EMFs and Human Health
Can exposure to electric fields or magnetic fields make you sick?
Every now and then, green builders are approached by clients who are worried about exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Such clients have read that EMF exposure can make them sick, and they’re interested in building a house that minimizes EMF exposure.
In the modern world, EMFs are ubiquitous. Most of us are surrounded every day by weak electric and magnetic fields that are generated by electrical wires, home appliances, cell phones, and broadcasting equipment.
Electric fields are governed by voltage; they are generated (for example) near wires that are plugged into an electric receptacle, even when the appliance isn’t turned on. The higher the voltage, the stronger the electric field.
Magnetic fields are governed by current; they are generated near electric wires when an appliance is turned on and current is flowing through the wires. The higher the current, the stronger the magnetic field.
The electric and magnetic fields from 60-cycle AC electricity are considered extremely low frequency (ELF). People concerned about possible negative health effects from EMFs are usually more concerned about magnetic fields than by electric fields.
“EMFs can make you sick”
It’s easy to find warnings about the dangers of EMFs; all you need to do is surf the web:
Although the Internet is full of websites with these types of warnings, it’s hard to know how many Americans are actually worried about the health effects of EMF exposure.
A strange focus on smart meters and electric cars
Those who worry about EMF exposure often warn about the dangers of microwave ovens, wireless internet routers, cell phones, baby monitors, televisions, computers, electric blankets, and hair dryers. But a few of them have developed an obsessive concern about the dangers of smart meters and electric cars. (GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com reported on the anti-smart-meter movement in an article called “The Smart Meter’s Contentious Opponents.”)
Here is a sampling of smart meter alarmism:
- The Environmental Illness Network notes, “Of particular concern for those who care about human rights are the growing number of places where utility corporations seeking higher profits ... are not only being allowed to forcibly install radiation-emitting smart meters on peoples’ private homes, but some corporations are also being assisted by police officers in these health harmful coercive activities.”
- A website called the EMF Safety Network warns, “Smart meters emit radiation — which is making people sick! .. List of symptoms: sleep problems (insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, night waking, nightmares); stress, agitation, anxiety, irritability; headaches, sharp pain or pressure in the head; ringing in the ears, ear pain, high pitched ringing; concentration, memory or learning problems; fatigue, muscle or physical weakness; disorientation, dizziness, or balance problems; eye problems, including eye pain, pressure in the eyes; cardiac symptoms, heart palpitations, heart arrhythmias, chest pain; leg cramps, or neuropathy; arthritis, body pain, sharp, stabbing pains; nausea, flu-like symptoms; sinus problems, nose bleeds; respiratory problems, cough, asthma; skin rashes, facial flushing; urinary problems; endocrine disorders, thyroid problems, diabetes; high blood pressure; changes in menstrual cycle; hyperactivity or changes in children’s behavior; seizures; recurrence of cancer.”
There is no scientific validity to these health warnings. According to a a well-reasoned article debunking these alarmist reports (“Smart Meters, Dumb Science”), “The health risk to radiation by smart meters is hundreds or thousands of times less than that of cell phone usage, which in turn is so small as to be barely measurable even in large multi-nation studies (if it exists at all).”
Do electric cars generate dangerous EMFs?
Psychologists might be able to explain why some Americans are more worried about health problems caused by electric cars than health problems caused by internal combustion engines. I can’t.
In 2012, Consumer Reports looked into worries over EMFs generated by electric cars, and reported, “Some concern has been raised about the possible health effects of electromagnetic field radiation, known as EMF, for people who drive in hybrid cars. … The problem is that there is no established threshold standard that says what an unhealthy dose might be, and no concrete, scientific proof that the sort of EMF produced by electric motors harms people in the first place. … In this series of tests, we found no evidence that hybrids expose drivers to significantly more EMF than do conventional cars. Consider this myth, busted.”
It turns out that there are two kinds of EMF worriers: ordinary worriers, and a subset of people who consider themselves to be “hypersensitive” or to be plagued by “electromagnetic sensitivity.”
The syndrome is defined on a website maintained by the Healthy House Institute: “Recently, the term electromagnetic sensitivity has emerged. People with this condition are negatively affected by EMFs at lower field strengths than the rest of us. They sometimes report dizziness, ringing in the ears, muscle weakness, confusion, fainting, or other symptoms. … Unfortunately, some people with electromagnetic sensitivity have had to avoid electricity completely.”
