Electromagnetic radiation and your health (Part I, background)

RF radiation

Electromagnetic radiation around you

The future is friendly – or so you believe.  With advances in technology and the inevitable development of the Internet of Things, your house – as well as the houses of your neighbors, your offices, coffee shops and pretty much all locations are now hosting multiple “smart” devices, WiFi networks, Bluetooth speakers, cellular phones, wireless chargers and other wonders of civilization.

All of this is easy to get excited about – an environment where most devices are connected to each other and to the Internet, where you can roam free and seamlessly synchronize your work or entertainment across multiple devices without the limitation of tangled wires or busy hands, where the processing power of an average modern fridge (that can take pictures of your food and wirelessly push notifications and reminders to your cell phone) probably exceeds the processing power of a supercomputer just a few decades ago, the environment where thermostats self-adjust after learning your habits and preferences, doorbells can send you pictures of your guests, lights dim in response to your voice commands and even your coffee maker is able to accept your requests from across town and start brewing your favorite drink – all of this would have seemed like a scene out of science fiction novel just a few years ago.

The future is already here.

But all this convenience may come at a very high price if you consider all the potential impact it has on your health.  And when you realize how big the impact actually is and how hard it is to escape it – the science fiction may turn into a horror story.

The truth of the matter is that, unfortunately, most of what you are going to read is not widely discussed and most people just don’t realize the impact – and those who may suspect something prefer to hide their heads in the sand, living in the ignorant bliss, happy to reap the rewards modern technology has to offer.

What we are hoping for is that your views will change once you realize that this ignorance can be deadly – for you, your children, your pets and any other living thing.

Frequencies, standards and distances and other science

To understand what we are about to discuss you need a very brief refresher on electromagnetic waves to define electromagnetic radiation (this is going to get only very slightly “dense” in terms of physics and provides a good foundation for understanding the discussion that follows – but feel free to skip this part if you feel like it).

An electromagnetic wave (in contrast to a mechanical wave) represents an oscillating transmission of energy that does not require a medium to transmit it.  It is produced by accelerating charged particles.  As an example – sound waves are mechanical waves (without a medium, such as air, water, etc. – there would be no sound).  Light waves are electromagnetic waves and, therefore, can travel through empty space.  A wave is defined by frequency – the number of oscillations per second, measured in Hz and its derivatives, such as KHz (1000 Hz) MHz (1,000,000 Hz) and GHz (1,000,000,000 Hz)) – and amplitude (the maximum displacement from equilibrium):

The frequency of electromagnetic waves (which is usually a good indication of their energy) and their wavelengths determine whether they penetrate physical objects.  Of course, qualities of an object play a huge role – the denser and thicker the object, the less penetrable it would be (generally, interactions between electromagnetic radiation and physical objects are quite complex and also depend on the object’s molecular structure) – but in this article we are specifically concerned with biological tissue – skin, muscles, bones, brains, etc.

Electromagnetic waves of different lengths make up the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging in size from that comparable to huge buildings to those comparable to atomic nuclei.

Longer waves have less trouble penetrating our bodies (and other objects – that’s why AM radio, for instance, while being more susceptible to “noise” interfering with the waves’ amplitude, can be transmitted over longer distances than shorter-wave FM radio).  But longer electromagnetic waves typically have lower frequencies – and lower energies. AM radio signal, for instance, occupies the frequency range of between about 540 to 1600 KHz.

FM radio waves occupy between 88 and 108 Mhz.  At the higher-frequency range, FM waves oscillate about 108 times more per second than AM waves – but because of shorter wavelengths and still relatively low energies, FM waves generally have slightly less penetrating ability (hence the problem of FM radio being limited to local stations due to its limited ability to penetrate structures and landmasses).

Next on the spectrum and slightly overlapping FM range come VHF (very high frequency) waves occupying between 30 and 300 Mhz (used mainly for radio and TV broadcasting) and UHF (ultra-high frequency) between 300 Mhz and 3Ghz (used for TV broadcasting, GPS systems, cell phones, wi-fi devices, Bluetooth, walkie-talkies and a wide range of other devices).

