ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS AND HEALTH PT.1: HOW THE UNSEEN AFFECTS OUR CELLS
When thinking about the world we live in, we mostly refer to the physically tangible universe before us. In truth, this only accounts for a small fraction of the reality as a whole. What we can physically access lies within a small band of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum that is interpreted by the body to produce our shared experience of the world.
Over the last century or so, scientists have managed to create advanced technology that works through generating EM fields (EMFs) from some of the unseen frequencies in the EM spectrum. While this has dramatically improved our standards of living, the effects of EMF on health have not been fully mapped out. As EMF may elicit beneficial, adverse or neutral effects in living cells, it is important to know the limitations of this technology that we have come to depend upon daily.
The following article series attempts to review what is known of EMF in the context of health, discussing some of the most common exposures and their impact on well-being.
This article covers Part 1 of this review, which briefly introduces EMF and explains its importance in our lives and how it impacts our body. General health effects of EMF are also discussed in light of their potential underlying mechanisms.
- Part 2 describes the fundamental differences between natural and man-made EMF, before proceeding to discuss the effects of common natural EMF exposures on health.
- Part 3 begins to review the effects of everyday man-made EMF exposures in the context of health. Effects of EMF at the lowest end of the spectrum are discussed in this section, covering a broad range of common exposures from lightbulbs to induction cookers.
- Part 4 explores high to extremely high intensity EMF exposures, summarizing the potential risks related to cell phones, WiFi and more. Additionally, the safety of man-made EMF is discussed, alongside electromagnetic hypersensitivity (also known as microwave sickness).
- Part 5 concludes the series with tips on how we can best integrate man-made EMF into our lives while minimizing the potential risk of adverse effects.
What is EMF and Why is it Important?
EMF stands for electromagnetic field and refers to any form of radiation within the electro-magnetic frequency spectrum. This includes wavelengths such as radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, and light.
Voltage Produces an EMF. Magnetism is generated as a result of voltage, also known as the movement of electrons over a potential difference in an electrical current. This collectively produces an EMF. Despite many years of dedicated research, this process is still not entirely understood.
EMFs Can Affect Voltage. Just as any electrical current generates an EMF, a magnetic field that interacts with an electrical current can change the movement of electrons by affecting its EMF. In this respect, environmental EMFs can potentially affect the flow of electrons in both artificial and living systems.
EMFs are Everywhere. EMFs are not only man-made phenomena and can be seen wherever there are moving particles with a charge. This constitutes a large portion (if not all) of the known universe. Every atom is technically able to generate a minute EMF due to the movement of electrons around the atom’s nucleus.
Well-known EMFs include those generated by the Sun (e.g. cosmic radiation, solar flares, light), Earth (e.g. Earth’s magnetic field, lightning and thunder), and telecommunications equipment (e.g. cellphone networks, WiFi, radio, etc). In recent decades, it has come to light that every living cell generates an EMF due to the constant movement of charged particles in and around the cell. This, therefore, extends to all living organisms on the planet. Some animals are thought to make sense of environmental EMF fluctuations for navigation, such as bees, fish and migratory birds.
Human Health and EMFs. The human body also has an EMF of its own, with neurons perhaps generating EMFs with the highest magnitudes. It is not known whether the body’s EMF has an influence on the environment in turn. Current data reveals that our bodies respond to electromagnetic fluctuations in the environment, yet the effects of such interactions and the degree to which we are susceptible are still being investigated.
In the modern digital era, everyone on the planet is being permeated with a much higher degree of electromagnetic radiation than ever seen before. As the cells in our bodies make use of electrical potentials to function, EMFs have been receiving more scientific attention over the last couple of decades with regard to their effects on health.
Role of EMFs in Cellular Function
While neurons are perhaps the most famous of our cells for conducting electricity, electrical currents are present throughout all cell types as a core component of cellular function. The movement of charged ions occurs across cell membranes as well as the membranes of internal structures, such as the mitochondria. In this way, cellular EMF is generated.