Scientists are skeptical that electrical hypersensitivity exists. According to a report from the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (“Possible Effects of Electromagnetic Fields on Human Health”), “No consistent relationship between ELF [extremely low frequency] fields and self-reported symptoms (sometimes referred to as electrical hypersensitivity) has been demonstrated.”
The World Health Organization is also skeptical: “Some individuals report ‘hypersensitivity’ to electric or magnetic fields. They ask whether aches and pains, headaches, depression, lethargy, sleeping disorders, and even convulsions and epileptic seizures could be associated with electromagnetic field exposure. There is little scientific evidence to support the idea of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Recent Scandinavian studies found that individuals do not show consistent reactions under properly controlled conditions of electromagnetic field exposure. Nor is there any accepted biological mechanism to explain hypersensitivity.”
To some readers, these worries over “EMF hypersensitivity” might ring a bell; they resemble worries by some Americans that they suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity. This comparison is made not only by skeptics, but also by those who believe in the dangers of EMF exposure. For example, in an article titled “Dirty Electricity” (The CCPA Monitor, June 2012), Helke Ferrie wrote, “The symptoms of electropollution-induced sickness involve all organs with many debilitating symptoms, from skin rashes to cancer; they are part of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) spectrum.”
It doesn’t take much web surfing to realize that some people concerned about EMF exposure don’t believe in the scientific method.
For example, a website called Weness.org explains, “The sober reality is that … there is overwhelming scientific evidence that EMFs cause far-reaching health effects. No one can seriously, knowledgeably deny that. … We are surrounded by a sea of more life-enhancing, nurturing, creative parallel worlds in our multi-verse, and I am very happy to tell you that you are not stuck in this one. You can ‘leap’ to another. I have been in close communication with people from two parallel worlds that split off from the one many of my readers are on. … They have cars and planes and no pollution, and people do only work they love.”
When I make my leap, and successfully reach a parallel world, I hope that I will be blessed with a job I love — perhaps debunking nonsense.
You can buy “protective devices” for prices ranging from $41 to $165
It only stands to reason that if there is a group of Americans worried about a health threat, there is also a group of scam artists who are eager to prey on them. These predatory charlatans make very little attempt to make sense; when it comes to writing advertising copy, they are apparently perfectly satisfied to write gibberish.
A California company called Clarus Systems wants you to know about EMF dangers and how to protect yourself: “The solution to electromagnetic radiation is very simple. It is basically getting the photons to make up their minds, to realize who they are, linking the photons to their higher self, organizing them. This would allow the photons to have a frequency wave form that is infinitely coherent and infinitely small passing through you transparently. …. Our main system for homes, the home device, uses a quartz crystal oscillator, and has a clock display built into it, so that you can use it as a clock. … By the end of the first day, you will have so much more energy and much less eye strain.”
A website called EMF Protect Now warns, “Every member of your family is likely to need personal protection and also an additional Household protection device depending on the strength of the fields. … These insidious diseases are caused by the occurrence of these electromagnetic fields all around us. They can be prevented and/or cured by the use of the appropriate EMF protection devices. One of the premium examples of the protection are our EnergyDOTs [$41 each]. These devices will help to recharge your bio-shield while you continue with your daily life. EnergyDOTs help to increase your resilience to the effects of stress in our daily lives as well as strengthening your functioning capacity to combat the effects of being in an environment that is constantly inundated with the electromagnetic fields.”
A company in British Columbia wants to sell you a device called the Bioprotector. “Bioprotector [$55 each] has been proven to protect the human bioelectric field from the undesirable effects of non-ionizing radiation through its protective effect. … On the biological, biophysical and bio-electromagnetic level the Bioprotector acts protectively on humans. It reduces the negative impact of the surroundings on the human bio-field, and lowers radiated energy in space.”
For only $80, Life Energy Shields will sell you a protective piece of jewelry: “Cancel out the harmful effects of EMFs and other negative frequencies….The best way to protect yourself from EMFs at all times is to wear protection on your body. Increase your personal balance and energy with this stylish necklace.”