Microwave electromagnetic radiation

Generally, frequencies between 300 Mhz and 300 GHz are called microwave frequencies – yes, those that your microwave oven utilises to heat up food fall within this band.  This is where things start to get a bit more “interesting”.  On the one hand, shorter wavelengths (1mm to 1m) usually make it more difficult for microwaves to penetrate physical objects (including your body) as well as radio waves do – on the other hand, microwaves, with their higher frequencies, are emitted at much higher energies.  Because of this higher energy, microwaves penetrate through food, for instance, and transfer this electromagnetic energy to water molecules in that food, which become agitated (basically, vibrate with the frequency of the wave) and, thus, heat up.

The frequencies of infrared light (750 nm to 1mm), mostly associated with heat energy (and infrared remotes), the many colors of the visible light (400 nm to 750 nm) that your eyes can recognize and ultraviolet light (10nm to 400nm), emitted by the Sun with the ability to penetrate your skin and cause sunburns, follow microwaves on the scale of decreasing wavelengths and are familiar to most people.

The two known categories that follow ultraviolet light on our scale of increasing frequencies relate to X-rays (mostly man-made, but some hot gasses in the universe emit those, too) and gamma rays (some man-made for medical purposes, but mostly generated outside our solar system.  X-rays and gamma rays are extremely high energy electromagnetic radiation – and that’s why, despite their ultra-small wavelengths (0.01 – 10 nm for x-rays and <0.02nm for gamma rays), they penetrate through most anything – at least to a certain extent.  In real life, the interaction between gamma rays and electrons in the material they are passing through will slow them down and reduce their electromagnetic energy – use a thick enough material and their energy is reduced to basically nil (this is why atomic reactors, which generate gamma radiation, are shielded with very thick layers of concrete).  Interestingly, the earth is being bombarded by gamma rays from distant cosmic sources all the time – but our atmosphere is thick enough to reduce the typical energy of these gamma rays to virtually nothing.  So, under normal conditions – unless you are dealing with man-made radiation – those ultra-high frequency, high energy rays pose little problem (things do change a bit, if you are flying a lot though, since, once you are up in the air, flying at tens of thousands of feet, you are not enjoying the full protection of the atmosphere that you have down below).

Radiation from other common electric and magnetic fields

Alongside devices that are actually designed to emit radio frequencies as a part of their function, there are devices and systems that emit electromagnetic radiation as a by-product of their primary function.  For instance, electric power lines (typically carrying 300,000 to 400,000 volts of electricity over large distances) are considered an EMF (electromagnetic field) source because they produce electric fields (which depend on voltage – the higher it is, the more powerful electric fields are) and magnetic fields (which directly depend on current).  From high-school physics you would remember that electric fields generate magnetic fields and vice versa.  High-voltage (300,000 – 400,000V) power lines have constant current flowing through them and, thus, constantly generate both electric and magnetic fields.  The frequencies of these electromagnetic fields are classified as low to extra-low (most people know that the frequency of domestic power lines are between 50Hz to 60Hz, as compared to Mega- or Gigahertz frequencies in other RF devices).  But frequency is not the only factor to consider when evaluating biological impact of electromagnetic fields – other important factors includes power density, measured in Watts per area (such as W/m2, mW/cm2, etc.) and specific absorption rates (SAR), measured in Watts per unit of mass (W/kg).  The strength of magnetic fields – which, by contrast to electric fields, are harder to shield against, as they penetrate through most anything, is measured in Gauss (G) or Tesla (T).

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Electric fields around electric power lines typically range from 2 to 5 kV/m and magnetic fields can go up to 40 μT or more in strength within the direct vicinity (they are actually the strongest around local supply “kiosk” transformers) – the lowest levels linked to disease are around 0.1 μT, which is also the maximum recommended by the Bioinitiative report.  Studies suggest that long-term low-level exposure to EMF from HVT lines might have a negative impact on neurobehavioral function in children. But if you think this doesn’t apply to you personally because you do not live in a close proximity to power transmission and generation facilities – think again.  It’s true that the strength of magnetic fields decreases rapidly with distance, but regular domestic power supply lines operating at 50/60Hz may create electric fields if installed improperly and certain domestic appliances (especially those that contain electric motors, transformers and heater, such as hair dryers and food processors, etc.) create local magnetic fields that – at least within a few inches of them – are actually much stronger than those under power lines (a vacuum cleaner can create magnetic fields up to 40 μT in strength at a distance of a few inches.  These magnetic fields normally decrease to much lower levels within a few feet, but some of these appliances are actually intended to be used in close proximity.

