EMFs, or electromagnetic fields, are invisible ranges of radiation that come from power lines, Wi-Fi towers, and electronic devices (among other things). Many members of the scientific establishment believe they're harmless, and some research does back up this opinion. But even so, a growing number of health-conscious folks are blaming EMFs for a host of problems, from headaches, insomnia, and lethargy to mental health issues, seizures, and even cancer.
EMFs definitely aren't a new thing—scientists have been researching them since the 1970s, when the first study was published suggesting a possible relationship between living near high-voltage power lines and childhood leukemia. (More recent studies show that this link is weak.) But we're living in an era in which our EMF exposure is higher than ever, which is leading many people to question it anew.
Think about all the EMF sources an average person is exposed to in a day: Our homes and offices (and sometimes, entire cities) are outfitted with wireless internet. We sit in front of computers all day and spend evenings with our phones and tablets in our laps. And as 5G mobile networks roll out around the world—with higher-frequency radio waves and a greater concentration of cell towers than we've seen in the past—a number of scientists are positing that our growing EMF exposure could have an adverse impact on health.
At the same time, organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention generally agree that, although more research needs to be done, the majority of EMFs we're exposed to don't pose a conclusive health risk. So which side to believe?
First, let's dive a little deeper into what EMFs actually are. According to the World Health Organization, EMFs aren't just a byproduct of technology—the Earth creates them naturally, and our cells even use electromagnetic radiation to communicate with each other. But not all EMFs are the same. Some, like X-rays and gamma rays given off by radioactive substances, are considered ionizing radiation. That means they can break down the structure of molecules, and they've been found to increase cancer risk in low doses. Non-ionizing radiation, however, is caused by the lower-frequency waves that we experience in our everyday environment.
Non-ionizing radiation can be grouped into different categories. Per the WHO, household appliances and electricity create extremely low frequency fields (300 Hz and below), computer screens and security systems create intermediate frequency fields (300 Hz-10 MHz), and things like cell phones, Wi-Fi, bluetooth, microwaves, and radio and TV waves create the strongest non-ionizing radiation, aka radio frequency, or RF, fields (10M Hz-300 GHz).
"The effects of electromagnetic fields on the human body depend not only on their field level but on their frequency and energy," explains the WHO in its EMF dossier. "These fields induce currents within the human body, which if sufficient can produce a range of effects such as heating and electrical shock, depending on their amplitude and frequency range." However, the organization points out that in order to have such a dramatic effect, the fields would have to be a lot stronger than they are in our current environments.
Why are people so concerned about EMFs?
Although most of us don't directly feel the impact of non-ionizing radiation on our bodies, some researchers argue that it's still impacting us in negative ways. In January of 2019, a group of over 250 scientists from around the world submitted a revised petition to the WHO asking for greater protections against non-ionizing EMFs in the environment (the initial petition was submitted in 2015). "Based upon peer-reviewed, published research, we have serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices," they wrote. "Numerous recent scientific publications have shown that EMF affects living organisms at levels well below most international and national guidelines. Effects include increased cancer risk, cellular stress, increase in harmful free radicals, genetic damages, structural and functional changes of the reproductive system, learning and memory deficits, neurological disorders, and negative impacts on general well-being in humans."
The petitioners made several requests, including strengthening guidelines and regulations around EMF exposure, encouraging tech manufacturers to create safer products, and educating the public and medical professionals about the potential adverse effects of EMFs.
Much of the technology we're exposed to today is very new, so there may be future impacts that we aren't seeing yet.
If you ask David Carpenter, MD—director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany—the biggest health concern around radio frequency EMFs, in particular, is cancer. "In my judgment, the evidence for long-term use of a cell phone held to your head and development of brain cancer is very, very strong," he says. "It was made even stronger in 2011, when the WHO's [International Agency for Research on Cancer] declared RF fields as possible human carcinogens." The organization made this assessment based on research that showed a slightly increased risk of glioma, a type of brain cancer, with heavy cell phone use. Dr. Carpenter believes the argument was further bolstered last year, when a study by the National Toxicology Program showed that male rats developed cancerous tumors when exposed to RF fields—however, the study authors pointed out that the strength of these fields and duration of exposure were far greater than what a human typically experiences. Furthermore, the results weren't consistent in female rats nor in mice.
Because the cancer data isn't conclusive enough to make any definitive claims, the WHO still asserts on its website that "no obvious adverse effect of exposure to low level [radio frequency] fields has been discovered," an opinion that's shared by U.S. governmental agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control. But other experts argue that just because no "obvious" effects are present, it doesn't necessarily mean they don't exist. "I describe the IARC 'possible' classification as indicating that there is a warning from the scientific evidence," says Jonathan Samet, MD, MS, dean and professor at UC Denver's Colorado School for Public Health. "It's certainly an impetus for further research, and also indicates that the radio frequency EMR (electromagnetic radiation) cannot be considered 'safe.'"
Cancer isn't the only potential adverse effect linked with EMFs. Dr. Carpenter says some evidence suggests that higher levels of exposure could reduce sperm quality in men and increase miscarriage risk in women. The two miscarriage studies, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, are particularly interesting because they're some of the only ones to date that actually measured EMF exposure in subjects using a magnetic field monitoring device. "We took [913 pregnant women] and asked them to wear the monitor for the duration of their pregnancy," says reproductive epidemiologist De-Kun Li, MD, PhD, the principle investigator on both studies (one published in 2002, one published in 2017). "Studies right now aren't using the meters because most of them are focusing on cancer. Cancer can take 20 years to develop—you can't measure your exposure from 20 years ago, so in those cases, you just ask how much the person uses their cell phone." This type of self-reported data is often inaccurate, he adds.
