We are continuously exposed to radio waves, microwaves and cosmic rays. Should we be concerned about potential health effects?
If you were born after 1980, you have received the greatest exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) of any prior generation. Most is from your mobile phone, which has become a key fixture of the Millennial lifestyle according to Pew and Nielsen surveys. These surveys show that older people are also serious users of these EMF generators, but most of their exposure began long after their formative years. For most of their lives, Millennials have been saturated with EMF emitted by televisions, computers, laptops, tablets and wireless Wi-Fi and Bluetooth links.
Should Millennials be concerned about current or future threats to their health caused by their use of and even dependence on wireless technology? Will their frequent use of mobile phones lead to brain cancer?
The bad news is that the EMF emitted by some wireless devices can be hazardous. The good news is that the intensity of the fields must be considerably higher than that to which most users of wireless technology are exposed, especially if you take simple steps to reduce your mobile phone EMF.
Either way, Millennials have a vested interest in this topic. The report hereafter explores EMF in depth and looks at the findings of the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, the American Cancer Society and the National Academy of Sciences. These organizations have reviewed many of the tens of thousands of research papers devoted to EMF and human health, and their findings just might surprise you. The report also examines some very serious and potentially lethal effects of modern wireless technology completely unrelated to EMF.
As you read these words, your body is being silently but relentlessly permeated by radio and microwave radiation generated by both natural sources and the vast array of wireless electronic devices that have become essential fixtures of modern life. Even power lines and the appliances they power emit subtle but easily detectable electromagnetic waves. All of us live, study and work within invisible electromagnetic fields (EMF) these days. But the Millennial generation, those born after 1980, have received the greatest exposure to EMF during their formative years of any prior generation. Since they were children, Millennials have been saturated with EMF emitted by televisions, computers, laptops, tablets, cameras and wireless Wi-Fi and Bluetooth links.
Do these energy fields impact the health of Millennials? The very short electromagnetic waves of ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays certainly can, for they have sufficient energy to redden or eventually burn skin, damage DNA and even cause cancer. Fortunately, our exposure to these potentially dangerous waves is limited, but that’s not the case with the less energetic radio waves and microwaves that bombard us 24 hours a day.
Does the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emitted by radio and TV antennas, cell towers, mobile phones, tablets, Wi-Fi devices and even power lines affect human health and well-being? The short answer is a qualified yes, for all these emitters of EMFs provide important benefits to us and our civilization. But there can be negative effects in some circumstances, the reasons for which are usually complex, often ambiguous and sometimes surprising. That’s certainly what I learned while researching this article. I also learned that while widespread concern over negative health effects of wireless electronic devices is highly controversial, there’s solid evidence that some electronic devices can both benefit health while simultaneously functioning as disease and infection vectors. Before we explore these concerns, let’s examine how we arrived at this point in history.
From the Electric Age to the Wireless Era
Millennials live during a time of huge advances in technologies, advances that have vastly improved agricultural productivity, transportation, health care, sanitation, communications and lifestyles. Some of these advances have had unintended consequences. For example, some plastics used to make bottles were found to pose a health risk. The chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that for many years were widely used as propellants and in air conditioning systems were found to damage the ozone layer. Many other chemicals used in pesticides, foods and commercial products have been found to pose health hazards, and scientists have often been able to pinpoint the specific compound or product that poses a health threat. As we shall soon see, that’s not always possible when people blame their ailments on the vast network of invisible fields of electromagnetic fields in which we all live.
The electric age began during the nineteenth century with the development of electric lighting, the telegraph, the telephone and radio. Television, radar and computers arrived during the mid-twentieth century and ushered in the electronic age. The development of personal computers, mobile telephones and digital cameras, games and appliances that began in earnest during the 1990s led to the information age. Today the widespread replacement of copper wires with radio and microwaves has transformed the information age into the wireless information era.
There was a time when the local radio and television stations were the main source of artificially generated electromagnetic radiation. But times have changed since Millennials arrived on the scene. Today, most of the radio and microwaves that permeate you and your environment are generated by Wi-Fi systems, Bluetooth® links, computers, tablets, mobile phones and the towers that link them, video surveillance systems, cross-country microwave links, weather and airport radars and many kinds of satellites. Even wireless car keys, computer flash drives and radio-controlled toys and camera drones play a role.
