Start talking about electromagnetic fields and their health effects, and people either look at you with confusion or like you have two heads. Tin foil hats aside, electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have become a public health concern. Proximity to power lines has been linked to various diseases. And in today’s Wi-Fi-connected world, overlapping EMFs continually bathe us in radiation.
This isn’t like the acute radiation doses you get from X-rays. Chronic exposure is insidious. While we’re striving for modern convenience, we must consider the potentially dangerous effects of EMFs — and when it’s time to unplug.
What are Electromagnetic Fields?
The earth naturally emits electromagnetic fields. Most prominent is the geomagnetic field. As portrayed in the film The Core, the planet contains massive amounts of spinning nickel and iron. These generate electric currents that deflect the solar wind — charged particles that could destroy the ozone. Without the ozone, the planet would be bathed in harmful radiation. Occasionally, the ions break through, resulting in magnetic storms and auroras.
So, the geomagnetic field is a good thing. In addition to this protective force, Earth has naturally occurring electromagnetic fields.
Any electrical activity can create EMFs. There are two components: electrical fields and magnetic fields.
Electric fields result from the pressure of electrons moving through a conduit (e.g., a wire). For example, a lightning strike generates an electric field as an electrical current passes from the atmosphere to the ground. The higher the voltage (the pressure behind the electrons), the greater the field’s strength (Volts/meter). A thunderstorm can generate an electrical field of up to 20,000 V/m.
Magnetic fields emerge as electrons flow through the conduit. The higher the current, the stronger the field, measured in microteslas (μT). Earth’s geomagnetic field is weaker in some places, allowing more solar radiation to intrude.
Artificially made EMFs typically aren’t as strong as natural phenomena. The main problem is that they are constantly “on.” Unlike a thunderstorm, power lines are constantly running a current. Some research has found that children living near power lines had an increased risk of cancer, specifically leukemia and brain tumors. The good news is that exposure must be fairly high to cause this. Also, the strength of the magnetic field matters more than that of the electric field.
Still, there are new concerns about public health, especially now that communities around the world are bathed in radio and TV broadcasts, cell phone connections, and most recently, Wi-Fi.
How We Respond to the Electromagnetic Spectrum
Radiation and, by extension, EMFs have gained a lot of negative attention. However, it’s important to know what type of radiation you’re experiencing. The frequency makes a huge difference.
The radiation emitted by nuclear power plants is ionizing radiation. This is high-frequency with the potential to split molecules and create free radicals, hence the term “ionizing.” Ultraviolet rays from the sun, X-rays, and Gamma rays are all ionizing, which means they are major risk factors for cancer and radiation sickness.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are low-frequency waves of electromagnetic energy. These include direct electrical current (such as in a power line) and the EMF emitted by a computer. Radiowaves, microwaves, and Wi-Fi have low- to mid-range frequencies. Here’s a quick breakdown:
Extremely Low-Frequency EMFs (ELFs): 0-100 Hz
- Power lines – 50-60 Hz
- Computers – 60-100 Hz
Low Frequency EMFs: 1kHz – 700 MHz
Radiofrequency: 520 kHz – 5.8 Ghz
- Radio waves: AM 520-1610 kHz, FM 87.5-108 MHz
- TV broadcast: 54-700 MHz
- Cell phone: 1.9 – 2.2 GHz
- Smart meters: 0.9 – 2.45 GHz
- Wi-Fi: 2.4-2.5 GHz or 5-5.8 GHz
All are non-ionizing, which means they do not cause molecules to release electrons.
However, that doesn’t mean they don’t pose a health risk. For a long time, people were concerned about potential radiation leakage from microwave ovens. Today’s appliances effectively shield the microwaves, so they’re safe to use.
The biggest issue is the now-constant waves of EMFs generated by telecommunications devices. It’s been difficult to determine our exposure because it varies by your proximity to the tower or broadcasting station. However, you’re much more likely to be close to Wi-Fi. And as you tend to keep your cell phone close, that’s a near-constant source of exposure.
Effects of EMF Exposure
Experts aren’t sure why EMF exposure could contribute to cancer or other health issues. Some regulatory agencies and organizations such as WHO have dismissed non-ionizing radiation as harmless. But it’s hard to say because studies have been so inconsistent.
Scientists have proposed two main mechanisms for EMF’s health effects:
As this is non-ionizing radiation, EMFs don’t directly cause cell damage. However, they may inhibit melatonin, which is critical to our bodies’ antioxidant response. Chronic exposure to low-frequency telecom and Wi-Fi waves may also cause other health issues that increase stress levels — which is always a risk factor for more serious diseases.
Another possible reason is that **EMFs stimulate our cells’ calcium channels.** When these “gates” stay open, intracellular calcium protons increase. This boosts levels of nitric oxide and therefore protein kinase G, which is vital for smooth muscle contraction, nerve impulses, and even sperm metabolism. In some cases, EMF can be used therapeutically to promote bone healing.
However, moderation is key. The flood of calcium could be disrupting everything from heart tissue to nervous signals. It also creates oxidative stress, a key risk factor for cancer.
The list of symptoms associated with EMF exposure is lengthy:
- heart palpitations
- hormonal imbalance
- fertility issues
Of course, the biggest concern is cancer. Around the world, scientists have attempted to confirm whether or not EMF exposure is carcinogenic. One major study found that gliomas (tumors of nervous tissue) were more common among frequent cell phone users, although the researchers couldn’t draw a clear causal link.
How to Minimize Your EMF Exposure
As discussed above, every electrical device generates both an electric and magnetic field. The latter seems to be more of a concern for health risks. Thankfully, the field dissipates quickly.
Still, we are now surrounded by devices, appliances, and connective wires that generate EMFs. In any given household, you may have:
- Solar panels
- LED light bulbs
- Smartphones and tablets
- Computer and mobile device chargers
- Smart meters
- Smart speakers
- Wi-Fi-enabled “smart” panels on household appliances
- Bluetooth devices, e.g. wireless headphones, speakers, keyboards, mouses
- Remote controls
Obviously, EMFs aren’t going way. But there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure. Until more research is done on the risks and possible health risks, it’s better safe than sorry!
Here’s what you can do:
Hardwire your devices. If your computer can be connected via an Ethernet cable, use that. Its magnetic field is quite weak, so there’s little risk in using it. The Wi-Fi is the issue.
Turn off Wi-Fi when not in use. Not online? Turn off your router. Try plugging it into a power strip that you can easily switch off. Some people even put theirs on a timer. You might also invest in a low-EMF router, if available for your ISP.
Unplug chargers and turn off lights, earbuds, etc. when not in use. The fewer active electronics running at a given time, the fewer EMFs in your space. (Bonus: This may help you save on your power bill and reduce your carbon footprint.)
Avoid smart plugs, appliances, and devices if you don’t need them. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, we all survived for decades without remotely controlling our refrigerators and laundry machines. The price of modern convenience has often come with a cost to our health.
EMFs are an inevitable side effect of a connected world. Unfortunately, we simply don’t know the extent of their health impact. With some worrying studies showing possible links to cancer, neurological disorders, and other ailments, we should limit our exposure until we get an all-clear. Currently, cell phones and Wi-Fi-enabled devices seem to be the biggest threats.
If you’ve been experiencing strange neurological symptoms, heart palpitations, fatigue, or tinnitus, try unplugging. It may do wonders for both your physical and mental health.
This article is inspired by an interview with Cathy Cooke, Building Biologist and board-certified Holistic Nutritionist.