ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS AND HEALTH PT.3: HOW THE UNSEEN AFFECTS OUR CELLS
This article covers Part 3 of this review, which reviews 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 1 briefly introduces EMF and explains its importance in our lives as well as how it impacts the 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 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.
Review of Man-Made EMFs
By contrast to natural EMF, man-made EMF is a relatively new phenomenon to affect the planet with the mass introduction of electricity, electrical devices and telecommunication technologies.
Collective Exposure Effects are Unknown. While exposure to any given source is typically very small, most people are exposed to several types of man-made EMF on a daily basis. The collective effects of these exposures are still largely unknown and prove difficult to predict. The below review attempts to summarize the health effects of exposure to EMF-emitting technology, studying the specific impacts of each.
Daily Exposure is Generally Low-Grade. It is important to note that the below results highlight potential effects of these technologies at heightened intensities and that these findings should not be applied out of context. In reality, exposure occurs in small quantities to various tissues, which, while susceptible, are also working towards renewal and maintaining stability.
Extremely Low Intensity EMF (0-300Hz)
Extremely low intensity EMF falls within and exceeds the natural biological frequency range of our cells and that of the environment. Results show that extremely low intensity EMF can impact biological systems and organisms in both positive and negative ways. Some studies suggest that these very low frequencies may pose more potent non-thermal effects than that of higher levels of radiation, due to their semblance to the frequencies that pervade the body.
Nevertheless, reports generally reveal little to no effects with regard to short-term exposures and no distinct conclusions have been drawn with regard to long-term exposure. The below section summarizes currently known evidence on the potential negative effects of extremely low intensity EMF exposures at varying intensities.
Electrical Grids and Wired Devices
The electrical circuits inside homes, buildings and most electronic devices all emit extremely low-intensity EMFs in the following ranges:
- Mains, utility or power lines operate at around 50Hz-60Hz. Common household appliances and incandescent light bulbs run off frequencies in the same range.
- Cars can emit frequencies anywhere between 5Hz-2kHz, depending on the model. Most cars were shown to average 12 Hz at 80km/hr.
- Medical technology typically makes use of MF or EMF in the range of 8-60Hz.
- Electric trains and similar modes of public transport operate between 15.25-16.7Hz.
Preliminary evidence suggests that long-term exposure may promote symptoms in the following areas:
- Risk of Disease. Long-term exposure potentially increases the risk for childhood leukemia, Alzheimer’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
- Regeneration. Low Intensity EMF has been shown to reduce regenerative capacity in animals and lower stem cell function in vitro.
- Uncontrolled Tissue Growth. Experimental studies show a trend for increased cell growth and a reduced tendency for cell death or turnover.
- Inflammation. Fluctuations (both increases and decreases) in oxidative stress and inflammation levels have been observed in tissues exposed to low intensity EMF. Increases were typically observed over the course of chronic long-term exposure at varying magnetic field intensities. In several rat studies, brain tissue was shown to suffer eventual damage as a result of EMF-induced neuroinflammation.
- Bone Fractures. It may be damaging to bone cells after prolonged exposure.
- Subclinical Hypothyroidism. Shrinkage of the thyroid gland in rats, along with reductions in thyroid hormone output. After exposure stopped, the glands returned to their original size in time, however, the hormonal deficits remained.
- Reproductive Abnormality. Mixed results with regard to female reproductive function in rats. Increases and decreases in the duration of the menstrual cycle were observed, as well as abnormal follicle growth and hormonal fluctuations.
- Abortion Risk. In a meta-review, chronic exposure to frequencies over 50Hz was shown to be associated with a 1.27 times increased risk of abortion in over 57000 women of child-bearing age.
Benefits to Very Low Intensity EMF. Some types of extremely low to low frequency ranges at various intensities have been shown to improve health outcomes. Low level medical lasers, ultrasound devices and other similar devices have been successfully deployed to reduce pain, inflammation and abhorrent growth of tissues for the management of chronic symptoms. Under experimental conditions, EMF emitted in the range of 50-60Hz was shown to damage DNA in various cancer cell lines and inhibit the growth of E. Coli bacteria.
Proximity to these devices substantially enhances their exposure effects. For small appliances, the field strength drops to negligible levels a few centimeters away to a few meters away. For high-voltage power lines, substations and transformers that emit higher levels of EMF, a distance of more than 100m sees a substantial drop in field strength.
Electricity Usage. The field strength of EMF emitted by power grids and devices is amplified proportionally to their use. It was observed that exposure to EMF increases in Wintertime across Europe due to increased use of electricity, by comparison to Summer.
Low to Intermediate Intensity EMF (300Hz-30MHz)
Results examining health effects for this EMF range are mixed, with most studies reporting no adverse effects. Negative effects have been generally associated with specific devices emitting EMF in this range, as discussed below.