All these artificial sources of EMFs are in addition to natural electromagnetic radiation. This includes cosmic rays from space, radio waves from Jupiter, nuclear radiation from air, soil and rocks and the wide range of energy wavelengths in sunlight. Most of this radiation is not concentrated enough to be dangerous, but the very short wavelength energy in ultraviolet sunlight can cause sunburn and even lead to skin cancer. When sufficiently concentrated, the short wavelengths of radiation and the sub-nuclear particles emitted by radioactive sources in air, water and soil can also lead to cancer.
The scientific consensus is that nearly all cancers caused by exposure to electromagnetic radiation require that the radiation be sufficiently energetic to separate electrons from atoms, thereby damaging DNA. EMR with this capability is called ionizing radiation, and X-rays are a prime example. All other radiation from visible light to radio waves is classified as non-ionizing.
Electronic sources of potentially dangerous ionizing radiation include X-ray machines of various kinds and ultraviolet lamps. Electronic sources of non-ionizing radiation include radio and TV transmitters, Wi-Fi systems, mobile phones, flashlights and power line noise. While the radiant energy from these devices and sources is classified as non-ionizing, hence DNA-safe, intense beams of ionizing radiation can cause considerable physical damage. For example, the non-ionizing but intense beam from a powerful laser can melt steel and instantly consume human flesh. Powerful microwave beams are also dangerous, for the water in our bodies efficiently absorbs microwave energy. That’s why a microwave oven can efficiently and quickly boil water or cook food.
Electricity, Electromagnetic Radiation and Human Health
People have always been exposed to natural electromagnetic radiation from the sun, the planet Jupiter, distant stars, the ozone layer, water vapor, rocks and soil. The most important of these sources from a health perspective are ultraviolet sunlight and radioactive radon gas found in air, water and soil. These sources are both ionizing, and both can lead to cancer. Cosmic rays are ionizing but insufficiently concentrated to pose a major health hazard.
Geography can lead to higher than normal exposure to natural radiation. Based on my measurements with a UV meter and a Geiger counter, if you climb an 11,000 ft. high mountain, you will be exposed to around 15 percent more UV sunlight and four times the number of cosmic rays that you receive at sea level. When you fly in a commercial aircraft at around 40,000 feet, you will be exposed to as many as 40 times the number of cosmic rays than at sea level. (Voice of experience: If you take a Geiger counter aboard an aircraft, be sure to turn the sound off to avoid alarming fellow passengers!)
Then there are the artificial sources of ionizing radiation, including the wide array of UV lamps used in manufacturing processes and to sanitize everything from the air we breathe and the water we drink to toothbrushes, hair dressing tools and surgical implements.
While X-rays can burn skin and cause cancer, the ironically positive news is that low dose X-rays have become a well-established and vital tool for physicians and dentists. If you fall and break a bone, you will likely receive a modest dose of X-rays so your physician can evaluate the nature of the break. Your dentist might employ X-rays to better evaluate the condition of your teeth. (Be sure they cover your torso with a lead blanket first!) X-ray procedures have become much safer in recent years now that sensitive electronic sensors have replaced photographic film, thereby permitting less intense, briefer exposures.
Public Concern About Electromagnetic Fields
So how safe are the low-energy, non-ionizing electromagnetic rays that increasingly permeate our environment every moment of every day? Some people firmly believe there is no safe level of EMR, which they blame for ailments ranging from headaches and insomnia to learning disabilities and even cancer. They stay as far away as they can from the plethora of tech gadgets, especially wireless ones, that many of the rest of us consider essential. They believe your tablet or computer displaying this text poses a health hazard. The same applies to your mobile phone, your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth® gadgets, power lines, radio, television and cell phone towers across town and the GPS, TV and weather satellites overhead.
Besides all these systems that actively radiate EMR, people who believe they are sensitive to electric and magnetic fields are equally concerned about household electronic appliances and devices that emit EMR. For example, the circuit that regulates the time in a digital watch or clock switches on and off 32,768 times each second. The connections in the clock then emit weak EMR having the same frequency. Computers surround themselves with a field of rapidly fluctuating, low-energy EMR as they cycle through apps and move data back and forth. Some of this EMR can be heard as noise when a radio is placed nearby. In 1975, one of the first Altair 8800 microcomputers was programmed by its owner to capitalize on this effect by playing a tune on a nearby radio.
