As use of electronics become more and more integrated into our lives, we're left wondering: how will humans react when exposed to ever increasing levels of electromagnetic fields (EMFs)?
They’ve been steadily increasing over the past few decades. At home, at work, and on the road, we come into contact with these fields, which can affect nerves, muscles, and other biological processes.
The main concern we have with them is that they may be linked with cancer.
Is that possible, and if so, how can we protect ourselves?
What are EMFs?
EMFs are invisible types of energy that come from two sources:
- Natural: These are found naturally in the environment, such as in lightning and in the earth’s magnetic field. Even the human body has a natural EMF that allows messages to flow through the nervous system.
- Man-made: These come from man-made objects such as power lines, appliances, electrical wires inside homes, microwave ovens, computer monitors, video display terminals, and basically anything that operates on an electric current.
A “field” is an area of energy. Any electrically charged particle will be surrounded by an electric current. It’s when that current moves that it creates a magnetic field.
The type of electricity we normally encounter in our lives, for example, is “alternating current, (AC),” which produces both an electric field and a magnetic field. The electric field is produced by voltage—the pressure through the wire. The higher the voltage, the stronger the electric field. The magnetic field is related to the flow (or movement) of the electric current—the greater the current, the stronger the magnetic field.
You can think of the difference between the two when you imagine plugging in a light bulb. Plugged in but not turned on, the bulb will generate a small electrical field. When the light is turned on and electricity moves to the bulb, it creates a magnetic field, as well. In other words, magnetic energy occurs only when the device is on.
These two fields together produce electromagnetic fields (EMFs), or electromagnetic energy.
Are EMFs Dangerous?
Whether EMFs can actually affect our health has been up for debate for years, and continues to be. Though electric fields can be easily weakened by walls or other objects—as they don’t easily pass through—magnetic fields can move through walls and other materials, including even the human body. Consequently, it’s these fields that we have more studies on when it comes to human health.
So far, research has found little evidence that exposure to low-frequency EMFs (those that we are typically exposed to through electrical appliances and computers) causes any health problems. We know, for example, that these EMFs cannot damage DNA or cells directly. Animal studies have not found any association between exposure to low-frequency EMFs and cancer.
There have been a handful of studies, though, that found a possible connection between living near high levels of magnetic fields and a slight increase in childhood cancer:
- A 1979 study found high current-flow near the homes of children who developed cancer, as compared to the homes of those who didn’t. The finding was strongest for the children who had spent their entire lives in these homes. Later studies, however, could not confirm these findings.
- A few studies seemed to find a link between children who lived in homes with very high levels of magnetic fields and the risk of early childhood cancer, particularly leukemia. Other studies, however, found no association at all. A 2010 review of data from 10 studies, for example, found little evidence for an association between EMF exposure and childhood brain tumors.
- A 2000 study found that living in a home with a magnetic field above 0.4 microteslas (what you’d find in homes living within 100 feet of a large power line) seemed to double the risk of childhood leukemia.
Look at all these studies together, and you come to the conclusion that children exposed to the very highest levels of EMFs may be at a slight increase for childhood cancer. The National Cancer Institute recommends caution with that conclusion, though, stating, “But it is possible that this increase is not real, because if magnetic fields caused childhood leukemia, certain patterns would have been found, such as increasing risk with increasing levels of magnetic field exposure. Such patterns were not seen.”
There have also been some studies—again, with inconsistent results—on pregnant women exposed to high levels of magnetic fields. One 2003 study found that the highest 10 percent of exposed mothers had a moderately increased risk of having a child with leukemia. A later 2010 study, however, did not find any increased risk.
A similar batch of mixed-results studies can be found related to EMFs and cancer in adults. Most have shown no relationship, but a few have suggested there may be a link. Working as a power station operator or phone line worker involves a higher level of exposure, and some studies in the 1980s and 1990s found an increased risk of some cancers in these individuals.
How to Reduce Your Exposure to EMFs
After an in-depth review of the scientific literature, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that “current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”
Just because it hasn't been confirmed yet doesn't mean it's not happening.
In addition to the cancer concern, some individuals feel that EMFs may be contributing to other less serious symptoms, such as headaches, depression, lethargy, and sleeping disorders. We don’t have any studies confirming “electromagnetic sensitivity,” as it’s called, but research is ongoing.
If you’re concerned about EMFs—and how they may affect you or your children—there are a few steps you can take to reduce your exposure.
- Unplug any appliances you’re not using.
- Keep electronic gadgets like TVs, computers, and cell phones out of your bedroom. Unplug electric blankets before going to bed. Keep electric clocks and radios at least four feet away from the head of the bed.
- Stay at least 18 inches away from your TV, video display terminal, and computer monitor when using.
- Keep cribs away from walls that have electric appliances on the other side.
- Fluorescent bulbs generate stronger fields than incandescent lamps. Plan your interior decorating accordingly.
- Ask your utility company to install an EM meter in your home to check the background field.
- Check out EMF blocking products like bed canopies, shielding fabrics and paints, dirty electricity filters, and more to use in your home. In our office, we use DefenderShield laptop pads.