high EMFs. The National Cancer Institute attempts to answer some of the most common questions, but on the whole it is difficult to establish a link between EMFs and cancer. Past studies of exposure in adults do show very small increases in the likelihood of leukemia and brain tumors, but more recent, well-conducted studies typically show inconsistent evidence of associations with leukemia, brain tumors, and breast cancer.

EMFs and Children

Many studies and comprehensive reviews have evaluated the electromagnetic field exposure and risk of cancer in children, as opposed to adults. In a recent nationwide study of childhood leukemia, researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the Children’s Cancer Group measured the electromagnetic fields directly in homes. The study determined that children living in areas with high electromagnetic field levels did not have an increased risk of leukemia. However, the one exception was homes that had greater than 0.4 microtesla, a very high level that occurs fairly infrequently. Researchers also measured the distance from homes to the nearest overhead power lines, and found that those children close to power lines were not at greater risk.

Practical Tips for Avoiding EMFs (adapted from Electro Magnetic Field (EMF) – Hazardous to Our Health?)

  1. If possible, obtain or build a Gauss meter to measure EMFs inside and outside your home, as well as appliances that could be drawing a current even when switched off. Avoid the areas where the field is above 1 mG.
  2. Avoid sleeping under electric blankets or on a waterbed. If you do, make sure to unplug them, not just turn them off, before going to bed.
  3. Don’t sit too close to your TV, laptop, or microwave. Distance yourself at least six feet away from the TV and microwave and be mindful of your proximity to laptops.
  4. Move all electrical appliances at least six feet from your bed. Avoid wires running under your bed, and consider replacing dimmers and 3-way switches.
  5. Consider switching to analog, mechanical watches and clocks that do not emit EMF.
  6. Try to keep all mechanical equipment such as refrigerators and televisions, on an outside facing wall so as to ensure they are not simply emitting EMFs into the adjoining room.

Further Reading

Electromagnetic Fields: The Toxin of the New Century
From New York University, this paper examines the dangers of EMFs and describes a fair number of excellent and interesting studies.

Radiation Risks and Pediatric Computed Tomography (CT): A Guide for Health Care Providers
The National Cancer Institute takes a look at CT scans, the easy, inexpensive, and harmful imaging tool.

Anthropogenic Electromagnetic Fields and Cancer: A Perspective
This paper reviews important aspects and arguments from both sides of the EMF health debate.

Cell Phones FAQ
The FCC answers commonly asked questions from concerned cell phone users about the potential health warning of such devices.

Radiation-Emitting Products
The FDA explains its role in the evaluation and safety of devices that emit EMFs and other types of radiation.



Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.