Other electronic devices and appliances that emit EMR include light dimmers, motors, dish washers, washing machines, clothes dryers, hair dryers, television sets, electric pumps, power tools and other appliances. Power lines and the wires that distribute electrical power through our homes, dorms, classrooms and work places are accompanied by electromagnetic fields. They can also carry “dirty electricity,” tiny noise spikes riding atop the otherwise smoothly undulating, 60-cycles per second electrical current.
Case Studies in Electromagnetic Radiation
Let’s next take a closer look at several kinds of electromagnetic radiation that some people firmly believe impact their heath. We will begin with the Millennial addiction to cell phones.
Case Study: Mobile Telephones and Smartphones
In December 2015, CTIA-The Wireless Association™ reported that citizens of the US possessed 377.9 million cell phones, smartphones, tablets and other wireless devices. According to the Pew Research Center, by then nearly two-thirds of all Americans had graduated from a basic cell phone to an Internet-accessible smartphone. Internet access for seven percent of these users was provided solely by their smartphones.
Periodic news reports that mobile phones might play a role in causing cancer is the elephant in the room that has worried many users. Some have also expressed concern that cell phones might lead to breast cancer in women when regularly tucked into a brassiere, or testicular cancer in men when kept in a side pocket. The most common concern is that regularly holding a phone against the side of one’s face can lead to brain cancer. This concern attracts considerable attention when a public figure known to be a frequent cell phone user dies of a brain tumor, a classic example being the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2009.
Phone companies respond that the radio waves emitted by mobile phones are non-ionizing and, unlike X-rays, cannot damage DNA. Moreover, the electromagnetic power emitted by cell phones is usually very low. While the antenna of a mobile phone typically emits no more than a watt or so of power, it does so only when the user is speaking. Much less power is emitted when the nearest cell phone tower is nearby. If you’re a geek and want to know more, Peter J. Bevelacqua, who holds a doctorate in antenna design, has created an easily understood website that explains the details of what this means.
Because of rising public concern, many scientific studies have been conducted to determine if cell phones can cause cancer, especially brain cancer. We’ll review the findings of some major organizations about this concern later.
Case Study: Wi-Fi and Smart Meters
Opposing health claims are made about virtually all of the active and byproduct sources of EMR. For example, consider the ruckus over “smart meters,” the Wi-Fi coupled water and electrical power meters being deployed by cities across the country to eliminate the need for workers to personally visit backyard meters.
Some people whose homes or apartments have been connected to smart meters have complained that meters cause headaches, hypertension, insomnia, concentration loss and even strokes. When one family replaced a smart meter with an old-fashioned analog meter they bought online, their power company physically cut the power to their home.
Some professionals take Wi-Fi syndromes very seriously, including Ronald M. Powel, who has a doctorate in applied physics from Harvard University and who held a wide variety of US government positions during his career.
In his 2015 report “Symptoms after Exposure to Smart Meter Radiation,” Powel wrote:
People from coast to coast in the USA, and from one side of the world to the other, are becoming ill after exposure to the radiofrequency radiation emitted by Wireless Smart Meters.
Powel then included the results of two surveys in which 410 respondents in the US and Australia reported:
…new or worsened symptoms after exposure to the radiation from Wireless Smart Meters in the respondent’s environment….
The two surveys group symptoms into somewhat different clusters, but many of these clusters are similar enough to enable comparison between the surveys. Of the top seven clusters of symptoms in both surveys, six clusters are similar in description and nearly identical in order of occurrence:
(1) sleep disruption; (2) headaches; (3) ringing or buzzing in the ears; (4) fatigue; (5) loss of concentration, memory, or learning ability; and (6) disorientation, dizziness, or loss of balance.
While these were the most common symptoms, respondents in both countries reported many more. For example, consider the US study cited by Powel, Wireless Utility Meter Safety Impacts Survey: Final Results Summary, a 2011 study by Ed Halteman. Some respondents to this study reported that smart meters had caused heart problems, high blood pressure, hyperactivity in children, seizures and even recurrence of cancer. People weren’t the only victims, for eight percent of the respondents reported that the smart meter Wi-Fi had caused: “burned out appliances or damaged electronics including TV, stereo, computer, refrigerator and other.”
