What Is EMF And How Is It Harmful?

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If you are a regular smartphone user, then you have often been told by well-meaning people, usually from an older generation, to be careful of the “waves” from your phone. Not just the ubiquitous smartphones, but almost all electrical devices have earned a bad rep for emitting harmful waves that are detrimental to our health in more ways than one.

Turns out, your parents are right.

All our convenient, portable, wired and wireless devices function using some kind of electromagnetic field. While that sounds like something from a sci-fi film, it is something which surrounds us at all times. To put it simply, when there is a difference in voltage (that makes current flow) an electric field is created, and when electric current flows, a magnetic field is created. Since all our devices require electricity to work, their operation leads to the creation of a combined electrical and magnetic field around those devices, called an electromagnetic field (EMF).

EMFs are therefore omnipresent. They are emitted by lamps, televisions, domestic appliances, cell phones, Wi-Fi devices, hairdryers, microwave ovens, broadcast towers, transformers and so on. The very air around us is saturated with EMFs, which make communication, transport and every imaginable aspect of modern living much easier.

Are These EMFs Harmful to Humans?

Not all EMFs are harmful. In fact, even visible light is considered as a form of electromagnetic radiation. The Earth has its own magnetic field which makes compasses point north and aid navigation. Thunderstorms lead to a proliferation of charged particles in the air.

In common understanding however, EMF is used for all types of radiation that have a frequency lesser than that of visible light.

When we speak of harmful EMFs, there are three types in particular that are referred to:

1. Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) Magnetic Fields: These are considered to be the most serious offenders – linked to childhood leukaemia and other serious health issues. These are mostly found around power transmission lines.

2. ELF Electric Fields: These are fields which generate measurable voltage on the skin. They are reported to be experienced by people who claim to be more sensitive to EMFs and are often found around appliances, electric lines and so on.

3. Radio Frequency (Including Microwaves): Used mainly in communication and information technology, these are also considered detrimental to the human body.

Studies, however, are not conclusive in this regard.

How Do Electromagnetic Fields Work?

An electromagnetic field can affect the behaviour of charged objects in its vicinity. Since the human body also works on electric impulses and contains positively and negatively charged ions, it is also vulnerable to the potential effects of strong EMFs.

EMFs do not affect our bodies in the same way that X-rays or nuclear radiation do. The latter is a kind of ionizing radiation, that is, it possesses the energy to ionize living cells, thus causing severe, long-term damage to the organism. EMFs are non-ionizing, as a result of which they had long been considered as safe for human exposure.

In recent times, however, it has been argued that even non-ionizing EMFs impart sufficient energy to “heat up” tissues in the human body, just as waves in a microwave oven heat up anything with water molecules. This implies that beyond a certain point, excessive exposure to EMFs could disrupt the natural heat balance of the body and in the process, affect its normal functioning considerably.

While studies are being conducted in recent times by bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) to correctly estimate the extent of damage EMFs can inflict upon human beings, there has been no conclusive evidence linking them to a particular disease. For instance, the incidence of cancer among residents living near power transmission lines was studied to establish a link between the strong ELF magnetic field around these lines and carcinogenicity. While there certainly was some correlation, it was not supported by lower incidence of cancer among people living at a fairly safe distance from these lines.

Because of the lack of sufficient evidence to conclusively link EMFs with serious health disorders, there is currently no reinforcement of standard guidelines for a “safe” level of EM radiation from electrical and electronic devices around us. Most manufacturers follow the protocol to keep the radiation generated by their devices at generally prescribed levels, based on the “heating” effect it has on the human body. However, there is a catch here.

There are another set of guidelines that prescribes maximum strength of the EMF for sensitive electronics, or the permissible levels of electromagnetic interference (EMI).

Certain sensitive devices need to be operated in safe energy fields, as greater interference can damage them or affect their operation. For such devices, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) meticulously ensures that the bandwidth allocated to radio and TV stations as well as the frequencies for the operation of wireless devices is within the permissible range. Due to this, the field from one broadcasting station does not interfere with that from another.

We already know that the human body too, contains charged particles and operates on to electrical impulses. It is also sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field – it influences the crucial bodily function of sleep. It follows therefore, that keeping radiations from electronic devices just below “heating” levels is not enough precaution, as the human body is susceptible to EMFs even weaker than that.

How Is an EMF Measured?

