I recently read about a couple in Barcelona so obsessed with electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that they orchestrated a plan to get rid of the neighbors they believed were responsible for the constant exposure that lead to their migraines, insomnia and other health problems. While this is definitely extreme, they are by no means alone in their concern about the effects of low-intensity fields and wireless technologies.
Electromagnetic radiation consists of waves of electric and magnetic energy moving together through space at the speed of light. Taken together, all forms of electromagnetic energy are referred to as the electromagnetic spectrum. Different forms of electromagnetic energy are categorized by their wavelengths and frequencies, measured in hertz. While this sounds like it belongs in a science lab, these fields of energy saturate our daily life, at home, at work and even at school.
Read Related: Should Your Kids Have a Cell Phone?
OUR WIRELESS WORLD
At the lower end of the spectrum, extremely low to mid-level radio frequencies are non-ionizing fields that cause no impact at a molecular level. In order, low- and mid-level sources of electromagnetic fields (EMF) include:
- Electric home appliances
- Power lines and electric substations
- Computer screens
- Anti-theft devices
- Security systems in stores and public buildings
- Portable radios
- Television sets
- Cell phones
- WiFi networks
- Microwave ovens
- Remote controls
But higher radio frequencies emitted by ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays, categorized as ionizing radiation, may lead to cellular or DNA damage with prolonged exposure.
While exposure to EMF is not new, in recent years, new technologies and changes in social communication have lead to a rapid increase in man-made sources of EMF. Above certain levels, it is known than electromagnetic fields can trigger biological effects. The question remains whether long-term exposure to lower levels, as experienced by any individual in our society, has harmful effects to our health.
EARLY STUDIES VS. LONG-TERM EFFECTS
Earlier research focused on the potential damaged caused by power lines, electrical substations and home appliances. Since radiation is stronger at close range, concern over the proximity of power lines and substations to residential areas lead to the first studies. In general, the consensus was that there is a link between exposure to these low frequency fields in the home and an increased risk of childhood leukemia. However, these findings pointed to a weak association, as the most recent studies conclude.
If distance is key as regards to safety, what about the ubiquitous cell phone in close contact with our body? Renewed public concerns have shifted the focus of current research to mobile devices and radio-frequency technologies that support instant communication. With repeated use, carrying it in our pocket and keeping it on the nightstand while we sleep, we are constantly exposed to cell phones’ electromagnetic field.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responsible for cell phone safety, has stated it cannot rule out a possible risk of prolonged cell phone use. While current studies do not show adverse health effects related to mobile technology, the FDA, World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies agree additional research is warranted to address important gaps in knowledge. Specifically, the effects of the modern cell phone use over the long-term and the potential impact on those most vulnerable to environmental exposures: our children.
In response to the general concern, WHO established the International Electromagnetic Fields Project in 1996 to assess the scientific evidence of possible adverse health effects from electromagnetic fields, encourage further research and seek acceptable standards for EMF exposure.
REGULATION & EXPOSURE LEVELS
Both the FDA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulate mobile communication in the US. Tests show that with normal use, cell phone radiation absorbed by the person’s head does not exceed this limit considered safe.
Still, for those concerned, federal agencies suggest following these simple precautions:
- Limit the time we spend talking on hand-held devices.
- Use speaker mode or hands-free kits to provide greater distance from the cell phone and reduce absorption through the head. If the phone is in a pocket or attached to a belt, however, absorption will be transferred to another body part.
- Use the phone in areas of good reception, which will decrease exposure as it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power.
- Turn off cell phones at night (in addition to WiFi, computers and other wireless devices).
But media campaigns are not limited to phones. Antennas and base stations have also generated controversy because, as much as we demand total coverage, we distrust the equipment necessary to provide for this. While these operate at higher power than cell phones, set on high building or other structures, the RF exposures from antennas and base stations are typically much lower. Radio and television broadcast antennas transmit at much higher power levels compared to those for mobile communication, but are rarely the target of public protests.
A number of studies have investigated the effects of radio-frequency fields on brain electrical activity, cognitive function, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure in volunteers. According to WHO, research does not suggest any consistent evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to RF fields at levels below those that cause tissue heating. Heating would be the main effect of RF energy on the body and is used—at higher levels—in microwave ovens to cook food.
Due to the relatively short history of mobile communications, only the possible link to fast-growing cancers has been studied to date. The largest retrospective study on adults, coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), focused on the possible links between use of mobile phones and head and neck cancers in adults. While there was an indication of an increased risk for those who reported the highest cumulative cell phone use, findings were not strong enough to rule out error. As a result, the IARC classified radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
If some cite a lack of conclusive knowledge, other organizations claim there is sufficient proof of the damaging effects of EMF fields on our health. The combined efforts of 29 scientists and health experts from 10 countries—including three former presidents of the leading organization in this field, the International Bioelectromagnetics Society—were published as the Bioinitiative Report earlier this year. Concerned about the rapidly growing wireless infrastructure, the authors look at the latest studies that point to greater vulnerability of unborn babies and young children, and DNA harm.
According to the report, it is reasonable to presume adverse health effects resulting from chronic exposure to electromagnetic fields. These include:
- Headaches, concentration difficulties and behavioral problems in children and adolescents: sleep disturbances, headaches and concentration problems in adults.
- Fertility and reproductive effects due to damage to sperm and its DNA.
- Hyperactivity and learning disorders in children.
- Wireless environments as stressors for autistic children.
- Increased risk of brain cancers.
- Decreased melatonin production.
- Risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Immediate action should be taken, read the reports’ conclusions, to establish new safety limits at lower levels than those currently enforced, for our protection from chronic exposure. Even greater security margin is recommended for sensitive populations, including children of all ages, and precautionary public warnings to increase awareness of the potential dangers of invisible electromagnetic fields.
Ultimately, the experts behind the Bioinitiative Report, as other detractors, remind us our pursuit of a wireless world comes at a cost. The question is, are we willing to give up the advantages to elude an intangible threat?