Energy Saving Light Bulbs
Energy saving light bulbs emit EMF in the range of 1.2-100kHz, with common types consisting of white or blue light emitting diodes (LEDs) and fluorescent light bulbs.
Most reports concerning energy saving light bulbs report no adverse effects, however, a few small studies have shed light on the following:
- Blue Light and Metabolism. The main concern regarding energy saving light bulbs is that they are known to emit light in the blue light spectrum. Most studies report that long-term exposure to blue light emitted from artificial light sources, including LEDs and fluorescent lighting, can interfere with sleep and the circadian rhythm. 
- Potentially Carcinogenic. A few results suggest that energy saving lightbulbs may promote the incidence of skin cancer, specifically cutaneous malignant melanoma.
- Promotion of Visual Symptoms. It is not advisable to stare at energy saving light bulbs as they may induce eye inflammation and promote visual problems.
- EMF Effects are Unknown. Evidence for EMF-related health effects induced by energy saving light bulbs in healthy populations is lacking. Due to the lack of research conducted on the matter, those with EMF sensitivity may wish to avoid this type of artificial lighting if they notice their symptoms increase after long exposures.
Distance Reduces Intensity. Measurements taken directly from the light source typically reach between 10 and 55% of the thermal safety exposure limit to low intensity EMF in this band, while at a distance of 20 cm away from the source, the reading drops in intensity, reaching 2-10% of the exposure limit.
Warm vs Cool Lighting. Many sources of artificial light emit white or blue light at the “cold” end of the light spectrum. These are often associated with negative effects on health. Several studies on office workers reveal that these light sources can increase symptoms of fatigue related to overworking and detract from memory recall. Lights too warm in color (red light) have been equally associated with lowering attention span, despite being associated with better health outcomes. Neutral light in the center of the spectrum most closely mimics natural lighting and has been proven to be optimal for office workers.
LCD Monitors constitute laptop, computer and television screens and tend to emit EMF between approximately 5Hz and 2kHz. Limited evidence suggests that LCD monitors may induce the following effects pertaining to health:
- Blood Platelet Inflammation. In vitro studies show that LCD monitors can increase inflammation levels in blood platelets and that antioxidants like Vitamin A may be protective post-exposure. Blood platelet inflammation can potentially promote blood clotting and has been associated with neurologic and affective disorders (e.g. bipolar disease, Alzheimer’s disease). However, it remains to be seen whether LCD monitor EMF can penetrate deep enough to pose a threat to blood platelets in humans.
- Skin Mast Cell Alterations. A few anecdotal reports suggest that sensitive individuals suffer from “screen dermatitis,” where spending too long in front of a screen causes their skin to become irritated. In a very small preliminary study, mast cells were shown to move from the lower skin compartments to the skin’s surface in response to spending either 2 or 4 hours in front of a TV or PC screen. In some of the participants, mast cell numbers were shown to be reduced and in others, they were shown to become active, as would be seen in response to injury or allergy (degranulation).
- Subclinical Hypothyroidism Risk. Similar to cellphone radiation, those who work in front of computer screens were shown to have reduced levels of T4 thyroid hormone. In the long-term, this can potentially result in hypothyroidism and has been associated with slight hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis dysfunction. The light emitted from the PC screen, in combination with other EMF (e.g. WiFi, cellphone radiation, etc) could interfere with pituitary metabolism.
Distance Reduces Intensity. The field strength is known to drop substantially with distance. It is advisable to place as much distance as possible between oneself and a monitor screen when in use in order to reduce the potential adverse impact of EMF.
LCD EMF vs Artificial Light. EMF emitted from LCD monitors should not be confused with the light source itself, which has different effects on the body (particularly the eyes). While limiting exposure to artificial (blue) light at night can help to improve circadian signaling and sleep quality, it is a separate call to make with regard to the health effects of these devices.
Cathode ray/ tube television screens fall into a different category of monitor and emit much larger levels of EMF, roughly from 2 to 400kHz. The effects of these screens are known to be more harmful than LCD monitors. The effects of cathode TVs are not discussed in this article, however, if you own one, it is advisable to trade it for a current television model for enhanced visual quality and health.
In terms of EMF output, computers can be divided into two parts: the monitor and the base where the main hardware is stored. The hardware base of the computer generates an additional EMF to the monitor (discussed above). While desktop computers contain similar components to laptops, more data is available on laptop computers, as seen below.
Laptop EMF Range. One survey reveals that various laptops produce EMF ranging between 360Hz and 18000Hz. The power supply for the laptop also generates significant EMF ranging between 100Hz and 750Hz. The magnetic field strengths of most of the laptops and power supplies tested exceeded the recommended safety limits.