Are you convinced? While Wi-Fi can cause real symptoms in some people, many scientific studies show the symptoms are not necessarily a direct result of EMR emitted by Wi-Fi systems. We’ll look at some of these findings later.
Case Study: Dirty Electricity
For decades some people have blamed electrical power lines on unpleasant and even dangerous health symptoms. The power lines include cables strung from towers that carry high voltage electricity across cities and the countryside. They also include the cables along residential streets or inside homes, schools, hospitals and businesses.
While most health concerns about electrical power lines relate to the 60-cycle EMR field they produce, some people are more concerned by tiny voltage spikes that are superimposed on the undulating electrical current provided by most electric companies. These noise spikes are called “dirty electricity.” They may originate at the power plant or at places between the power plant and electrical outlets in homes, schools and businesses. For example, “dirty electricity” might be added to a power line that services a cell phone tower. Home, apartment and dorm light dimmers, power bricks and appliances, especially those with electric motors, can also add noise to power lines.
The noise can be easily observed by inserting the probes of an oscilloscope into an electrical outlet. I tried this late one night after switching on all of some 25 electronic devices and appliances in my office. Tiny noise spikes outlined the 60-cycle power line voltage displayed on the scope’s screen. Most of these spikes were less than a tenth of a volt or only about 0.08% of the 120-volt line voltage. When I switched off everything (except the oscilloscope), there were only two changes: one spike was slightly reduced in amplitude and a new one appeared. The bottom line is that the power line noise I measured was quite small and did not originate in my office.
After this experiment, I interviewed Walter Mosely, a retired electrical engineer who worked in the electrical power industry for 40 years. Mosely was very familiar with noise superimposed on 60-cycle electricity, but he said he had never heard of health effects attributed to such noise. He was quite surprised when I told him about such concerns. This is definitely not the case with electrician and consultant David Stetzer, founder of Stetzer Electric, which has sold filters designed to block dirty electricity since 2000. I also interviewed Stetzer, who came across as a serious proponent of the negative health effects of dirty electricity and the ability of his filters to greatly reduce health symptoms. According to the Stetzer Electric website:
Over the past decade, Dave Stetzer has focused on troubleshooting power quality problems, specifically the problem of dirty electricity (electrical pollution, “stray voltage”), in the United States and in numerous countries throughout the world. His work in this area led to the development of the STETZERiZER® Filter, the world’s first power line EM (electromagnetic) filter.
STETZERiZER® Filters are relatively simple devices (a capacitor and resistor) that are inserted into electrical sockets, where they essentially absorb some of the electrical transients known as dirty electricity having a frequency of from around 4,000 to 100,000 cycles at the extreme lower end of the radio wave spectrum. The company recommends installing 20 filters, which cost $35 each, in a single residence. Greenwave International LLC is a competitor that sells a similar filter that includes an electrical outlet to replace the one used by the filter. A two-room starter set of four filters sells for $120.
You can learn more about the operation of power line filters in “Dirty Electricity and Electrical Hypersensitivity: Five Case Studies,” a 2004 report by Magda Havas and David Stetzer. Figure 1 is especially interesting, for it shows two oscilloscope traces of dirty electricity before and after much of it is removed by a filter. Of interest is that the largest electrical spikes were not removed, presumably because their frequency exceeded the 100,000 cycle limit of the filter. The Stetzer Electric website includes links to various reports and articles in support of claims that filters can reduce the health symptoms attributed to dirty electricity.
Low-frequency dirty electricity like that removed by filters has become a controversial topic, for even though it has very low amplitude it is blamed for dozens of negative health effects, some quite serious. For example, in “Evidence that dirty electricity is causing the worldwide epidemics of obesity and diabetes” (Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine 33, 2014),
Samuel Milham, formerly of the Washington State Health Department, writes that:
From the onset of the electrical grid, electrified populations have been exposed to dirty electricity. Diesel generator sets are a major source of dirty electricity today and are used almost universally to electrify small islands and places unreachable by the conventional electric grid. This accounts for the fact that diabetes prevalence, fasting plasma glucose and obesity are highest on small islands and other places electrified by generator sets and lowest in places with low levels of electrification like sub-Saharan Africa and east and Southeast Asia.
