Most of us are used to the conveniences of modern life. But few of us are aware of the possible health risks presented by the gadgets that make our world work.
It turns out that our cellphones, microwaves, Wi-Fi routers, computers, and other appliances send out a stream of invisible energy waves that some experts are concerned about. Should we be concerned?
Since the beginning of the universe, the sun has sent out waves that create electric and magnetic fields (EMFs), or radiation. At the same time the sun sends out EMFs, we can see its energy radiating out. This is visible light.
At the turn of the 20th century, electric power lines and indoor lighting spread across the world. Scientists realized that the power lines supplying all that energy to the world’s population were sending off EMFs, just like the sun does naturally.
Over the years, scientists also learned that many appliances that use electricity also create EMFs like power lines do. X-rays, and some medical imaging procedures like MRIs, were also found to make EMFs.
According to the World Bank, 87 percent of the world’s population has access to electricity and uses electrical appliances today. That’s a lot of electricity and EMFs created around the world. Even with all those waves, scientists generally don’t think EMFs are a health concern.
But while most don’t believe EMFs are dangerous, there are still some scientists who question exposure. Many say there hasn’t been enough research into understanding whether EMFs are safe. Let’s take a closer look.
There are two types of EMF exposure. Low-level radiation, also called non-ionizing radiation, is mild and thought to be harmless to people. Appliances like microwave ovens, cellphones, Wi-Fi routers, as well as power lines and MRIs, send out low-level radiation.
High-level radiation, called ionizing radiation, is the second type of radiation. It’s sent out in the form of ultraviolet rays from the sun and X-rays from medical imaging machines.
EMF exposure intensity decreases as you increase your distance from the object that’s sending out waves. Some common sources of EMFs, from low- to high-level radiation, include the following:
- microwave ovens
- house energy meters
- wireless (Wi-Fi) routers
- Bluetooth devices
- power lines
- ultraviolet light
There’s disagreement over EMF safety because there’s no strong research suggesting that EMFs harm human health.
According to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), EMFs are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The IARC believes that some studies show a possible link between EMFs and cancer in people.
One item most people use every day that sends out EMFs is the cellphone. Use of cellphones has increased significantly since they were introduced in the 1980s. Concerned about human health and cellphone use, researchers began what would become the largest study to compare cancer cases in cellphone users and nonusers back in 2000.
The researchers followed cancer rates and cellphone use in more than 5,000 people in 13 countries around the world. They found a loose connection between the highest rate of exposure and glioma, a type of cancer that occurs in the brain and spinal cord.
The gliomas were more often found on the same side of the head that people used to speak on the phone. However, the researchers concluded that there was not a strong enough connection to determine that cellphone use caused cancer in the research subjects.
European scientists also uncovered an apparent link between EMF and leukemia in children. But they say that monitoring of EMF is lacking, so they’re not able to draw any certain conclusions from their work, and more research and better monitoring is needed.
A review of more than two dozen studies on low-frequency EMFs suggests these energy fields may cause various neurological and psychiatric problems in people. This study found a link between EMF exposure and changes in human nerve function throughout the body, affecting things like sleep and mood.
An organization called the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) maintains international guidelines for EMF exposure. These guidelines are based on the findings of many years of scientific research.
EMFs are measured in a unit called volts per meter (V/m). The higher the measurement, the stronger the EMF.
Most electrical appliances sold by reputable brands test their products to ensure EMFs fall within the ICNIRP’s guidelines. Public utilities and governments are responsible for managing EMFs related to power lines, cellphone towers, and other sources of EMF.
No known health effects are expected if your exposure to EMF falls below the levels in the following guidelines:
- natural electromagnetic fields (like those created by the sun): 200 V/m
- power mains (not close to power lines): 100 V/m
- power mains (close to power lines): 10,000 V/m
- electric trains and trams: 300 V/m
- TV and computer screens: 10 V/m
- TV and radio transmitters: 6 V/m
- mobile phone base stations: 6 V/m
- radars: 9 V/m
- microwave ovens: 14 V/m
You can check EMFs in your home with an EMF meter. These handheld devices can be purchased online. But be aware that most can’t measure EMFs of very high frequencies and their accuracy is generally low, so their efficacy is limited.
According to the ICNIRP, most people’s maximum exposure to EMF is very low in everyday life.
According to some scientists, EMFs can affect your body’s nervous system function and cause damage to cells. Cancer and unusual growths may be one symptom of very high EMF exposure. Other symptoms may include:
- sleep disturbances, including insomnia
- depression and depressive symptoms
- tiredness and fatigue
- dysesthesia (a painful, often itchy sensation)
- lack of concentration
- changes in memory
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- restlessness and anxiety
- skin burning and tingling
- changes in an electroencephalogram (which measures electrical activity in the brain)
The symptoms of EMF exposure are vague and diagnosis from symptoms is unlikely. We don’t yet know enough about the effects on human health. Research in the next years may better inform us.
According to the latest research, EMFs are unlikely to cause any adverse health effects. You should feel safe using your cell phone, and appliances. You should also feel safe if you live near power lines, as the EMF frequency is very low.
To reduce high-level exposure and associated risks, only receive X-rays that are medically necessary and limit your time in the sun.
Instead of worrying about EMFs, you should simply be aware of them and reduce exposure. Put your phone down when you aren’t using it. Use the speaker function or earbuds so it doesn’t have to be by your ear.
Leave your phone in another room when you sleep. Don’t carry your phone in a pocket or your bra. Be aware of possible ways of being exposed and unplug from electronic devices and electricity and go camping once in a while.
Keep an eye on the news for any developing research on their health effects.
EMFs occur naturally and also come from manmade sources. Scientists have found some possible weak connections between low-level EMF exposure and health problems, like cancer.
High-level EMF exposure is known to cause neurological and physiological problems by disrupting human nerve function. But it’s very unlikely that you’ll be exposed to high-frequency EMFs in your everyday life.
Be aware that EMFs exist. And be smart about high-level exposure through X-rays and the sun. While this is a developing field of research, it’s unlikely that low-level exposure to EMFs is harmful.
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