The EMF Protection Store (a source of “New Age eco products”) will sell you a protective pendant for only $150: “Electro-magnetic field protection first starts with awareness; radio and microwaves are invisible and odorless dangers – this represents a difficulty in prevention of EM field caused diseases, since by the time symptoms start to show, exposure is significant and consequences may be irreversible. … [The] REN Emf Protection Pendant …is an internationally patented device for neutralizing electromagnetic radiation. Its form is mathematically modeled and its functioning is based on the scientific principles to induce and emit natural frequencies and protect the space/body from harmful EMF radiation.”
If you are worried about the EMFs coming out of your television, you can protect yourself with a device called an EMF-Bioshield. What do you get for $165? Why, you get “two mini-spheres of white polypropylene.” A bargain!
Here's more information: The manufacturer warns warns, “What if the CRT screen turns out to be one of the main culprits of many afflictions of modern civilization, such as abnormal general fatigue, neuropsychological disorders, increased absenteeism, loss of productivity, declining ability to concentrate and to memorize, aggression and scholastic problems in prepubescent children, predisposition to dyslexia, and lowered spermatogenesis?… If you work in front of a computer screen, often watch TV, or have children who watch TV and play videogames, and some of the symptoms mentioned above are familiar to you, EMF-Bioshield will give you the protection you need. … The EMF-Bioshield system, consisting of two mini-spheres of white polypropylene to be attached to the screen, uses the properties of electromagnetic resonance of rare earth elements (lanthanum, positions 58 to 71 of the Mendeleev Periodic Table of Elements).”
Tell me again which periodic table you're talking about? Oh, the Mendeleev periodic table. That sounds really scientific.
What do the scientists say?
After spending a few hours visiting these kinds of websites, you’ll probably have a headache. As a bracing antidote, it’s useful to read some scientific literature.
Most scientific committees that have looked into connections between EMFs and human health have concluded that there is no reason to worry about the EMFs encountered in a typical home or office.
The one remaining unresolved concern is a possible connection between EMFs and childhood leukemia. I’ll quote from a few documents on this topic:
- According to the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, “The previous conclusion that ELF [extremely low frequency] magnetic fields are possibly carcinogenic, chiefly based on occurrence of childhood leukemia, is still valid.”
- According to a website maintained by the state government of Victoria, Australia, “In 1979, researchers investigating childhood leukemia in Denver, Colorado (USA) found an association between high-current configuration electrical wiring near the home and an increased risk of childhood cancer (Wertheimer and Leeper). This initial work, however, did not measure electromagnetic fields, relying instead on distances from power lines and the type of wiring. Since then, researchers across the world have investigated power lines. To date, serious limitations have been identified in nearly all studies on power lines and cancer. It has not been possible to confirm whether or not there is a real association between EMF and cancer.”
- According to a website maintained by the government of Oregon, “The current scientific consensus is that no causal relationship exists between exposure to low-level power frequency EMFs and any adverse health effects including childhood cancer.”
- According to a website maintained by the government of Canada, “There have been many studies on the possible health effects from exposure to EMFs at ELFs [extremely low frequencies]. While it is known that EMFs can cause weak electric currents to flow through the human body, the intensity of these currents is too low to cause any known health effects. Some studies have suggested a possible link between exposure to ELF magnetic fields and certain types of childhood cancer, but at present this association is not established. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified ELF magnetic fields as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’ The IARC classification of ELF magnetic fields reflects the fact that some limited evidence exists that ELF magnetic fields might be a risk factor for childhood leukemia. However, the vast majority of scientific research to date does not support a link between ELF magnetic field exposure and human cancers. At present, the evidence of a possible link between ELF magnetic field exposure and cancer risk is far from conclusive and more research is needed to clarify this possible link. Health Canada does not consider that any precautionary measures are needed regarding daily exposures to EMFs at ELFs. There is no conclusive evidence of any harm caused by exposures at levels found in Canadian homes and schools, including those located just outside the boundaries of power line corridors.”
In short, there is some evidence of a possible link between EMFs and childhood leukemia, but the link is so weak that it doesn’t show up consistently in all studies.
More advice from researchers and scientists
Several reputable organizations have reviewed the relevant scientific studies and have issued summaries and recommendations.
According to the World Health Organization, “Despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health.”