As in the case of some other papers claiming serious health effects from dirty electricity, Milham’s findings were quickly challenged. In “Refutation of dirty electricity hypothesis in obesity” (Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine 33, 2014), Frank de Vocht of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at The University of Manchester and Igor Burstyn of the Department for Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University wrote:
To place this study into perspective, it is important to emphasize that there is at present no scientifically valid peer-reviewed data indicating that HFVT are associated with increased risks of diabetes and other conditions cited by Dr. Milham (asthma, ADHD, cancer). In citing previous work, Dr. Milham did not include a systematic review in which all available evidence was reviewed by de Vocht (2010 De Vocht F. (2010). “Dirty Electricity”: what, where and should we care? J. Expo. Sci. Environ. Epidemiol. 20:399–405). The review concluded that the few studies that were done, mostly by the same researchers, were all subject to methodological problems large enough to prohibit valid assessment of any biological activity of HFVT. In addition to the problems in the design of the studies and the interpretation of the results, it is also very unlikely that any single exposure would cause such a wide range of health effects, further indicating that HFVT most likely do not cause most, if not all of the reported health effects. Regardless of any prior evidence of health risks of HFVT, this ecological study conducted by Dr. Milham is fatally flawed and is a vivid illustration of incorrect application of ecological analyses in epidemiology….
Milham replied to the criticism of his paper in “Response to ‘Refutation of dirty electricity hypothesis in obesity’” (Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine 33, 2014), which closed with:
In my experience, high magnetic fields are a surrogate for dirty electricity. The cited Amish studies for a number of diseases are valid because they remove house wiring, shun electricity, and have minimal exposure to dirty electricity, explaining the very low incidence of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and suicide in their population. The diabetes study by Havas was also peer reviewed.
They also write, “… it is also very unlikely that any single exposure would cause such a wide range of health effects”. Chronic stress caused by dirty electricity can explain all our diseases of civilization.
The closing sentence in Milham’s reply is of special interest, for it represents the highly controversial view of many of those who suffer from real symptoms they believe are caused by electromagnetic fields.
The Precautionary Principle
Manufacturers of electronic and electrical equipment generally discount reports about adverse health effects from EMR fields. They assert that such fields are non-ionizing and harmless so long as the most intense sources are either shielded (e.g., microwave ovens) or kept far enough away from people to avoid heating human tissue (e.g., weather radars and commercial radio and TV antennas).
People suffering with symptoms they believe are caused by EMR invoke the precautionary principle. While awaiting the findings of future scientific studies, which they believe will eventually confirm their concerns, they recommend that individuals, families, businesses and schools should take steps to eliminate or greatly reduce exposure to EMR fields. In the US and Europe, some of those concerned that EMR is damaging their health have eliminated from their homes most or even all electronic devices that emit EM fields. Some have even moved to remote areas far from cell phone towers and radio and television antennas.
Some activists recommend that government regulators should rely on the precautionary principle to justify a host of new regulations that will significantly reduce the level of what they describe as electromagnetic pollution. They cite “Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000” (2002), a 17-chapter report by the European Environment Agency that describes in detail how hazards to human health associated with sulfur dioxide, benzene, PCBs mad cow disease and other factors were not confirmed until their association with health effects was verified. Others cite the long delay in fully recognizing and exposing the hazards to health posed by smoking.
Because of the dearth of replicable scholarly studies establishing a link between exposure to low-level EMR and specific health and emotional effects, critics charge those who advocate widespread health effects from EMR with failing to realize that correlation does not prove causation, especially when the evidence is anecdotal. Harsher critics are less diplomatic and charge advocates with endorsing pseudoscience or diagnosing them as having psychosomatic disorders. As we shall see below, the World Health Organization disagrees, for it views adverse symptoms as a health disorder, whether or not their source is known.
Should Electromagnetic Fields be Reregulated or Even Banned?
To buttress the case for government regulations that ban EMR, activists emphasize the rapid increase in health disorders that has occurred during the exponential increase in the number of radiation-emitting devices and appliances during the Millennial generation.