Cellular EMF is present at extremely low frequencies typically under 60Hz, and falls into the category of extremely low intensity EMF. External EMF as low as 1Hz can alter the bio-electrical currents of cells, yet how it does and to what degree depends on the EMF source. EMF-based devices are also used to assess the movement and amplitude of electrical currents in the body, as well as to beneficially improve cellular performance.
Examples of EMF output by cell type:
- Muscle cells emit EMF between 5-30Hz for postural coordination during standing, while <10Hz is observed during walking.
- Bone cells operate at frequencies between 15-30Hz.
- Neurons usually fluctuate between 1-60Hz, however brain activity can reach up to 100Hz. Inhibitory GABAergic neurons oscillate at frequencies close to 0.1Hz, indicative of reduced brain activity.
4 main functions of cellular electricity include:
- Osmosis, nutrient transport and regulation. Ions maintain the movement of fluids in and out of the cell, as well as certain nutrients across the membrane through activating cell wall receptors.
- Metabolism. Energy generated inside the mitochondria follows an electron transport chain that guides the process of metabolism. The rate of electron flow can affect mitochondrial metabolism through either increasing or lowering oxidative stress, which signals to the cell at large and regulates overall metabolism. Fluctuations in overall cellular electricity and EMF also indicate shifts in metabolism. In general, the higher the frequency produced by the cell, the higher the metabolic output.
- Cell migration, regeneration and tissue modeling. Bio-electrical currents play an integral role in wound healing, tissue growth and development. Tissues are known to develop in a certain direction and shape in accordance with the current running through the cell membrane. Changing the current is known to alter the shape of the tissue. The same applies to tissues undergoing regeneration, in which stem cells proliferate in the direction of the current flowing through neighboring cells. 
- Stabilizing Heartbeat. Cells of the heart tissue are known to beat in sync due to the electrical currents passing through the tissue. During experimental models of heart attack, it has been shown that heart cells can contract independently of one another and beat out of sync.
Types of EMF
EMF can be classified under the following categories:
- Ionizing Radiation refers to any EMF radiation with a very high level of energy, higher than that of visible light. Able to pass through air, water and living tissues, this form of EMF is harmful and serves to damage matter by removing electrons from any matter it encounters. X-rays, gamma rays and nuclear radiation are examples of ionizing radiation. This type of radiation is not covered in great depth in this review.
- Non-Ionizing Radiation exudes less energy than ionizing radiation, having less than that of visible light. It is not known to cause direct damage to the matter it makes contact with, however, many forms of non-ionizing radiation are associated with low-grade adverse health effects. This is the main form of EMF that will be discussed below. Examples include radio waves, microwaves and infrared radiation.
Non-Ionizing EMF at Different Intensities
As a form of radiation, EMF is measured in wavelengths and frequency, in Hertz.
- Hertz (Hz) refers to the frequency or number of wavelength cycles that pass by a given point per second. The shorter the wavelength of the EMF, the greater its Hertz measurement will be.
EMF is divided into different brackets in accordance with the frequency strength, which typically covers a variety of intensities ranging from extremely low to extremely high.
Wavelength Type. EMF wavelengths are present in a variety of forms, with each type having a unique oscillation shape. While square, triangular and other waveforms exist, the two most frequently encountered ones are sinusoidal (continuous) and pulsed (non-continuous) waves. Artificial EMF mainly consists of pulsed EMF, whereas natural EMF comprises both types. With regard to continuous exposure to low frequency EMF, sinusoidal wavelengths have been shown to evoke weaker effects due to cellular adaptation over several hours. Pulsed EMFs at the same intensities proved to have a stronger effect, theoretically due to the way in which they interfere with the cells inherent electrical pulses.