Why does this matter?  Because a pooled analysis of the results from several studies found that there was an increased incidence of childhood leukemia associated with exposure to time-averaged magnetic fields greater than 0.4 μT – that’s ten times lower than the levels potentially present around offending electric appliances.  As usual, the authorities proceed with caution and consider these associations weak and “requiring further analysis” and results generally “inconclusive” – so it is really up to you, whether you want to take the risk and use ignorance as an excuse.

What does this all mean?

This lengthy discussion on different frequencies, wavelengths and energies sets the foundation for some very important points that we are going to cover next.

Before we proceed, you need to understand one fundamental truth – human cells are electromagnetic entities and are affected by electromagnetism around them.

Traditional and somewhat dogmatic approach differentiates between biological effects of ionizing radiation (such as far-ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma ray) and nonionizing radiation (including visible light, microwave and radio).

It is universally agreed that ionizing radiation is dangerous because its energy can knock electrons off the orbits of atoms, inflict all sorts of damage on a living tissue and irreversibly modify DNA, leading to cell death, loss of function, mutations and cancer.  As stated above, you typically are not exposed to any significant amounts of it, unless you are dealing with radioactive materials.

Where this becomes a grey area is non-ionizing radiation.  This non-ionizing radiation – emitted by power lines, personal wireless devices, cell phone towers, smart electric meters and other sources is practically unavoidable. Extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields surround home appliances as well as high-voltage electrical transmission lines and transformers.

If you listen to traditional sources (the industry itself, FDA, FCC, and even those authorities that are mandated with protecting public health – particularly in North America, England, Australia and a few other countries) – the effects of non-ionizing radiation can be pretty much ignored because exposure within “normal” limits (we will talk about what is considered normal later in this article) does not cause any thermal damage through heating.   Makes sense, right?  Everybody knows microwave ovens cook food by making highly polar water molecules rotate back and forth at very high frequencies, which heats them up as a result – so if microwaves outside the frequency range that causes this behavior are used and don’t heat up tissues – they must be safe, right?

If only it were so easy!  Unfortunately, heating is not the only effect of electromagnetic radiation. Human tissue, including the brain, may also be affected non-thermally. Regrettably, many exposure parameters, such as frequency, orientation, modulation, power density and duration, make it difficult to directly compare experiments and draw specific conclusions at non-thermal levels.

Nevertheless, keep in mind that every cell in our body communicates using electric signals.  The exponential amount of microwave radiation in our environment definitely has its effects.  Electromagnetic waves exert forces on charged particles of matter, electric charges are changed in their sphere of influence; molecules and ions follow the orientation of the constantly alternating field.  It also seems to be more than likely that sensitive hydrogen bonds in cells and membranes are affected.

In fact, an overview of Immunological Effects of ELF Electric and Magnetic Fields concludes: it is known that a variety of intracellular molecules and structures are relevant targets for the biological actions of ELF-EMF. Indeed, effects have been reported on the synthesis of DNA, RNA, and proteins; cell proliferation; cation fluxes and binding; production of mediators shared by the immune, nervous and endocrine systems such as cytokines; and membrane signal transduction (i.e., hormones, enzymes, and neuro-transmitters), among others. In most cases, such effects occurred as a result of short-term exposure of cells to ELF-EMF of extreme low intensities

Studies demonstrating possible (non-thermal) effects of electromagnetic fields on health

One may argue about the flawed design of some of these experiments and studies, but the fact cannot be ignored – the sheer number of conclusions that associate electromagnetic radiation with negative health effects should be enough to at least make you very cautious about the levels of exposure you might be subjecting yourself to on a daily basis.  Once again, typical response from the relevant authorities usually refers to the allegedly inconclusive nature of these studies.  Although regulatory bodies mostly do not flat out state that EMF from consumer devices is totally harmless, they cautiously conclude that they don’t know – that interactions between living cells and EMF are not yet “fully understood” – and, because they believe there is not enough evidence to suggest EMF is harmful, therefore, by exclusion – it must be not.