Beyond this, there's also an increasingly common phenomenon called electrohypersensitivity, wherein people report being "exquisitely sensitive" to places where EMFs are present. "They can’t stand to go into a McDonalds or Starbucks because of the Wi-Fi there—they end up with fatigue and headaches and ringing in the ears and a feeling that their brain isn’t working quite well," Dr. Carpenter explains. "Some people think that about 5 percent of the population has these symptoms, even though many people don’t understand what they’re due to."
Not every medical professional believes in the validity of electrohypersensitivity. As The SkepDoc founder Harriet Hall, MD, wrote in 2015, "the symptoms that [electrohypersensitivity] patients report are real, but there is no evidence that they are caused by EMF exposure. In provocation studies, patients were unable to tell when they were being exposed to radiofrequency emissions, and they reported the same symptoms regardless of whether the devices were turned on or off." The WHO adds that "research on this subject is difficult because many other subjective responses may be involved, apart from direct effects of fields themselves." Yet Dr. Carpenter points out that there hasn't been enough research in this area to definitively prove that it's not a real issue.
For the record, Dr. Carpenter doesn't think there's anything inherently bad about any single source of non-ionizing EMFs. What concerns him is the potential impact of cumulative exposure—being surrounded by low-level EMFs from wireless networks and devices at all times, over a span of many years. He adds that much of the technology we're exposed to today is very new, so there may be future impacts that we aren't seeing yet. "In Scandinavia, where they've been using cell phones for a longer period than we have—and using them more frequently—there are certainly elevations in cancer after 10 or more years of intensive use. We haven’t seen that in the U.S. yet, but we haven’t used cell phones as long."
The same goes for 5G wireless networks, in his opinion. "This higher-frequency cell communication is going to involve a mini cell tower put in front of every tenth house. You’re not gonna be able to walk down any sidewalk without being continuously exposed," he says. "The advantage is you can download a movie in less time, but there’s no ongoing research, to my knowledge, of the possible health effects."
Why isn't there more conclusive evidence on EMFs?
If scientists have been studying EMFs for the past 40 years, it seems like we'd have a better idea by now whether they're safe or not. But experts point out that there are several limitations to researching them.
For one thing, says Dr. Samet, the technologies and frequencies in our environment are changing so rapidly that it's a challenge for researchers to properly study them over time. As mentioned before, it's also not easy to measure EMF exposure in research subjects. "It hasn't been studied systematically because it's so difficult to monitor," Dr. Carpenter says. "Unless you have some kind of meter that you can wear for many years, it's almost impossible to get a quantitation of cumulative exposure."
"The problem is there’s a misconception that EMFs have no health effects, that has led to very few funded studies." —De-Kun Li, MD, PhD
There's also a lack of funding for EMF research compared to other areas of scientific concern, says Dr. Li. "The problem is there’s a misconception that EMFs have no health effects, that has led to very few funded studies," says Dr. Li. He notes that this opinion—that EMFs are harmless—extends back to the debunked power line research from the '70s and the fact that scientists still haven't pinpointed a mechanism for how EMFs might affect the body.
But every expert I spoke with underscored the need for more research, despite the fact that it's complicated. "Almost everybody right now is being exposed to EMFs, and to some extent it's what we call involuntary exposure," says Dr. Li. "It's different from a [voluntary] risk factor like smoking—as an individual, you can't do anything about EMFs because they're everywhere. When everyone's exposed, you need to be worrying more significantly about public health."
Dr. Samet agrees that it's worth investigating EMFs' impact on the human body more deeply. "I am very supportive of having a comprehensive research agenda on radiofrequency EMR, given its ubiquity in society and exposure that begins before conception and extends across the lifespan," he says.
Bottom line: Should we be trying to avoid EMFs or not?
To be clear, no experts believe we should upend our lives to try and avoid EMF exposure, which would be pretty much impossible in this day and age. Rather, they say, the biggest thing we can do to protect ourselves is to keep wireless devices away from the body at all times. "The fields fall away quite rapidly with distance," Dr. Carpenter says. "If it's off even a few inches, it dramatically reduces your exposure." He recommends using a wired earpiece when talking on the phone and avoiding keeping your phone in your pocket or tucked into your bra. He also says that wired internet and landline phones are preferable to wireless, but since most of us aren't going to go that route, you can reduce your exposure by keeping your Wi-Fi router and devices as far as possible from your bed and your couch (aka the places in your home where you spend the most time).
Oh, and don't get tricked by all of the products, like cell phone cases and crystal jewelry, that claim to "block" EMF exposure. "I'm not aware of any of those options that are of any value at all," says Dr. Carpenter. "If it blocks the fields, it's going to prevent you from using it."
All in all, the debate around EMFs proves more research needs to be done before anyone can conclusively say how they affect us. So you don't need to start planning an off-the-grid move quite yet—but if all this EMF talk is making you want to unplug, know that there's certainly nothing unhealthy about reducing your screen time.
A digital detox is always a good idea, for reasons that have nothing to do with EMFs. Check out these 12 tech-free vacation destinations or follow this single-day phone-free itinerary that you can do at home.
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