Health Problems Associated with Laptops. As laptops are more compact, they give off more heat and are often stationed in close proximity to the hands and lap. Laptops are known to pose extra health concerns in comparison to desktops. If used on the lap and not on a table, laptops may promote heat in the reproductive tract (a risk factor for infertility), bad posture, vision fatigue, back pain and elevated musculoskeletal disease risk. These effects can be amplified if the power supply is in close proximity with the user.  Concerns have also been raised in the case of pregnancy, as low intensity EMF may be capable of increasing abortion risk. Hence, laptops ought to be renamed in order to discourage their use on laps or near the body.
Computer Shields Lower Exposure. People who work on computers have been documented to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which is known to include symptoms pertaining to many of the effects listed in this article. In a long-term study, symptoms of EMF sensitivity in people working on computers were reduced by making use of computer shields, either for the screen or the whole laptop. Those who used these shielding devices for 1-7 years experienced no symptoms, while those who used them for 2-3 months were shown to only suffer mild effects.
Computer shielding devices are available commercially for all parts of the computer or laptop. It is important to note that some shielding devices can store the charge and become more of a health hazard in the long run. It is advisable to opt for devices that are able to discharge after or during use. This is usually achieved through a grounding connection away from the device.
Induction stoves and cooktops heat food by creating a magnetic field that efficiently produces heat by generating an electrical current. They are known to emit EMF within the range of 20-90kHz while active, and constitute the bulk of household exposure to the intermediate frequency spectrum. The magnetic field strength of induction stoves is typically capped at 27.5uT for safety.
Induction Technology is Generally Safe. Most studies evaluating the health effects of such devices point to the fact that they are relatively safe to use under most circumstances. The EMF generated by an active hot plate is largely blocked by the pot or pan placed on top, yet may pose effects when in close proximity to the handler. If a smaller-sized utensil is used to cook food on a larger hob, some of the EMF can leak and potentially promote subtle health effects.
Pregnant Women, Children and the Elderly May Be at Risk. The main adverse effects reported in literature with regard to induction cooking tops would be interference with cardiac implants, potential brain developmental problems in children and a mild increase in the risk for fetal abnormalities in pregnant women who are exposed for long hours. Human studies testing these devices are limited and show mixed results.
Potential Adverse Effects Reported in Animal Studies. In the magnetic range of induction stoves, intermediate EMF at 20kHz has been shown to promote the following mild effects in a small number of experimental animal studies:
- Reduced lymphocyte and increased neutrophil counts in female rats after 18 and 12 months of exposure respectively (6.25uT).
- Slight increase in the predisposition for an allergic immune profile (10uT).
- Reductions in melanin and adrenocorticotropic hormone (10uT).
- Subtle increases in stillbirth rates and stunted growth rates across a variety of tissues (15uT).
- Lower levels of DNA expression in brain tissue with enhanced levels of growth factors (15uT).
- Elevated lipid peroxidation in the cerebellum, indicating increased neuroinflammation and reduced physical coordination or development (6.25uT).
Higher Magnetism May Amplify Adverse Effects. At higher magnetic intensities, intermediate EMF may potentially increase inflammation (120uT; 270uT), decrease sex hormone levels (270uT), promote pathological changes in various organs (270uT), increase sperm motility (120uT) and nerve regeneration rate (100uT), as well as mildly lower learning and memory capacity (120uT). One study revealed that an abnormally high magnetic field (3800 uT) at 20kHz upregulated the expression of NMDA receptors in the brain, which is associated with an increase in nerve firing and potentially enhanced cognition. Excessive NMDA activity is known to promote neuronal cell death.
Electronic Article Surveillance Systems
Electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems refer to the security scanners stationed at the entrances to stores and some public buildings like libraries, and at airports. They make use of EMF to scan passersby and to ensure that nothing has been stolen or that the person is not carrying any potentially dangerous materials. The antennas (scanners) installed at entrances typically send out EMF or MF signals which will interact with any nearby tags or specialized labels (receiving devices). If the tags are not disabled prior to leaving through the antennas, the alarm will sound.
EAS System Types and Wavelengths. There are a number of different systems in use, each of which make use of EMF at different frequencies (e.g. magnetism, low intensity EMF, radiofrequency and microwave systems). These commonly range between 58kHz and 8.2MHz.
Radiative Capacity of EAS Systems. A study conducted on Japanese libraries reveals that EAS systems can extend their reach into the room they are stationed in or near. A handful of results indicate that the level of EMF cashiers are exposed to is higher than the recommended safety standards for radiofrequency-based systems. The evidence pertaining to the health effects of these systems is limited.
Medical Device Interference. While there is limited data on the exposure effects of this form of EMF, medical devices such as pacemakers, implanted defibrillators and hearing aids may be susceptible to interference from EAS systems . There have been a few reports of those with cardiac implants who suffered electric shocks and arrhythmia as a result of EAS systems.
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