Which is strange, given that there seems to be plenty of that evidence – and no shortage of reports, studies and analyses for those who make an effort to look for them.  Some of these reports (like this German report on 878 Russian studies from 1960-1997 regarding the health effects of EMF, the 2012 BioInitiative Report that references 1,900 new studies showing biological impacts from non-thermal electromagnetic field radiation or a report by Naval Medical research Institute – a collection of references to 2300 studies that describe adverse effects of electromagnetic radiation), in turn, summarize a very large number of other diverse sources, all coming to a consistent conclusion that electromagnetic radiation that many people are exposed to on a daily basis is harmful.

Despite all that, National institute of Cancer still insists that non-ionizing radiation does not cause cancer. In their words: “The only consistently recognized biological effect of radiofrequency energy is heating. The ability of microwave ovens to heat food is one example of this effect of radiofrequency energy. Radiofrequency exposure from cell phone use does cause heating to the area of the body where a cell phone or other device is held (ear, head, etc.). However, it is not sufficient to measurably increase body temperature, and there are no other clearly established effects on the body from radiofrequency energy”.

At the same time, however, there are striking inconsistencies between maximum exposure levels that are considered safe by different regulatory authorities in different countries. You would think that, generally speaking, human bodies function pretty much the same regardless of the country of origin – however, the differences between the allegedly safe exposure levels established by different countries are quite vast.

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For instance, US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows 10000 mw/m2 as “permissible exposure” in uncontrolled environments for frequencies in the range of 1.5 – 100Ghz (which, at the lower end of that spectrum, is where most consumer devices operate these days) for about 30 minutes.  Canada, UK and Australia have similar limits.

At the same time, recommendations of EU Parliamentary Assembly concludes that “power lines or certain high frequency electromagnetic waves used in the fields of radar, telecommunications and mobile telephony, appear to have more or less potentially harmful, non-thermal, biological effects on plants, insects and animals, as well as the human body when exposed to levels that are below the official threshold values” and recommends that preventive thresholds be set for levels of long-term exposure to microwaves in all indoor areas, in accordance with the precautionary principle, not exceeding 0.6 volts per metre and, in the medium term, reduced to 0.2 volts per metre (this is equivalent to 0.1 mw/m2 – or 100,000 times less the levels set by FCC above).

The ignorance of some authorities in this matter is actually quite surprising, because there seems to be enough studies and evidence indicating that the impact of EMF on health may be far worse than everybody is lead to believe.  Below you will find just a few examples.

Nervous system

The effect of electromagnetic radiation on central nervous system, brain chemistry and histology and blood-brain barrier, with its impact on animal behaviour were observed and reported as far back as 1960s (when the general exposure was still far less than today).  Several studies identified thermal effect of electromagnetic radiation at the frequency of 2.45Ghz (a very popular band that hosts a multitude of consumer wireless devices) on nerves and heart, resulting in reduced neuron firing and bradycardia.

A federal study conducted by US National Toxicology Program suggests exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitted by cellular phones may cause malignant tumors in the brain and the heart.

A 2015 study on Effects of 2.4 GHz WiFi on microRNA Brain Tissue showed that 2.45 GHz WiFi may be accepted as one of the major risk factors for brain tumors and other neurodegenerative diseases.

A Swedish scientist Lennart Hardell published the results of a long-term term study on glioma and acoustic neuroma brain tumors in October 2014, showing that RF is carcinogenic, suggesting that radio frequency be labeled as definitely carcinogenic to humans.

A pediatric neurologist and neuroscientist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School outlined, in a letter to Los Angeles Unified School district, the dangers of Wi-Fi in classrooms and potential autism link, providing more than 550 citations.

Ford Motor Company commissioned a study in 1965 that showed multiple damaging biological effects of microwave radiation, in particular for the central nervous system.

One important thing to note is that children’s brains absorb much higher amounts of microwave radiation than adults because of their thinner skulls and lesser nerve cell myelination.  As you can see in the graphic below, electromagnetic radiation from a cell phone used by children penetrates far deeper in to their skulls, as compared to the skulls of adults:

(Image courtesy of Dr. Om Ghandi, University of Utah, 1996, IEEE Publication)

 

Endocrine and reproductory systems

A 2017 study showed that 2.45 GHz WiFi significantly impacts the endocrine system of rats, particularly the pancreas.