The same document also notes, “To date, no adverse health effects from low-level, long-term exposure to radiofrequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed, but scientists are actively continuing to research this area. … In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research. … The overall weight of evidence shows that exposure to fields at typical environmental levels does not increase the risk [to pregnant women] of any adverse outcome such as spontaneous abortions, malformations, low birth weight, and congenital diseases. … Despite many studies, the evidence for any [EMF] effect [on cancer rates] remains highly controversial. However, it is clear that if electromagnetic fields do have an effect on cancer, then any increase in risk will be extremely small. The results to date contain many inconsistencies, but no large increases in risk have been found for any cancer in children or adults.”
Of course, some forms of radiation can be harmful. As the Wikipedia article on “Electromagnetic Radiation and Health” notes, “By far the most common health hazard of radiation is sunburn, which causes over one million new skin cancers annually.”
What if you want to reduce exposure to EMFs?
Although there isn’t any convincing evidence that exposure to EMFs in a home or office causes any health problems, some people feel that the precautionary principle dictates that they should take efforts to reduce exposure to EMFs in the home.
If you want to follow the precautionary prinicple, you’ll find lots of free advice on the web. My instinctive reaction to these websites is that I probably shouldn’t dignify their advice by repeating it. Dana Dorsett, a GBA reader and frequent commenter on this site, has a valuable perspective on this issue. Dorsett wrote, “I’ve spent a significant part of my career as an electrical engineer chasing interference and emissions issues at high power and low, high frequency and low. … Most of the crap out there from websites warning about the risks and recommending remediation methods are just that, crap — utter nonsense with very little basis in physics beyond a fifth-grade understanding of electricity and magnetism, and how to deal with it. (Take it from someone who has actually measured it, and designed electrical and electronic equipment as well enclosure designs with hard specified emissions limits on emissions across a very broad range of power and frequency.)”
For what it’s worth — which probably isn’t very much — here is some advice you’ll find on the web:
- Environmental Building News (a usually reliable source) advises builders to avoid building sites near power lines and electrical substations; to bundle hot and neutral conductors together; to mount the electrical meter on a garage wall; and to install energy-efficient appliances. (Further recommendations can be found by clicking the link.)
- The Wisconsin Division of Public Health advises worried homeowners to stand as far away as possible from electrical appliances, to move clocks and radios away from beds, to turn off electric blankets when you go to bed, and to minimize use of hairdryers.
- The Connecticut Department of Public Health advises worried homeowners to “Turn off electrical devices such as televisions and computers when not in use.”
- A website offering green living tips suggests that homeowners should use hard-wired phones instead of cell phones; should use a router cable instead of a wi-fi router; and should keep cell phones and computers out of bedrooms.
- A website called Healthy Building Science advises homeowners to use battery-operated alarm clocks and to make sure that there are no electrical cords under one’s bed.
- Some advice is contradictory. One website advises, “Use romex wire exclusively,” while another website advises that it’s “best to use flexible steel MC (metal clad) or rigid (EMT) cable for all circuits to avoid AC electric field exposure.”
It’s always possible, of course, that future research will shed new light on ways that exposure to EMFs affects human health. For the time being, however, the evidence seems to show that baseless worries about EMFs are causing more symptoms than actual exposure to EMFs.
Researchers have identified several real health hazards that exist in some homes; these hazards include tobacco smoke, lead, asbestosMineral fiber once commonly used in many building materials, including insulation, fireproof siding, and resilient flooring. Inhalation of invisible asbestos fibers can lead to chest and abdominal cancers as well as scarring of the lungs. The use of asbestos in some products has been banned by the EPA and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission; manufacturers also have adopted voluntary limitations on its use. When found in older buildings (most commonly in floor tiles, pipe and furnace insulation, or asbestos shingles), the product's friability is a major determinant in how it must be handled during renovations. More information: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/asbestos.html, and formaldehydeChemical found in many building products; most binders used for manufactured wood products are formaldehyde compounds. Reclassified by the United Nations International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2004 as a “known human carcinogen.". There is strong evidence that these substances have the potential to injure our health. There is very little evidence, however, that the types of EMFs encountered in American homes are injurious.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Do Homeowners Need to Understand Home Performance?”
- Centre for Implosion Research
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