Should You Be Concerned About EMF Exposure? Here's Everything You Need to Know
At a glance
- Discover natural and manmade EMFs
- Understand different types of EMF exposure
- Uncover how ionizing EMF exposure from UV radiation, X-rays and gamma rays can adversely affect you
- Learn about non-ionizing EMF exposure and how it affects your brain, immunity, sleep and more
- Get valuable tips to protect yourself from both high and low-frequency EMF radiation
We live in the ever-evolving digital era, and with the constant advancement of technology, it goes without saying that digitalization is literally taking over everything in our daily lives.
From the addictive sharing of images on Instagram, the Wi-Fi our smart devices run on, the video games our children are fixated with, the cup of tea we make in the microwave, and the smartwatches we wear on our wrists, it would seem impossible to live without these everyday conveniences we attribute to modern-day living.
While all of this advancement may claim to make our lives easier, it turns out that all digital devices, including all the appliances we use, emit energy waves (which we can't see), and there's a growing concern that they may have a negative impact on our health and wellbeing.
So, can all of these invisible energy frequencies really harm us?
In this post, we'll discover what EMFs are, discuss EMF exposure and the possible health risks it presents, and share practical tips to protect from all types of EMF exposure.
Table of Contents
- What are EMFs?
- Types of EMFs
- Types of EMF Exposure
- Ionizing EMF Exposure
- Non-ionizing EMF Exposure
- Why Don't Most People Know About EMF Exposure?
- Key Takeaways
What are EMFs?
Electromagnetic fields or EMFs are natural or man-made waves that are made up of two "fields" — an "electric" field and a "magnetic" field, hence the name "electromagnetic." These fields travel together, perpendicular to each other, and can't be seen by the human eye.
Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic radiation, which can be traced all the way back to 1820, showed that electromagnetic radiation is comprised of light particles (photons) that travel as waves at the speed of light.
Natural forms of EMFs include the energy sent down to the earth by the sun, lightning, ultra-violet radiation (that can give you a sunburn), and the earth's own magnetic field that points the needle of a compass north.
Man-made forms of EMF occur anywhere there is electric power. So, everything from electric power lines, cell phone towers, and indoor lighting to medical imaging devices such as X-rays, your laptop, and literally any wireless technology you can think of generates EMF.
Types of EMFs
The amount of energy carried by the photons is what makes up the different types of electromagnetic radiation which can be expressed as wavelengths, energy or frequencies.
The strength of an electromagnetic field depends on its frequency and wavelength.
The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency, the more energy is created as seen in the electromagnetic spectrum below, that displays the full range of electromagnetic frequencies and their respective wavelengths.
Also, as seen above, EMFs can be further broken down into two types of radiation — ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
- Ionizing or high-frequency radiation has frequencies higher than that of visible light.
- On the electromagnetic spectrum, these can be seen as UV or ultra-violet light, X-rays, and gamma rays.
- This type of radiation can break the chemical bonds between atoms producing what are known as "ions."
- Examples of ionizing radiation include:
- Ultraviolet radiation — naturally from the sun and artificially in tanning booths
- X-rays — medical imaging tests, CT scans, cancer radiation therapy
- Gamma rays — nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons
- Research proves that extended EMF exposure to ionizing radiation is harmful and can cause health risks such as cancer. However, low doses of this type of radiation is used in medical imaging such as X-rays and cancer radiation therapy.
- Non-ionizing or low-frequency radiation has frequencies lower than that of visible light.
- On the electromagnetic spectrum, these frequencies can be seen as radio waves, microwaves and infra-red light.
- This type of radiation does not break down chemical bonds but causes heat.
- Examples of non-ionizing radiation include:
- Radio waves — aircraft and marine navigation, RFID tags, radar, amateur radio
- Microwaves — TV broadcasting, cellular transmission, house energy meters, GPS, satellite radio, microwave ovens, Wi-Fi, cordless phone, Bluetooth devices, airport scanners, MRIs, and more
- Infra-red light — TV remote control, infra-red saunas, night vision cameras, lasers, toasters and scanners
- Due to the extraordinarily high levels of non-ionizing radiation we experience today, there are experts and scientists who believe that exposure to these artificially created EMF waves can pose serious health risks.
Types of EMF Exposure
The damaging effects of electromagnetic radiation depend directly on the type of EMF exposure experienced. Although, the wavelength and the intensity of the frequencies matter, research has shown that all types of EMF can be harmful.
Next, we'll look at different frequency types from the electromagnetic spectrum to understand the different effects EMF exposure can have.
Ionizing EMF Exposure
It goes without saying that extended exposure to ionizing or high-frequency radiation can create serious health problems. If you've ever been out in the sun for too long and got sunburned, you've most likely experienced the burning pain of UV radiation first-hand.
This is also the reason why medical imaging technicians will ask women if they may be pregnant prior to taking an X-ray, due to the radiation potentially causing harm to the fetus in the womb.
EMF Exposure from Ultraviolet Radiation
Did you know 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime?
Protecting yourself from UV radiation is the most preventative way to stop the risk of skin cancer.
UV radiation is naturally present in sunlight and EMF exposure from it is a major concern today due to the depleting ozone layer. A known carcinogen, UV radiation from the sun can increase your risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer.
There are three types of UV radiation — UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C.
UV-C is the highest radiation but is absorbed by the earth's atmosphere and does not reach the earth. UV-B radiation is what causes sunburns and reaches the "epidermis" layer of the skin.
UV-A does not burn the skin but penetrates deeper into the "dermis" layer and can lead to premature aging and wrinkles. Both UV-B and UV-A radiation are cancer-causing.
UV radiation is responsible for causing melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) that accounts for 75% of all skin cancer deaths, non-melanoma skin cancers, and pre-mature aging.
It has also shown to increase the formation of cataracts in the eyes and macular degeneration.
Scientists have discovered that exposure to UV radiation can also suppress the immune system, weakening it, and reducing its ability to protect against infections and cancers.
When it comes to artificial UV radiation exposure, indoor tanning beds should be used with tremendous caution.
Studies have shown that the radiation from "tanning booths is 10 to 13 times more intense than that of the sun," and that indoor tanning increased the risk of skin cancers such as "basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma."
Tips to protect against EMF exposure from UV radiation
- Wear sunscreen: Cloudy weather or the time of year (winter or summer) does not protect against UV rays, so sunscreen should be worn all-year-round when in the sun
- Understand reflections: Reflections from snow, sand, concrete and water can magnify the damage caused. So, finding shade by using a beach umbrella will not completely protect against UV rays due to reflecting rays from the sand. Wearing sunscreen is still a must.
- Limit exposure: Since UV radiation peaks from 10am-4pm, it is advisable to limit sun exposure during that time
- Stay away from tanning booths: Indoor tanning booths should be avoided at all costs. If you still want to get a tan, use a sunless bronzer.
- Get your Vitamin D from other sources: UV exposure is not necessary to get your required amount of Vitamin D. Oily fish, fortified milk, cereal, and juice all contain vitamin D. Vitamin D supplements can also offer the same benefits for those deficient in this vitamin.
EMF Exposure from X-Rays
Did you know over 80 million CT scans are carried out in the US annually?
The radiation that you get from an X-ray, nuclear or a CT scan falls under "ionizing radiation," meaning high-frequency energies penetrate the body's tissues to display its internal bones and organs.
There's no doubt that X-rays have been saving lives for the past century, but today there are growing concerns on the long-term implications of X-ray radiation.
Since X-rays can alter and mutate DNA, potentially leading to cancer in a person's lifetime, both the US government and the World Health Organization (WHO) have deemed X-rays to be a carcinogen.
A 2004 study suggested that by the age of 75, cancer risk caused due to X-rays ranged between 0.6% to 1.8%.
A 2012 study also showed that CT scans of the chest and abdomen in children at cumulative doses of "50 mGy might almost triple the risk of leukaemia and doses of about 60 mGy might triple the risk of brain cancer," with Gy or "gray" being the measurement of the dose of ionizing radiation absorbed.
Yes, there are risks to X-ray radiation, but when it comes to medical imaging many argue that the benefits outweigh the risks as X-rays, nuclear imaging and CT scans can be life-saving protocols when it comes to diagnosing health problems.
However, that does not mean you can't take some precautions.
Tips to protect against EMF exposure from X-rays
- Get more information: It's important to ask your physician why a CT scan is needed in the first place. For example, you may want to ask if doing a CT scan will perhaps save you from a more invasive procedure such as surgery.
- Request an alternative scan: Ask your doctor if an x-ray, ultrasound or MRI (which all use much lower radiation doses) can work instead of a CT or nuclear scan.
- Increase time between scans: If you need frequent CT scans, request if you can limit exposure by increasing the time between each scan. Also, if the results from regular CT scans are inconclusive, ask about your options for an alternative approach.
- Don't ask for a scan: Your health care provider will recommend a CT scan if required but don't ask for one under the premise of a more comprehensive checkup.
EMF Exposure from Gamma Radiation
Gamma rays are the most dangerous type of electromagnetic radiation and can cause severe to fatal damage.
Probably, the worst cases in our history of EMF exposure caused by high-frequency gamma ionizing radiation are the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster and the atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster
In April of 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine malfunctioned due to a flaw in the design of the reactor, resulting in a steam explosion and fires that released radioactive material into the atmosphere.
The numbers claim that close to 50 people died due to acute radiation syndrome which is defined as "a collection of health effects due to exposure to high amounts of ionizing radiation over a short period of time."
The unsettling symptoms are shown in the image below:
According to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the long-term mortality is estimated to be 4,000 or more.
A large volume of children and adolescents during the time of the disaster had increasingly high rates of thyroid cancer. This was due to drinking milk from cows who grazed in pastures where radioactive iodine was deposited.
Workers or "liquidators" who were involved in disaster cleanup also demonstrated an increased risk of leukemia.
But there are several reports like this one that says the mortality numbers are misleading as "they only apply to those populations with the highest radiation exposures, and don’t take into account the larger numbers of people who were exposed to less radiation." The research estimates the number of cancers to be between 27,000 to 108,000 and fatalities to be in the range of 12,000 to 57,000.
Atomic Bomb Blast Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Many experts have studied the after-effects of the nuclear bomb blasts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.
The image below shows the actual atomic cloud over Hiroshima following the blast:
An estimated 150-200 thousand people were attributed to having died in the blasts due to acute radiation damaging tissue and killing cells instantly.
However, those who survived but were exposed to ionizing radiation faced long-term implications such as cancer due to the radiation's ability to mutate DNA in cells and actually alter genes.
These long-term effects were seen as an increase in leukemia two years post-attack, which peaked 4-6 years later, and was most prevalent in children.
A study conducted in 1994 revealed that individuals who were exposed to radiation in the womb and were born to survivors showed malformations such as smaller head size and mental disabilities.
Other types of cancer took many years to develop and although higher radiation exposure was associated with higher cancer risk, "even low amounts of radiation were linked to an increased risk of getting and dying from cancer. There was no clear cut-off for safe radiation exposure."
By looking at the two devastating case studies above, it goes without saying that high-frequency gamma radiation can have serious short-term and long-term health implications.
So, is there a way to be prepared for a radiological emergency today?
Tips to protect against EMF exposure from Gamma rays
When it comes to protecting yourself and your family from high-dose radiation there are three things to keep in mind:
- Time: Minimize exposure time
- Distance: Increase your distance from the source, as EMF exposure intensity decreases as you increase your distance from the object that’s sending out the waves.
- Shielding: Shield with concrete, water or lead to protect against penetrating gamma rays.
The EPA also recommends the following in the case of a nuclear reactor accident or terrorist attack:
- Seek shelter: Find shelter in the middle of a building or in a basement, away from doors and windows.
- Stay indoors: To reduce exposure, continue to stay indoors. Make sure all doors and windows are closed. Shower well and eat and drink from sealed bottles and containers.
- Wait: Stay tuned for more information and/or screening instructions from emergency officials by checking the net, TV or radio.
Now that we've understood the damage and harm high-frequency EMF can cause, what about non-ionizing or low-frequency EMF radiation?
Non-ionizing EMF Exposure
Source: Science Media Center
There is a growing concern on low-dose EMF radiation and the harmful effects it can have on us.
EMF is generated by everything that runs on electricity. So, this includes ALL of the following and more:
- Power transmission
- Indoor lighting
- Broadcasting — AM, FM, TV
- Medical equipment
- Cell phones
- Wi-Fi devices
- Cordless phones
- Keyless entry systems
- Microwave ovens
Experts argue that we are literally being engulfed by EMF 24/7, so even if the radiation is low-dose, it takes on a slow poisoning effect on our body.
That is why in 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO), admitted to the fact that radiation from cell phones is "possibly carcinogenic to humans," and can cause cancer.
Electromagnetic fields and the human body
It's been scientifically proven that the human body has its own electromagnetic field.
"You are an electric field — a giant electric field which holds your atoms together, and which uses other electric fields to talk to other bits of yourself."
- Jack Fraser, Master's Physics, University of Oxford
This phenomenon, known as "biomagnetism" states that magnetic fields are generated by all living things, and particularly by the human body.
In fact, the human heart is the most powerful source of electromagnetic energy which is actually detectable by scientific instruments.
"The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body. The electrical field as measured in an electrocardiogram (ECG) is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brain waves recorded in an electroencephalogram (EEG)."
Watch this eye-opening video about how long-term exposure to low-dose radiation can affect your body:
Harmful EMFs, which are different from our body's own natural EMFs, can alter the natural frequencies or "bioelectrical signals" of our body and damage tissues and cells, leading to health problems, unbalance and disease. They can affect everything from our immunity and stress levels, to sleep cycles and even our very DNA.
Depending on the health and sensitivity of an individual, the strength of the frequency and the level of exposure, this change can occur over many years, decades or even within hours or minutes.
Now that we understand the dangers, the key factor to keep in mind is that today most of our EMF radiation is coming from constant exposure to technology and connected systems and devices that may be wreaking havoc in our lives.
"Cells in the body react to EMFs as potentially harmful, just like to other environmental toxins, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals. The DNA in living cells recognizes electromagnetic fields at very low levels of exposure; and produces a biochemical stress response. The scientific evidence tells us that our safety standards are inadequate, and that we must protect ourselves from exposure to EMF due to power lines, cell phones and the like, or risk the known consequences. The science is very strong and we should sit up and pay attention."
- Martin Blank, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics, Columbia University
Non-ionizing EMF exposure covers everything from radio waves and microwaves to visible light and infrared.
Although non-ionizing radiation does not have enough energy to break molecular bonds, its effects are highly debated because even with low energy, at certain frequencies, thermal or heat energy can cause damage to tissues and cells.
This is also how a microwave works to cook food, and why you should not use a computer on your lap.
That said, studies have also shown that ELF and RF frequency exposure increase cancer risk, even at "intensities that are too low to cause tissue heating."
Next, we'll dive deeper into how low-dose EMF exposure can adversely affect our health and well-being.
EMF Exposure on the Brain
According to the Environmental Health Trust, there have been many scientific studies proving the "neurotoxic effects" of cell phones and wireless radiation on brain development.
Contrary to reports that suggest that low-dose radiation has "no-effect," research clearly demonstrates that EMF exposure causes changes in brain activity. In fact, research has shown that wireless EMF radiation can cross the protective blood-brain barrier, potentially allowing toxic substances to reach the brain and cause cognitive impairment.
A 2011 study led by researcher Dr. Nora D. Volkow, that made headlines, showed that just 50 minutes of holding a wirelessly connected cell phone next to the head (and brain) increased the metabolism of glucose, altering the brain's electrical activity, which could potentially lead to inflammation and disease.
Source: Environmental Health Trust
Even though it was previously assumed that the levels of radiation were so low that the body would not notice, this study proved otherwise.
Dr. Volkow, who is the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recommends “to use a wired earpiece, use the cell phone in speaker phone mode or text message,” to protect from daily exposure.
EMF Exposure on Children
Children, teenagers, and fetuses still in the womb are at the highest risk of EMF exposure.
Dr. Hugh Taylor, chief of OBGYN at Yale Medicine revealed that when pregnant mice were exposed to mobile phone signals, their offspring demonstrated "increased hyperactivity and impaired memory."
Research conducted on human subjects has also linked cell phone radiation to increased behavioral issues.
Research conducted by Turkish scientists "found significant brain cell damage within the hippocampus and cerebellum of rats following exposure to cell phone radiation frequencies." What's interesting is that the age of the rats was comparable to human teenagers and that the exposure to the radiofrequency (RF) signals were just for 1 hour a day for 1 month.
Here's an image that shows a child's brain absorbs a lot more radiation than an adult brain.
Source: Collective Evolution
Following the study, lead scientist Dr. Suleyman Kaplan emphasized that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s standards were not adequate for young kids and teens as they are more sensitive and are at risk for chronic lifetime EMF exposure.
EMF Exposure on Sleep
Sleep disturbance is one of the symptoms that is often reported as hypersensitivity to EMF.
Studies have shown that exposure to "magnetic fields at night resulted in less total sleep time, reduced sleep efficiency, increased time in stage II sleep, decreased time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and increased latency to first REM period."
Participants also reported broken sleep patterns "and feeling less rested in the morning."
Other research could not provide conclusive evidence if EMFs affect sleep quality, however, the research did admit that ELF magnetic fields "seem to impact sleep" and that "there are many indications that electromagnetic fields from mobile telecommunications influence brain activity during sleep."
Studies conducted with an electroencephalogram or EEG (a device used to track/record brain waves) have recorded "changes in sleeping humans exposed to non-thermal pulsed microwave fields," and "in persons exposed to Wi-Fi fields."
Also, besides just affecting sleep, EMFs have also shown to produce a host of "neuropsychiatric" effects which include depression, vertigo, memory changes, irritability, and cognitive issues.
EMF Exposure on Immunity
Our immune system has evolved after thousands of years of fighting against a variety of outside threats such as bacteria and viruses.
However, exposure to artificial EMFs is still fairly new to us as they've only been around for the last 100 years or so.
To our bodies, EMF is an unknown enemy that our body has no defense walls against.
Studies have shown that "EMFs disturb immune function through stimulation of various allergic and inflammatory responses, as well as effects on tissue repair processes," and that "such disturbances increase the risks for various diseases, including cancer."
Source: Manhattan Neighbors
People with certain chronic conditions, such as Lyme disease, can be more sensitive to and be more affected by EMFs as they already suffer from a weak immune system and can experience an increase in inflammation due to EMF exposure. Prolonged exposure may further damage the immune system and even slow down recovery.
In fact, there has been a cumulative list of certain chronic symptoms that are being associated with EMF exposure, and there's even a name attributed to this condition.
Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS)
Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS) is a real condition defined by the World Health Organization as "a phenomenon where individuals experience adverse health effects while using or being in the vicinity of devices emanating electric, magnetic or electromagnetic fields (EMFs)".
Source: Dr. Jay Davidson
Symptoms include nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness, rashes, skin irritation, headaches, fogginess and more when patients are exposed to EMFs in their environment.
EHS is hard to diagnose as the symptoms are common across many other disorders, however certain countries are paying attention. For example, in Sweden, EHS is classified as a "functional impairment," and in two separate court rulings in France and Australia, disability benefits have been awarded to EHS sufferers. On the contrary, no such steps have been taken in US courts.
Why Don't Most People Know About EMF Exposure?