Consider, for example, the opening paragraphs of this online next-up petition:
We, the undersigned, find that current government limits do not protect the public from adverse health effects from electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emanating from devices such as power lines, cell phones and wireless internet devices and their associated antenna sites, TV and FM broadcast towers and radar.
Most of the existing limits on this form of radiation are 1 to 4 thousand times too lenient to prudently protect humans from adverse health effects ranging from Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, reproduction problems, sleep reduction, learning, memory, slowed ability of the body to repair damage, interference with immune function, cancer and electrohypersensitivity.
This petition and many other statements of concern about health effects attributed to EMR fail to mention other environmental factors that might be to blame for the ailments they list. These include air pollution, diet, obesity, food additives, medications, allergies, contaminated drinking water and even exposure to light during hours of darkness.
Another problem with the petition is that its claims have been difficult or even impossible to test, much less prove. For example, in “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a systematic review of provocation studies,” (Psychosomatic Medicine, Mar-Apr 2005, 67, 224-232), G.J. Rubin at al. reviewed 31 experiments involving 725 people who described themselves as being hypersensitive to electromagnetic fields. They found that:
Twenty-four of these [studies] found no evidence to support the existence of a biophysical hypersensitivity, whereas 7 reported some supporting evidence. For 2 of these 7, the same research groups subsequently tried and failed to replicate their findings. In 3 more, the positive results appear to be statistical artefacts. The final 2 studies gave mutually incompatible results. Our metaanalyses found no evidence of an improved ability to detect EMF in “hypersensitive” participants.
These negative results gave reason for them to conclude that:
The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.
This conclusion does not rule out the possibility that some negative health effects can accompany exposure to EMR fields. So let’s examine the findings of several national and international organizations.
The Scientific Consensus
Thousands of research papers have been published, mainly during the Millennial generation, about the relationship of electromagnetic fields and human health, and various organizations have summarized their findings. Let’s begin the scientific response with a virtual visit to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has long been aware of health concerns and complaints about electric fields.
The World Health Organization
In response to growing public concerns, in 1996 WHO established the International EMF Project “…to assess the scientific evidence of possible health effects of EMF in the frequency range from 0 to 300 GHz.” Since 1997, WHO has invested more than $200 million in fulfilling its electromagnetic field research agenda. In “What are Electomagnetic Fields?” (2002), WHO commented on its extensive review of public concerns about electromagnetic hypersensitivity and depression:
Some individuals report “hypersensitivity” to electric or magnetic fields. They ask whether aches and pains, headaches, depression, lethargy, sleeping disorders, and even convulsions and epileptic seizures could be associated with electromagnetic field exposure.
There is little scientific evidence to support the idea of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Recent Scandinavian studies found that individuals do not show consistent reactions under properly controlled conditions of electromagnetic field exposure. Nor is there any accepted biological mechanism to explain hypersensitivity. Research on this subject is difficult because many other subjective responses may be involved, apart from direct effects of fields themselves. More studies are continuing on the subject…
Despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health.
While the science reported by WHO backs other high-level studies, WHO remains very aware that public anxiety and concern about issues that pose little or no risk can fall under the definition of health that begins the 1948 WHO Constitution:
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
WHO explains how this definition applies to complaints about health effects from power lines and other low frequency fields in its exhaustive 356-page report “Extremely Low Frequency Fields”:
Annoyance or discomfort caused by ELF exposure may not be pathological per se but, if substantiated, can affect the physical and mental well-being of a person and the resultant effect may be considered to be an adverse health effect.
WHO expands on this highly controversial topic by treating it seriously in its 2005 fact sheet on “Electromagnetic fields and public health: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” Though the report is excerpted here below, the document is worth reading in full:
The majority of studies indicate that EHS individuals cannot detect EMF exposure any more accurately than non-EHS individuals. Well controlled and conducted double-blind studies have shown that symptoms were not correlated with EMF exposure.
It has been suggested that symptoms experienced by some EHS individuals might arise from environmental factors unrelated to EMF. Examples may include “flicker” from fluorescent lights, glare and other visual problems with VDUs, and poor ergonomic design of computer workstations. Other factors that may play a role include poor indoor air quality or stress in the workplace or living environment…
EHS is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms that differ from individual to individual. The symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its cause, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual. EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.
