Electricity is what causes our hearts to beat and our brains to think. Without it there would be no cell division; we could not hear, see, feel or move. We don’t just use electricity it is an essential part of who we are.
Our planet has its own natural electrical and magnetic fields. Lightning, for example, creates natural electric fields as it strikes the planet hundreds of times each hour. The Earth itself is like a giant magnet, with lines of magnetic force running from the North Pole to the South Pole.
Life has adapted to and existed within this natural electromagnetic environment for millions of years. That is, until the last century. Our civilization now runs on man-made electricity, and we live in proximity to power sources and office machines and appliances that generate a wide range of electromagnetic radiation almost 24 hours a day. But the electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, created by modern society are very different from the static magnetic field in which life has evolved.
Health concerns Unease about the health effects of electromagnetic fields can be traced back to a 1979 study conducted by epidemiologist Nancy Wertheimer and physicist Ed Leeper. The Wertheimer-Leeper study found that children living close to high-current power lines were two to three times more likely to develop cancer than children who did not. In the 23 years since, dozens of studies have corroborated the Wertheimer-Leeper findings, and hundreds of other studies have associated exposure to EMFs with increased incidence of childhood and adult cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, brain cancer and male breast cancer, as well as increased risk of miscarriage, depression and suicide. And while some studies have found either no risk or very low risk of electromagnetic fields for cancer, a preponderance of the evidence suggests that EMFs are a serious threat to human health.
In his 1985 book The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life, Robert O. Becker, M.D., noted, “The human species has changed its electromagnetic background more than any other aspect of the environment.” According to Becker, “The greatest polluting element in the Earth’s environment is the proliferation of electromagnetic fields.” Everyone recognizes the health hazards of chemical pollutants in our air, land and water. But ask someone about the dangers of EMFs and you’ll most likely get a blank stare. Putting the spin on science In July 1997, addressing the First World Conference on Breast Cancer, environmental consultant and policy researcher Cindy Sage declared that decision-making on public health issues is hampered “when there is a large industry presence [that] may suffer Þnancial consequences with the admission of liability for a carcinogenic product.” Such a situation, she added, “creates a difficult climate for funding, evaluating and acting on new scientific information. The state of the science becomes a battleground, where scientific uncertainty is argued as reason to defer action or take trivial or meaningless action.” This is exactly what has happened with EMF research. Due to strong industry pressure to ignore possible health risks, studies showing positive EMF-cancer associations have been discredited, while other studies have disguised or buried the association altogether.
We are being kept in a state of ignorance about the dangers posed by electrical pollution at a time when the devices contributing to that pollution from power tools to cell phones to electric cars are proliferating wildly, with no EMF safety-testing whatsoever and almost no non-industry-sponsored funding for research. Studies and missed opportunities In their 1979 study “Electrical Wiring Configurations and Childhood Cancer,” Wertheimer and Leeper observed, “Electrical power came into use many years before environmental impact studies were common, and today our domestic power lines are taken for granted and generally assumed to be harmless. However, this assumption has never been adequately tested. É In 1976-77, we did a field study in the greater Denver area which suggested that, in fact, the homes of children who developed cancer were found unduly often near electric lines carrying high currents.” The groundbreaking study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, was summarily dismissed by utility companies and government agencies, which refused to fund a single study that would refute or confirm the findings. Three years later, Swedish physician Lennart Tomenius reported significantly higher-than-expected levels of cancer among Stockholm residents exposed to EMF levels similar to those reported in the Denver study. His findings, too, were ignored. Many occupational studies have demonstrated an EMF-cancer link.
In July 1982, research epidemiologist Sam Milham of the Washington State Department of Health published the results of a study indicating that workers with high EMF exposure such as electricians and power station operators had a greater-than-expected rate of leukemia. Dozens of other studies corroborated these findings. And in 1989, Johns Hopkins University reported that, in addition to having a higher-than-average risk of leukemia and lymphoma, male telephone-cable splicers also had a higher-than-average risk of lung, prostate, colon and breast cancer. Most of this research went unreported by the popular press. Then, in 1989 and 1990, a series of articles by Paul Brodeur in the New Yorker, entitled “Annals of Radiation: The Hazards of Electromagnetic Fields,” shocked the nation into an awareness of the possible health dangers associated with these unseen energy fields. A flurry of print and TV news stories on the subject followed. Then silence. The myth of low risk ratios Critics who scoff at the idea that EMFs pose any health risk often point to studies in which exposure to EMFs could not be shown to cause a significant increase in cancer or other diseases in other words, EMFs seemed to have relatively low “risk ratios.” What these studies did not take into account was that, because EMFs are everywhere in modern industrial society, it is virtually impossible to find control groups for clinical EMF studies.