A 2015 study showed that 2.45 GHz WiFi decreases sperm function. Researchers concluded that “there should be major concern regarding the exposure to Wi-Fi networks existing in the vicinity of our living places.”

A 2016 meta-analysis of 27 studies concluded with association of RF radiation with reduced sperm count and reduction in antioxidants.

And this 2009 meta-review draws conclusions that strongly concluded Frequencies similar to those used for GSM cellular communications may accelerate neuronal and spermatozoal cell death and promote neurodegenerative processes as well as promote brain and testicular carcinogenesis.

Carcinogenic effects

Low frequency (60Hz) electro-magnetic fields have been implicated as potential cancer promoters, although their role in cancer initiation remains unclear.  Even so, what this means is that if you already have initiated cells (perhaps as a result of other environmental/dietary/genetic factors), the EMF exposure may push them over the edge and result in full-blown cancer

Further, World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies radio frequency electromagnetic waves as “possible carcinogens” – and some experts think that sufficient evidence exists for microwave radiation to be labeled a definite carcinogen.

A 2011 study demonstrated that cell phone radiation increases brain glucose metabolism (often associated with cancer) in areas next to the antenna at levels lower than FCC guidelines.

At the same time, brain tumor-promoting activities of RF radiation below exposure limits for humans have been fully confirmed in many studies, which also confirm strong associations of RF exposure with other types of cancer, such as lung cancer or liver cancer.

A January/February 2003 issue of Microwave News – an independent agency that has been reporting on potential health hazards of RF radiation since 1981 – published an internal FDA memo from 1993 states that data “strongly suggests” that microwave radiation promotes cancer.

Swisscom, a leading telecom provider in Switzerland, in its patent application for reducing microwave radiation from WiFi, admits elevated risk of cancer and genetic damage from traditional wireless networks inflicted through non-thermal pathways.

Swedish researchers found that even a single exposure to low-dose RF radiation at GSM frequencies produces nerve damage.  Incidentally, Swedish brain cancer rates have increased 30% since 2008, coinciding with the increase in mobile phones use.  A very similar pattern can be observed in Denmark in the past 10 years.

We can stop here – but, as usual, the list goes on, and on, and on…

Other effects

Cataract development as a result of exposure of the eye to high-intensity RF radiation has been studied for more than 30 years.  In general, the lowest thresholds for cataract induction have been observed with near-field exposure at 1-10 GHz, and a power density greater than 100 mW/cm2 applied for at least an hour is required.  Recent studies on monkeys also demonstrate that under certain conditions of decreased intraocular pressure, vascular leakage can increase at relatively low power densities of pulsed 2.45-GHz radiation – a power density as low as 1 mW/cm2, corresponding to an intraocular SAR of 0.26 W/kg, has been observed to produce the effect.

Other reported effects of electromagnetic radiation – even at doses that are very small compared to levels generally considered safe – include: change in calcium concentration in heart muscle cells – the mechanism for non-thermal EMF cellular damage through activation of voltage-gated calcium channels and resulting reactive oxygen species production is explained in this article , increase in calcium efflux in human neuroblastoma cells, increase in permeability of blood-brain barrier, significant evidence for neuronal damage in the brains of lab rats and many more.

A 2009 research article by Dr. Carl Blackman demonstrates that frequency modulation (not the carrier wave) is the primary reason for non-thermal biological effects and concludes that “there is substantial scientific evidence that some modulated fields (pulsed or repeated signals) are bioactive, which increases the likelihood that they could have health impacts with chronic exposure even at very low exposure levels.”

A 2015 paper shows that polarized EMF (man-made) is much more biologically active than non-polarized EMF (natural sources such as infrared, ultraviolet and visible light from the sun).

Another 2015 paper shows that lab animals experience heart arrhythmia and increased blood pressure when exposed with 2.4 GHz WiFi.

Exposure to EMF may also potentially lower bone density, albeit very slightly.

You can also look at this very interesting source showing health effects of EMF by power density, refer to the chart showing numerous health effects from laptop and iPad radiation or, if you are up to it – just refer to this collection of over 6,000 studies showing biological impacts from EMF pollution.

Solutions?

Hopefully this discussion should at least peak your interest – in part II we will talk about the worst offenders when it comes to electromagnetic radiation (some of them may sound very surprising) and how to protect yourself from their dangerous impact.