While WHO’s constitutional mandate requires the organization to be sympathetic to those who have experienced real or perceived health issues they believe are caused by exposure to EMR, the organization has always given science the last word, as in this segment of their website “What are Electromagnetic Fields?”
Conclusions from scientific research
In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.
The US National Research Council
While the World Health Organization’s studies of electromagnetic radiation and human health are ongoing, a number of countries have completed independent, exhaustive scientific reviews. For example, in 1991 the US Congress directed the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to respond to growing public concerns about the possible health effects of low level electric and magnetic fields emitted by power lines and household appliances.
The National Research Council of the NAS responded by forming the Committee on the Possible Effects of Electromagnetic Fields on Biologic Systems.
According to the final report published in 1997, the committee was asked: “to review and evaluate the existing scientific information on the possible effects of exposure to electric and magnetic fields on the incidence of cancer, on reproduction and developmental abnormalities, and on neurobiologic response as reflected in learning and behavior.”
The committee’s study emphasized exposures to EM radiation commonly found in homes. The committee also examined risk assessments of exposure to low-level EM radiation, and reported that: “Risk assessment is a well-established procedure used to identify health hazards and to recommend limits on exposure to dangerous agents.” Risk assessment can also be considered an extension of the precautionary principle.
The committee’s lengthy and highly technical findings are best summarized in this extract from their report’s executive summary:
Based on a comprehensive evaluation of published studies relating to the effects of power-frequency electric and magnetic fields on cells, tissues, and organisms (including humans), the conclusion of the committee is that the current body of evidence does not show that exposure to these fields presents a human-health hazard. Specifically, no conclusive and consistent evidence shows that exposures to residential electric and magnetic fields produce cancer, adverse neurobehavioral effects, or reproductive and developmental effects.
The committee reviewed residential exposure levels to electric and magnetic fields, evaluated the available epidemiologic studies, and examined laboratory investigations that used cells, isolated tissues, and animals. At exposure levels well above those normally encountered in residences, electric and magnetic fields can produce biologic effects (promotion of bone healing is an example), but these effects do not provide a consistent picture of a relationship between the biologic effects of these fields and health hazards.
American Cancer Society
Most studies and reviews by private organizations, corporations and manufacturers have reached conclusions similar to those of the World Health Organization and the National Research Council. Leaving aside companies that have a vested interest in power generation and the production of electromagnetic fields, let’s look at the findings of the American Cancer Society, an organization known for its strong public stands on issues involving cancer. For example, check out the tables and charts in “Cancer Prevention & Early Detection Facts & Figures,” which provides scary charts and tables showing the “prevalence estimates and trends for major cancer risk factors including tobacco use, obesity, physical activity, nutrition, ultraviolet radiation exposure, and infectious agents.”
Cancer believed to be caused by cell phones or any other source of electromagnetic radiation is not to be found in this publication, for the Cancer Society’s review of major scientific studies has yet to find persuasive evidence for a cell phone-cancer connection. The society’s review is summarized in its Cellular Phones webpage, which concludes:
In summary, most studies of people published so far have not found a link between cell phone use and the development of tumors. However, these studies have had some important limitations that make them unlikely to end the controversy about whether cell phone use affects cancer risk….
With these limitations in mind, it is important that the possible risk of cell phone exposure continue to be researched using strong study methods, especially with regard to use by children and longer-term use.
The time series chart in Figure 2 is a good example of the kind of data statisticians and researchers employ when evaluating risk factors for cancer and other diseases. This chart illustrates the trend in brain cancer in the UK. The overall trend since 1979 is an increase of about 39 percent. However, a look at the trend shows a peak at about 2000 and a much slower increase thereafter. Cell phones were beginning to enter the market around 1990, and this chart shows that the increase in the incidence of brain cancer slowed sharply when cell phone use was becoming well established by 2000. While the chart is for all brain cancers, 81 percent of malignant brain tumors are gliomas, which have been associated in some studies with heavy cell phone use.
International Agency for Research on Cancer
A 2011 study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization did find a possible link of cell phone use with cancer. The IARC then took a more cautious approach than the American Cancer Society with its decision to classify:
…radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.