In his 1998 study of carcinogenic risk, “Carcinogenicity of Electromagnetic Fields,” Milham illustrates this point by presenting the basic data of a 1956 study of smoking and lung cancer conducted by British physicians Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill. In that study, Milham notes, “a high relative risk [was] achieved only when heavy smokers [were] compared to nonsmokers.” He then points out that “the EMF equivalent of nonsmokers does not exist in the industrialized world.” The relatively small risk ratios camouflage an already elevated incidence of EMF-related disease in the general population.
A second factor compromising EMF risk calculations is that researchers may actually have used the wrong magnetic field meters to conduct their exposure assessments. The Positron, Emdex and Amex meters that still are used in many residential and occupational studies have one fatal flaw: They do not detect EMFs below 35 or 40 Hz, the very low frequency (VLF) and extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields that are known to have negative effects on human health. (Nor do they detect the higher frequencies used by cell phones, televisions, radios and microwaves.) The fudge factor Let’s examine a study that is still widely cited as evidence that EMFs are harmless: The National Cancer Institute-Linet Study. According to a 1997 NCI press release, “A comprehensive study by researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the Children’s Cancer Group found no evidence that magnetic fields in the house increase the risk for the most common form of childhood cancer.” Yet, the researchers acknowledge in no less than four places in the report that a statistically significant increase in acute lymphoblastic leukemia exists in children exposed to power line magnetic fields in excess of 3 milligauss (mG).
The report confirms previous studies showing a similar level of association between childhood leukemia and magnetic fields from electricity. So how did the NCI come to the conclusion that there was no risk? Very simple. It set a cutoff limit of 2 mG. (The worldwide safety standard is 2.5 mG.) By establishing that limit, the NCI effectively removed any statistically significant connection with the associated dangers. Standards? What standards? There are no health-based standards for long-term or short-term exposure to extremely low-frequency EMFs in the home or in the workplace. The federally permitted 1,000 mG limit for U.S. workplaces, established in 1986, addresses only thermal safety standards those necessary to avoid shocking, boiling or frying the human body.
The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, in its 1995 “Draft Recommendations on EMF Exposure Guidelines,” generally endorsed an ambient EMF exposure limit of 2 mG. A final report has yet to be released. In 1990, Paul Brodeur ended his New Yorker series with this conclusion: “The de-facto policy that power lines, electric blankets and video-display terminals be considered innocent until proved guilty should be rejected out of hand by sensible people everywhere. To do otherwise is to accept a situation in which millions of human beings continue to be test animals in a long-term biological experiment whose consequences remain unknown.” That is the situation we find ourselves in today. A 1998 Microwave News industry report, “Unfinished Business: EMF Research Must Continue,” makes several important points that remain true today: “First, it is striking that we still know so little about who is exposed to what. [For instance,] only recently did we recognize that sewing-machine operators have higher EMF exposures than do electric utility workers. “[Second,] sources of EMFs turn up in surprising places. For example, Swedish researchers report É that steel-belted radial tires can expose automobile passengers to EMFs as high as 50 mG. Thus, an office worker with a long commute might have more exposure than a utility worker, [and] a suburban kid who gets shuttled around in his parents’ car might have more exposure than a child living within sight of a power line.”
Contemporary EMF research Last year was a banner year for EMF research. In January, a study by Milham connected many disputed pieces of the EMF puzzle. Building on the accumulating evidence that leukemia and certain other cancers are linked with exposure to electromagnetic fields, Milham wrote that “until poles and wires were first extended into our communities, humans had never been exposed to alternating power-frequency fields. Similarly, radio, television, radar, microwaves, cell phones and other indispensable devices of our modern world all expose humans to EMFs, which are completely new to human evolutionary experience.” Milham uncovered conclusive proof that the appearance of a new childhood leukemia peak in children ages 2 to 4 is the direct result of residential electrification as it took place, country by country and state by state, throughout the world. The peak was highest in states with the greatest levels of electrification and, even today, places without electrification do not show this childhood leukemia peak. As a result of this finding, Milham and his researchers conclude that 75% of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia and 60% of all childhood leukemia may actually be preventable. They also note that “weak alternating magnetic fields have been shown to affect reaction time, slow the heart and affect the electroencephalogram in humans.” In other words, the negative health effects from exposure to EMFs are not limited to children; they can and do affect all of us. As environmental physicist Neil Cherry, M.D., Ph.D., and others have pointed out, the historical rise in childhood leukemia is paralleled by the same rise in adult leukemia in all developed countries.
Then, on July 16, 2001, under pressure from a First Amendment Coalition lawsuit, the California Department of Health Services released a major report on the health effects of power frequency electric and magnetic fields. The report summarized a decade of research costing more than $7 million. It stated, “Some of the health risks associated with exposure to electric and magnetic fields such as those that radiate from power lines are added risk of miscarriage, childhood leukemia, brain cancer and greater incidence of suicide.” Two other EMF studies rounded out the year. In November, researchers from Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies presented a study showing that exposure to electromagnetic fields can interfere with melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone that also inhibits cancerous tumor growth.