The intensity of electromagnetic fields around devices is usually expressed in milligauss (mG) and microtesla (μT). The Earth’s magnetic field, also known as the geomagnetic field, is about 0.25 to 0.65 gauss at the surface, depending on the location.

A number of devices are available in the market for measuring levels of electromagnetic radiation. If you stay close to power transmission lines (less than 300 feet away) and are concerned about your exposure to EMFs, most power companies also offer on-site reading services for non-ionizing radiation.

Two of the most commonly employed devices for the measurement of EMF density are gaussmeters and RF meters.

Gaussmeter

Also known as a magnetometer, a gaussmeter is thus named because it measures EMF density in units of gauss. It is used to measure EMF at the location it emanates from. It gauges DC fields and the readings vary based on the positioning of the gaussmeter. An accurate reading can be obtained by taking measurements in several different positions.

RF Meter

An RF (radio frequency) meter is used to measure radio frequency from Wi-Fi, cell phone towers and microwave ovens. Just like the gaussmeter, it also reads the density of EMF at the location of the meter. Additionally, it can be used to gauge the location of the source of EMF. It has to be positioned along different axes to obtain an accurate reading.

What Are Safe Levels of an EMF and When Do They Become Dangerous?

All countries have their own guidelines for permissible levels of electromagnetic fields created by electrical and electronic applications. Most of these, however, are based on the recommendations of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a non-governmental organization recognized by the WHO.

Emission and exposure standards are developed by various bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers/ International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety (IEEE/ICES), the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) along with the ICNIRP. In addition, there are national regulatory bodies that design the protocol for their respective countries and regions.

Exposure to EMFs cannot be avoided altogether, given that they exist naturally, and are an unavoidable aspect of modern urban lifestyles. However, there can be limits imposed on the emissions from devices, or on human exposure to EMF-generating devices to ensure safety.

To understand what is “safe”, we must first attempt to identify where the threat originates from. Radiation can have two types of effects on the body of a human being, or any organism for that matter, biological effects and health effects.

Biological effects are caused by any stimuli – be it exposure to sunlight or the act of eating food. It is simply how the cells of your body react to any change. Biological effects could be reversible or irreversible, but not necessarily a cause for worry.

Health effects on the other hand, are certainly injurious to normal well-being. They could be a result of prolonged exposure of the body to stimuli that cause specific health effects, such that the change in the body becomes irreversible.

To give an example, the heating up of the body while standing in the sun is a biological effect, but it could turn into a health effect if the person continues to be in the sun, leading to dehydration and a sunstroke.

The same goes for EMFs as well. Because the human body is also a conductor of electricity, it reacts to EMFs in the form of biological effects. What is yet to be established is if these biological effects actually translate into health effects in the long run.

Because of such ambiguity, there is no common agreement upon what levels of EMFs are safe. The ICNIRP recommends a maximum of 1000 mG of exposure for the general public and 5000 mG for occupational exposure. This varies by a factor of nearly a 100 between different former Soviet and Western countries.

The average human being is exposed to anything between 1 mG and 20 mG of EMFs intensity during the day. While ELF (extremely low frequency) magnetic radiation can theoretically harm the human body by inducing thermal damage, no particular levels of electric and magnetic field exposure have been established as hazardous.

As such, emission levels in different countries are given an upper limit as precautionary measures. Most common appliances have EMF magnitudes that are well below this upper limit.

SourceTypical Maximum Public Exposure
Electric Field (V/m)Magnetic Flux Density (mG)
Natural fields200700 (Earth’s magnetic field)
Mains power

(in homes not close to power lines)

1002
Mains power

(beneath large power lines)

10,000200
Electric trains and trams300500
TV and computer screens

(at operator position)

107
Typical maximum public exposure (W/m2)
TV and radio transmitters0.1
Mobile phone base stations0.1
Radars0.2
Microwave ovens0.5

Source: WHO Regional Office for Europe

Guidelines for safe limits of exposure and emission vary widely between countries. Here are a few of the guidelines some nations have implemented.

  1. In Luxembourg, no residences can be constructed in the immediate vicinity of overhead power lines (within 20 metres for 65 kilovolt lines and 30 metres for 100 to 220 kilovolt lines).
  2. There is no federal legislation in the United States. Some states like Colorado, Ohio and Hawaii follow “prudent avoidance”, that is, the exposure of the public to EM radiation with a frequency of 60 hertz should be avoided at a reasonable cost. In other states such as New York, Oregon and Minnesota, fixed limits for power line EMFs are set, varying from 20% to 240% of the reference level in the European recommendation.
  3. In Russia, the exposure limit for EMFs with frequencies between 300 megahertz and 300 gigahertz is 2% of the reference levels in the European recommendation.