The IARC defines a Group 2B carcinogen as: ‘”Possibly carcinogenic to humans.”’ There is some evidence that it can cause cancer in humans but at present it is far from conclusive.” The announcement of the classification decision included this statement by IARC Director Christopher Wild:
Given the potential consequences for public health of this classification and findings, it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones. Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices and texting.
While the American Cancer Society and other major organizations were not persuaded that radio frequency radiation is carcinogenic, others felt that the IARC didn’t go far enough.
How Do We Survive in the Wireless Era?
After several weeks of reviewing just a fraction of the vast literature on all aspects of this topic, it’s become clear that there may be a weak link between heavy mobile phone use over a period of years and a risk of glioma brain cancer. It’s also clear that a relatively small number of people strongly believe that their emotional and even physical health is negatively impacted by electromagnetic fields of one kind or another whether or not it actually is. As reported above, some of these folk inexplicably believe that that Wi-Fi-connected smart meters have somehow burned out or damaged some of their electrical appliances.
If your studies, work or lifestyle involve close proximity to strong electromagnetic fields, you might want to consider how best to increase your distance from such fields. If not, major studies conclude that the likelihood is that the levels of EMR to which you are subjected are probably harmless. “America’s Digital goddess” Kim Komando’s advice makes sense:
I’m not ready to rule out a health side effect from Wi-Fi. It could be that the two to three people per million who think they have Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity are experiencing something science hasn’t spotted yet. However, for the average person, I wouldn’t worry about it too much just yet.
For most of you Millennials, there’s half a century of wireless living and working ahead of you. So it’s a good idea to check out the key links in this article. Just be careful to avoid developing symptoms that you don’t presently have but might believe you are experiencing after learning about them.
As for me, I’ve spent a lifetime designing and building many hundreds of electronic circuits and lasers and devoted the past 26 years to measuring the sun’s ionizing wavelengths of ultraviolet radiation at noon on most days. Every year since 1992, I’ve spent considerable time calibrating my atmospheric instruments in the UV- and cosmic ray-rich environment from 11,200 feet over the Pacific at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO), where I’m surrounded by some 26 microwave and radio-frequency antennas. The 30 or so trips I’ve made to the Big Island and back have required around 600 hours of flying at altitudes where the cosmic ray concentration is 25 to 30 times higher than at my office in Texas.
I just completed an annual physical exam after returning from nine weeks living in the oxygen deprived air at MLO, and the doctor pronounced me in excellent health. The day these words are being typed is also my 72nd birthday, and the only health reaction that can be attributed to all the electromagnetic rays that have zapped me all those years is the feeling of well-being when a circuit actually works, a mountain-top instrument calibration is successful and a lengthy article like this one is completed. As for today’s generation of electromagnetic sources that have so greatly improved our lives and productivity, I never text or answer my mobile phone while driving, and I’ll continue to place my phone in speaker mode after more than 20 seconds so the phone can be held away from my head during calls. I replace as many outgoing calls as possible with texts, which require only brief spurts of EMR to be sent on their way. And I’ve moved the Wi-Fi system to which this tablet is wirelessly connected 25 inches farther away from my desk.
As for this article, it was prepared on a tablet with the assistance of a BlueTooth-connected mouse and keyboard. It will be backed up to the cloud via the Wi-Fi network in my office and sent to the editor via email. I will continue to worry about the many texting drivers swerving along highways while they endanger themselves and the rest of us. But I’ll not worry about the digital watch on my wrist, the satellite-linked digital clock on the wall and the BlueTooth-linked speaker on the shelf. Nor will I worry while wirelessly selecting a new round of music on my smartphone; returning a brief call via the AT&T tower on the horizon 5.9 miles away; checking the phone for the latest email; and texting a friend about tomorrow’s radio-controlled, video camera-equipped drone flight.
Based on my findings here, you can take the same comfort and confidence into your world, enveloped in wireless technology as it may be.
About the Author
Forrest Mims, an amateur scientist and Rolex Award recipient whose research has appeared in leading scientific journals, was named one of the “50 Best Brains in Science” by Discover Magazine. He has written more than a thousand journal, magazine and newspaper articles and more than 50 books. His science is featured at ForrestMims.org. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Email him at [email protected]