There are a few reasons why most people are not aware of EMF exposure.
Firstly, although there is a lot of research out there to show the adverse effects of non-ionizing EMF exposure, there's not enough to show the potential long-term effects, simply because the technology is just so new and ever-changing.
For example, first there was 2G, then came 3G and now we have 4G all under different wireless broadband networks such as CDMA, GSM, and LTE. In fact, 5G technology might even be here sooner than we realize, and is a hot topic amongst a lot of people due to its EHF (Extremely High Frequency), posing potentially serious health risks.
As USA Today puts it, for 5G to work properly "you need a direct line-of-sight – as in, you can actually see the transmitter and are pointing your phone at it – to get the best possible speeds."
Imagine how harmful and damaging these shorter frequencies could be to our bodies' own natural frequencies, but since the present research done on EMF and the health problems associated with it are not widely publicized, most people are just not aware of the possible dire consequences.
Secondly, the health effects of being around EMF such as Wi-Fi, mobile phones, microwave ovens, cordless phones, and smart meters may not be easily noticeable at first and can surface after years or even decades of exposure. This is why the use of wirelessly connected digital devices amongst young children is a serious cause for concern, as similar to smoking, only time will tell of the ill-effects.
Thirdly, all industries from telecom and broadcasting to electronics and cell phone manufacturers thrive on billions of people buying their products and services. Imagine the colossal financial ramifications if people found out the potential damage these products and services are causing.
The analogy can be compared to Big Pharma, that would rather want people sick (and make billions selling pills) than find a cure for the disease.
So, if you're concerned about EMF, the best thing you can do is to be proactive and help minimize exposure for yourself and to your family.
Below, we'll cover some simple but important tips that you can follow to limit the negative effects of EMF exposure.
Tips to protect against Non-ionizing EMF Exposure
- Turn off Wi-Fi: If you can avoid Wi-Fi, its best to use wired cables. If not, Wi-Fi should at the least be turned off at nighttime.
- Keep your phone on airplane mode: Even if your phone is sitting on your desk, it's constantly connected with the cell phone tower. Keep your phone in airplane mode and turn it on once or twice an hour to check for updates. This will also permit you to limit distractions and get a lot more work done!
- Don't carry your phone on your body: Research has shown that cell phones may be harmful and even cause cancer when kept for long periods against a part of the body. It's best not to carry your phone in your pockets, bra, etc.
- Avoid Bluetooth: Don't use a Bluetooth earpiece. Instead, make calls using speakerphone or use a wired earpiece.
- Don't sleep with your phone: Don't sleep with your phone by your head. If you use your phone alarm, switch to a battery-operated clock. It's best to put your phone on Airplane mode before heading to bed.
- Unplug appliances: If you don't use your hairdryer, blender or electric oven on a daily basis unplug them. Any appliance plugged in and switched on generates EMF, however, even when appliances are plugged in and not switched on they still generate an electrical field.
- Limit appliance use: Dry your hair naturally, warm your food on the stove, switch to a corded phone, and use a regular toothbrush — this way you can avoid a host of appliances like your hairdryer, microwave oven, cordless phone, and electric toothbrush.
Want more tips? Check out our post on EMF Dangers and discover 35 tips to protect against EMFs.
- Electromagnetic waves or EMFs are natural or man-made waves that can impact our health and well-being
- Ionizing radiation can break through molecular bonds and includes UV radiation, X-rays and Gamma rays
- Non-ionizing radiation does not break bonds but causes heat and can be seen on the electromagnetic spectrum as radio waves, microwaves and infra-red light
- Although we know how damaging ionizing radiation can be, research shows that non-ionising radiation can be equally damaging as it's all around us
- The human body has its own natural electromagnetic field which can be disrupted by artificial EMFs, leading to health issues, unbalance and disease
- EMF exposure caused by cell phones and digital and wireless devices may adversely affect your brain and cognition, immunity, sleep cycle and could be dangerous for your children
- Be proactive by taking some simple precautions to protect yourself and your family from EMF exposure