Many countries therefore have their own means to prevent potential health risks due to EMFs. It should be noted, however, that these guidelines are not legally enforceable. The primary reason for this is the lack of sufficient evidence to fix harmful emission levels at a certain reference point. If these benchmarks are made compulsory to accommodate unsubstantiated health concerns, it could severely restrict technological advancement and innovation.

EMF Exposure Symptoms

While the scientific community is still divided over the effect of EMFs on health, several health effects ranging from insomnia to cancer continue to be linked with EMF exposure.

Early Research

As early as 1932, a German doctor named Erwin Schliephake published findings about a disorder that he named “radio wave sickness” in the German Medical Weekly. Symptoms of this disorder were seen among people living in the vicinity of radio transmission towers and included severe exhaustion, restlessness and insomnia, intolerable headaches and lowered immunity to infection.

His findings were corroborated in 1970 by a Russian academic Zinaida Gordon of the Moscow Institute for Industrial Hygiene and Occupational Diseases. She conducted a study with over 1,000 workers at electric stations, radio stations and radar posts who reported chronic fatigue, loss of productivity, restlessness, neurosis, depressive phases and lowered immunity. She argued that these symptoms worsened with prolonged exposure to RF radiation.

EMFs and Cancer

The most persuasive argument linking EMF exposure with cancer has been presented by a Swedish study conducted in 1993, which found children under 16 years, living near electricity transmission lines at an increased risk for early-onset leukaemia. A more recent German study concluded that reduced leukaemia survival rates were seen in children exposed to radiation as low as 1 mG. It conceded, however, that the biological mechanism behind the process was not fully understood.

Electrical Sensitivity (ES)

While the biochemical processes that cause these symptoms continue to elude scientists, reports of health effects as a direct consequence of exposure to EMFs are prevalent. Electrical sensitivity or electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) is defined as heightened vulnerability to the effects of EMFs in some individuals. It is not a recognized medical diagnosis, but the WHO lists a number of non-specific symptoms as reported by individuals who claim to suffer from EHS:

  1. Dermatological symptoms – itching, tingling of skin, redness and burning
  2. Fatigue, difficulty in concentrating
  3. Dizziness and nausea
  4. Digestive irregularities

Together, these symptoms do not constitute any syndrome recognized so far. They are, however, reminiscent of the symptoms reported in the studies by Erwin Schliephake and Zinodia Gordon in “radio wave sickness”, and research is still ongoing to establish a concrete link between the disorder and EMF exposure.

Skeptics argue that these symptoms could, in fact, be the result of a number of factors compounded together, air and noise pollution, weather and workplace conditions for instance. The relation between cell phone usage and insomnia, for example, is due to the blue light element in cell phones – light from the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum and not the low-frequency EM radiation it generates.

Preventive Measures

The lack of conclusive proof about the harmful effects of EMFs, rather, an incomplete understanding of its biochemical effects nevertheless necessitates that adequate precautions be taken by people to avoid unforeseen health hazards in the long run.

It is established that exposure to EMFs cannot be avoided in the absolute sense. Exceeding the generally accepted ‘safe’ limit can be tolerated by the human body for very short durations of time. The average exposure to EMFs is between 0.5 mG to 1 mG, and ES individuals require density as low as 0.2 – 0.3 mG to be at ease in the long run.

The general rule of thumb is to reduce exposure as much as possible. Whether you are an electronics manufacturer, a power distribution company or a homemaker, the best alternative is to reduce EMF density to the lowest levels as can be achieved without compromising on efficiency of work and escalating costs unreasonably.

EMF in Our Homes

Our dependence on electronics has made us susceptible to whatever established or perceived ill-effects of EMFs that exist. As such, it is necessary that we understand the levels of EMFs that prevail in a typical household, and how to keep it at a minimum.

As described earlier, most devices generate EMFs that are considerably lower than ICNIRP threshold limits. However, electromagnetically hypersensitive individuals might be affected by even EMFs that are considered “normal”. Here is the typical magnitude of EMF density as produced by various common home appliances:

  1. Microwave: The field density of radio frequency EMF calculated for a microwave oven is generally 60 mG at a one-foot distance, and 5.5 mG at three feet.
  2. Smart Meter: A smart meter employing RF radiation transmits data for roughly 1.4 seconds every day at very low wattage. The resultant exposure to a potentially harmful EMF is nearly 550 times lower than standing a foot away from an active microwave oven.
  3. Wi-Fi Router: The strength of a Wi-Fi router at 5 metres is 0.2 – 0.4 volts per meter. It is equivalent to standing 50 meters from a mobile tower. Sensitive individuals should therefore be at a sufficiently safe distance – 10 to 15 meters – away from a Wi-Fi router. Ideally, the distance should be as great as possible without seriously hampering internet speeds.
  4. Smartphone: One of the biggest suspects of EMF poisoning in the past decade have been smartphones. It is partly because of the ability of EM radiation from smartphones to penetrate the skull considerably and aggravate hypersensitivity.While it is not practical these days to do away with smartphones completely, it is advisable to keep your phone at least at an arm’s length away when you are not using it, and away from your bed while sleeping.
  5. Electric Fields from Dirty Electricity: Dirty electricity or dirty power is a result of electromagnetic interference, or “noise” from the electrical wirings of any building. The density for this is somewhere between that produced by power lines and microwave ovens. It contains frequencies other than the 60 Hz (50 Hz in Europe) that all our electrical equipment operates on. It causes similar health effects as seen in ES individuals, and has to be regulated by installing dirty electricity filters that reduce the distortion.
  6. Backyard Power Lines: High voltage power transmission lines typically carry nearly 30,000 to 40,000 volts. Living very close to power lines (say, within a few metres) exposes you to upwards of 5-10 mG of EMF density, which is potentially dangerous.

Conclusion

Finding arguments to either conclusively denounce or unanimously accept all applications involving EMFs is a convoluted task. However, there are certain factors that are established without doubt.

  1. EMFs are created by non-ionizing radiation that has a lower frequency than visible light. It does not have sufficient energy to ionize and radically alter DNA (like nuclear radiation and X-rays), but is capable of “heating up” the tissues and potentially causing thermal damage.
  2. There are two effects EMs can have on the human body – biological and health effects. While the biological effects of EMFs are established, they may or may not lead to detrimental health effects in the long term.
  3. The average exposure that people experience to EMFs is about 0.5 mG within a 24-hour duration.
  4. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has recommended 2000 mG as the maximum permissible level of uncontained exposure to the general public.
  5. The guidelines issued by the ICNIRP and several other bodies merely serve as a template and are not legally enforceable. As a result, most countries have their own regulations in place for permissible emission levels from electronic and electrical devices and uncontained as well as occupational EMF exposure.
  6. On the one hand, placing strict limits on EMF density can hinder technological advancement. On the other hand, research in effects of EMFs on humans offers spurious evidence about the potential health risks it poses, which cannot be ignored.
  7. Most devices around us are designed such that they do not create EMFs beyond the levels prescribed by the ICNIRP. Exposure to EMFs from these devices, therefore, has long been accepted as being nearly risk-free
  8. However, there is a syndrome called electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) wherein the individuals complain of headaches, fatigue, dizziness, dermatological conditions and digestive complications as a result of exposure to considerably less EMF densities.
  9. Studies have also indicated children to be at a higher risk for early onset cancer as a result of proximity and prolonged exposure to EMFs.
  10. As a preventive measure, exposure to EM radiation should be kept at as low levels as possible without inviting any loss in efficiency.

Electromagnetic fields and their impact on human beings and other organisms continues to be an intriguing field for scientists and the general public alike. It can be agreed upon that exposure to anything that our bodies do not require to function normally is to be avoided, and adequate precautions taken to shield ourselves from any discovered or undiscovered hazards that might result from it.

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2 Comments

  1. This emf stuff is really taking things to the next level, and helps anyone become a pro a lessening the radiation we’re all exposed to. I personally got started measuring about 2 weeks ago using a trifield, and I’m already finding things close to the bed we need to remove like our cordless phone, all thanks to the help of youtube tutorials. We should all be more aware of what’s in our sleeping environment!!

    • Glad to hear other people are testing stuff! Did you mean to post this here? I’m only asking because I haven’t posted my EMF meter reviews on the blog yet, only the youtube videos so far. What kind of EMF meter are you running?

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