Magnetic Intensity. As a component of EMF, magnetism at various intensities can also alter the environmental effects of EMF. Magnetic field strength is measured in Teslas (T), which measures the force of the current between two points within the magnetic field.The Earth’s magnetic field averages between 25-65 uT. Most studies examine EMF under magnetic conditions in which the field strength averages between 1-5uT. Most of the artificial magnetic fields we are exposed to are less than 1uT, however, for transformers and large scale electrical grids, the strength can reach up to 4uT. Magnetic field strength will not be discussed within the scope of the below review.
General EMF Health Effects
Regardless of the source, EMF of all kinds can induce the following adverse effects:
- Thermogenesis is the main effect produced by all EMF types. Overheating can promote dehydration, excessive inflammation, tissue damage, pain and can even be potentially fatal. The higher the degree of EMF one is exposed to and the longer one is exposed, the more pronounced the rise in body temperature. Most non-ionizing radiation protection guidelines are aimed at limiting an increase in body temperature to prevent overheating.
- Tumor Promotion. Higher intensity EMF has been shown to be carcinogenic and capable of inducing cellular and DNA damage. An elevated risk of head and neck cancers was the most common result of EMF exposure. In the last couple of decades, research has questioned the safety of chronic exposure to lower intensity EMF. It is now known to increase the risk of tumor formation and is classified as a possible carcinogen. In light of these findings, it may be that chronic low-intensity EMF can be as damaging as acute exposure to high-intensity EMF, however, it may take a much longer time to cause the same adverse outcome.
- Other Effects. EMF can also induce a host of non-specific symptoms, such as tingling in the nerves, flickering lights in one’s vision and occasionally, auditory interference (e.g. knocking, buzzing, clicking or chirping). 
Beneficial Biological EMF Range. Despite negative health effects, EMF ranges that overlap with the frequencies at which our cells operate may be beneficial for our health. This is highlighted in preliminary studies. EMF between 6-25 Hz was shown to inhibit the growth of three cancer cell lines while not affecting normal cell growth. Cancer cells exposed to this frequency range suffered from excessive calcium uptake and cell death, which did not occur in ordinary cells.
Medical Applications of EMF. Several medical technologies incorporate EMF to mediate their beneficial effects. These include ultrasound devices, x-ray technology, MRI scanners, low- and high-grade medical lasers and UV lights. Uses of these devices include diagnostics, surgical enhancement, pain relief, cosmetic treatments and disinfection. Like other EMF sources, these often increase heat production on surfaces (UV light) or in tissues (laser technology), or work through reading shifts in the radiative or electromagnetic properties of matter (e.g. x-ray, MRI).
Underlying EMF Mechanisms: Changes to Cellular Bio-Electricity
Most of the major effects induced by both artificial and natural EMF sources are related to the way in which EMF affects the bio-electricity of the cell. On the surface of all cells reside thousands of receptors that allow particles to enter or leave, in response to various stimuli. All cell membranes contain voltage-gated ion receptors, which mediate the flow of bio-electricity in and out of the cell in the form of charged ions. This movement is governed by electrolytes, of which calcium (Ca2+) is the most predominant.
EMF at all frequency bands (whether natural, man-made, ionizing or non-ionizing) has been shown to modulate the action of calcium channel receptors, increasing the movement of charged calcium and therefore voltage into the cell. In experimental studies, increases in intracellular calcium have been indirectly linked with other deleterious effects induced by EMF (as discussed throughout this review). These include :
- Overheating and dehydration
- Excessive oxidative stress and resultant inflammation
- DNA damage
- Calcium overload, excessive neuronal-excitability and cell death
- Progressive infertility and hormonal decline
- Potentially increased cancer risk and risk of other diseases
More research is required before these findings can be fully confirmed and to what degree EMF affects the ionic-electric currents moving in and out of cells. The current data available on EMF at different bands suggests that there are note-worthy differences between the types of EMF, the effects of which are discussed in part 2 of this article series.
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