When the researchers exposed breast cancer cells to a level of electromagnetism that people are exposed to on a daily basis, they found that it decreased melatonin’s ability to suppress the cancer cells’ growth. And in December, scientists at the Neuro Diagnostic Research Institute in Marbella, Spain, discovered that a mobile phone call lasting a mere two minutes can produce abnormal brain-wave patterns in children that last up to an hour. But what about all those studies purporting to show that cell phones are harmless? Milham and other scientists say it’s impossible to know for sure. Since cancer has a latency period of at least 10 to 20 years, it’s too soon to tell. There is mounting evidence, however, of increased incidence of brain cancer among heavy cell phone users.
Who is looking out for public health? With our ever-expanding use of electricity and recent developments in and burgeoning use of wireless technologies, the health risks for all life forms are growing at an alarming rate. Since cell phone technology first came into use, levels of man-made EMF radiation have increased by as much as 100,000 times for the whole planet. The third-generation cellular systems now being built require four times the number of transmitter masts used by the current mobile phone system. The installation of millions of wireless computer networks in offices, homes and schools will add another layer to the amount of microwave and radio frequency radiation to which people are exposed every day.
There is near-total agreement among researchers that the developing brains of children are most vulnerable to EMFs. Environmental consultant Sage is worried that installing wireless computer networks in schools could increase children’s exposure to harmful radiation one hundredfold. It is time to clear the air of disinformation about EMFs. The need to understand electromagnetic fields, identify their potential health hazards and implement measures to mitigate the risks they pose to human health has become urgent. Milham and other scientists are increasingly concerned that it may take an epidemic of brain and other cancers to catalyze the independent research, government oversight and avoidance measures that are necessary to protect human health and the health of the entire planet. Let’s hope they’re wrong. AM Heidi Gitterman is a speaker, author and contributing editor to Alternative Medicine.
idebar EMF Safety Tips: Remember that EMFs go through doors and walls. In general, to reduce your exposure to EMFs, increase the distance between you and the source. A surprising rule of thumb: The smaller and cheaper the motor, the higher its electromagnetic field. In kitchens, the appliance with the highest EMF reading is often the electric can opener. EMF levels can be very different between makes and models of the same appliance. In general, those with a higher EER (energy efficiency ratio) produce lower EMF levels and are therefore safer. Look for EnergyStar appliances. You can also test electrical appliances in the store using a handheld Gauss meter. Stay at least an arm’s length away from the front, back and sides of a computer monitor, even if there is a wall between you. And keep your distance from the computer itself; the chassis also produces an electromagnetic Þeld. If you must use an electric blanket or heated waterbed, use one that has been wired to neutralize its powerful magnetic Þeld. Move away from appliances (dishwashers, toasters, microwave ovens) while they are operating. Avoid using cellular phones as much as possible.
Prudent avoidance The United States has no federal health-based standards for exposure to electromagnetic fields. However, after more than 25 years of intensive study, the Swedish government established a safety limit for exposure to ELF (extremely low frequency) magnetic fields at 2.5 mG. Since EMFs are not visible, have no odor and make no sound discernable by the human ear, some scientists believe that EMF detectors are essential to prudent avoidance of hazardous EMFs. Gauss meters can be used to check for EMFs in your home, office and car. You can hire an environmental consultant to do the job, or you can purchase an inexpensive meter and do the checking yourself.
Sometimes moving a bed, a chair or an appliance as little as 6 to 12 inches can mean the difference between resting in a safe place or a potentially dangerous one. The California EMF Program suggests you stay 3 to 4 feet from appliances, 60 to 200 feet from distribution lines and 300 to 1,000 feet from transmission lines. It’s a good idea to check the electrical wiring throughout your home. Noncode wiring is often the cause of high EMF readings. Finally, because of the amount of time we spend sleeping and the negative health effects that high levels of EMFs can have on the body’s ability to produce cancer-fighting melatonin, keeping EMFs under 1 mG in the bedroom is especially important.
By Heidi Gitterman
The California EMF Program offers free, downloadable information on measuring EMFs in the home: www.dhs.ca.gov/ehib/emf/general.html Power Line Health Facts:
www.powerlinefacts.com/index.htm?b1=return+to+main+page Swedish Association for the ElectroSensitive:
www.feb.se/index_int.htm Microwave News:
www.microwavenews.com The EMF Safety Superstore (information, Gauss meters and other safety products):
Warning: The Electricity Around You May Be Hazardous to Your Health, by Ellen Sugarman (2nd ed., Miriam Press, 1998) Cross Currents: The Promise of Electromedicine, the Perils of Electropollution, by Dr. Robert O. Becker (J. P. Tarcher, 1991) Political Action:
Join local, national and international efforts to fund independent EMF research and to push for standards: Websites:
International EMF Project: