internet connection is impacting your health and overall wellbeing? Technological advancements such as wireless communications or devices such as smartphones, tablets, and portable computers have made our life much better. We are connected to the world in an unprecedented way and have access to incredible amounts of information. But with the proliferation of those devices and technologies that enable us to enjoy these benefits today, also comes the realisation that we have given rise of unprecedented electromagnetic pollution. This term has increasingly entered our dictionary over the last few decades and is likely to continue to be an issue of some concern as scientific literature accumulates on the impact of electromagnetic fields to our health and environment.
What are electromagnetic fields and how can they cause “pollution”?
Electromagnetic fields are a combination of invisible electric and magnetic fields of force, generated by natural phenomena like the Earth’s magnetic field but also by human activities, mainly through the use of electricity. Things like mobile phones, power lines and computer screens are examples of equipment that generates electromagnetic fields1. Some of our bodily functions also create tiny electrical currents too: nerves relay signals by transmitting electric impulses while most biochemical reactions from digestion to brain activities as well as the heart is electrically active – this is why the heart’s activity can be monitored by your doctor with the help of an electrocardiogram2.
First discovered in the 19th century when physicists noticed that electric arcs or sparks could be reproduced at a distance without a connecting wire, research in electromagnetic fields instigated the development of the first radio transmitters and all the ensuing technological developments that led to today’s wireless communication technologies2.
As of the 20th century, exposure to man-made electromagnetic fields has been steadily on the rise as anything from the generation and transmission of electricity, domestic appliances and industrial equipment, to telecommunications and broadcasting exposes us to a complex mix of weak electric and magnetic fields. As such, there is little argument that electromagnetic fields of different types and intensity are proliferating.
It is also undeniable that electromagnetic fields impact our bodies – in other words, we can measure a biological reaction to electromagnetic fields. But that does not necessarily mean that the reaction is an adverse one or one that poses a health hazard. In many cases, our body will be able to respond or adjust to the change: think for example that you are listening to music, reading a book, or playing tennis. All of these activities will produce a range of biological effects but none of them is expected to have a damaging health impact. However, our body’s capacity of compensate for changes is not limitless – there are cases where irreversible and stress the system for long periods of time may constitute a health hazard3.
In the case of electromagnetic fields, it is important to bear in mind that different types of electromagnetic fields or electromagnetic radiation are responsible for different types of phenomena. For example, high energy microwave radiation at frequencies from 300 MHz to 300 GHz can be carcinogenic but the same type of microwave radiation at lower frequencies from 100 kHz to 300 MHz has no such effect 4.
Is it a reason to worry?
There is, therefore, robust scientific evidence to suggest that above certain levels electromagnetic fields can trigger biological effects, but exposure to such levels is restricted by national and international guidelines.
The issue, however, that is currently at stake is whether long-term low level exposure can evoke damaging or adverse biological responses and influence people’s well-being. This is what would constitute electromagnetic pollution. Knowing more about this is critical as it is this kind of low level exposure that we are increasingly exposed to over longer periods of our life – indeed, for most if not all of our lives!
The potential risks of electromagnetic fields have come to the limelight following a series of worrying scientific publications in the 1990’s. Today, some experts estimate that as a result of electromagnetic pollution 3-8% of populations in developed countries experience serious electrohypersensitivity symptoms, while 35% experience only mild symptoms5. Dr. Thomas Rau, medical director of the world-renowned Paracelsus Clinic in Switzerland, argues that this type of “invisible” pollution can lead to cancer, concentration problems, ADD, tinnitus, migraines, insomnia, arrhythmia, Parkinson’s and even back pain.
This is not to suggest however that there is scientific consensus regarding the health impacts of electromagnetic fields. One of the key issues faced by scientists looking into the electromagnetic fields is the quality of existing research as a large number of studies have either very ambiguously indicated either negative or positive, or sometimes neutral, influence of electromagnetic fields. From 1980 to 2002 more than 200 epidemiological studies were published about the effects of electromagnetic fields generated by power transmission lines on human beings with about 60% indicating no negative effects of these fields and the remaining 40% reporting some smaller or greater negative effects caused4.
As a result, the World Health Organisation (WHO) convened a project to systematically evaluate available research and published the results in 2007. After examining more than 1,100 scientific publications and reports, the WHO recommended caution in terms of the existing limits of exposure to low frequency magnetic fields of 50 Hz and 60 Hz while later on in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and WHO indicated that electromagnetic fields of radio frequencies may possibly increase the risk of developing a malignant brain cancer, glioma, which is mainly associated with the use of mobile phones4.
More research is being pursued however in the face of public concern regarding electromagnetic fields and particularly the potential impacts of mobile phones and power lines, as well as impacts on more vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant women. And while the jury is still out in terms of hard evidence linking electromagnetic pollution to health hazards, it is good to be on the safe side and try and limit our exposure as much as we can!