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ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS AND HEALTH PT.4: HOW THE UNSEEN AFFECTS OUR CELLS

Mya Care Blogger 07 Dec 2022
ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS AND HEALTH PT.4: HOW THE UNSEEN AFFECTS OUR CELLS

This article covers Part 4 of this review, which 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 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 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 light bulbs to induction cookers.
  • 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.

High to Extremely High Intensity EMF (30MHz – 300GHz)

This frequency range constitutes the higher end of the non-ionizing radiation spectrum, venturing from radio wave to microwave territory. As these are some of the highest everyday frequencies known to pervade man besides those found in sunlight, a lot more scientific attention has been given to this range over the years.

Below microwaves are discussed in the context of everyday exposure, being emitted from common electronic devices such as cell phones, routers, satellites, and microwave ovens.

General Side Effects Associated with Microwave Radiation

Microwave radiation is known to impact health upon acute exposure at high intensities[1], many of which are ascribed to specific exposure types and have been listed in the following sections.

One of the little-known general side effects associated with microwave exposure would be the microwave auditory effect:

  • Microwave auditory effect. Pulsed microwaves are known to penetrate to the soft tissues of the brain, capable of increasing heat and internal pressure. This can cause stimulation of cochlear neurons in a similar fashion to hearing, inducing the perception of various sounds such as buzzing, clicking, knocking or chirping. This can also induce brain tissue damage.[2] Microwaves at 1800MHz have also been documented to alter auditory processing in the brains of rats, through reducing the response strength[3]. This suggests that microwaves are capable of promoting tinnitus, hearing loss and hearing sensitivities.

Cellular Radiation

Older mobile phone technologies (2G, 3G and 4G) operate in frequency bands between 0.7-2.7 GHz, specifically at 900MHz (transmitting mobile data) and 1800MHz (receiving mobile data). This type of EMF is often pulsed, which is known to be more damaging on average than continuous (sinusoidal) EMF waves.

Common symptoms of heavy mobile phone users include[4]:

  • Heat around the ear
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pain
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Sleep disturbance

Cancer Risk. Heavy mobile phone use is also associated with an increased risk of both acoustic neuroma and glioma tumors over the course of 10-20 years. This is attributed to the incidence of DNA damage, which may promote carcinogenic mutations in the cell. Despite these findings, this alone is not enough to cause cancer in those who use phones.[5]

Reduced Brain Activity. Cell phone use has been shown to alter brain activity through lowering activity in the right hemisphere and reducing neuronal responses in general[6].

Thyroid Hormone Disruption. Cell phone radiation has been shown to affect the thyroid more than other EMF devices due to the close proximity of the device to the gland. The main observed effect would be lowered T4 levels which have been linked with mild hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis dysfunction[7] [8]. While the levels of other thyroid hormones remained normal in most short-term studies[9], chronic T4 reductions are likely to result in hypothyroidism.

Heart Rate Variability. When a cell phone is placed near to the heart, the associated EMF may be able to mildly increase heart rate variability (i.e. fluctuations in heart rate), as indicated by a small sample of studies.[10] [11] While the results were shown to be negligible in humans, they were seen to be substantial in small animals[12]. The long-term effects on heart rate variability have yet to be tested.

Cell Phone Use in Children. Due to having a thinner skull during development, the brains of children are exposed to tenfold more cell phone radiation by comparison to that of an adult.[13] Therefore, children are more susceptible to the negative effects of mobile radiation. Other cell phone health concerns observed in children include:

  • Behavioral Problems. Heightened risk for mood disorders, behavioral problems and ADHD in children, who were exposed in utero or during their peak developmental years.
  • Neuro-Developmental Issues. Interrupted sleep, reduced cognition and an increased risk for developmental problems.

900MHz was shown to affect:

  • Male Reproductive Function. Reduces testosterone levels in male rats, which decreased the size of the seminiferous tubules and surrounding tissue in the testes.[14] Cell phone radiation is associated with lower sperm counts, less motile sperm and lower overall fertility in men who often keep their cell phones in their pockets.
  • Female Reproductive Function. Promotes cell death and disease-related inflammatory changes in the endometrium of female rats exposed over a long period of time.[15] These findings suggest that cell phone radiation may increase the risk for female reproductive disorders, including endometriosis, endometrial and ovarian cancer, as well as PCOS.
  • Brain. Promotes neurotransmitter imbalances in the brains of rats[16], induces spinal cord damage in developing rats as well as myelin sheath abnormalities[17] and blood-brain barrier disruption[18]. In a few animal studies, cell phone radiation was shown to reduce the level of available brain antioxidants, due to the excessive formation of oxidants and destruction of fats.[19] It has also been linked with DNA damage in neurons in vitro and in several animal studies[20].
  • Immune Processes. Increases inflammation in the cells of rats who were exposed for 1 hour per day over a period of 30 days.
  • Growth and Development. Potentially induces abhorrent liver growth and development in chicken embryos.[21]

1800MHz can potentially induce:

  • Cellular Stress and Deformity. Increases oxidative stress, O2 consumption, and cell structural and DNA deformities in monocytes and several other cell types, including lymphocytes, nerve cells, stem cells and sperm cells. After 20 hours of exposure, the cells were shown to have adapted, decreasing oxidative stress levels, yet not correcting the structural aberrations.[22] Cells exposed for longer periods (over 48 hrs) tended to succumb to permanent membrane damage and inhibited proliferation ability[23].
  • Cardiovascular Inflammation. Elevates biomarkers for fat-associated vascular inflammation in rabbits, who were exposed for 15 mins per day over the course of 2 weeks.
  • Micro Organ Damage. Damage to the kidneys, testes and liver as well as inflammation were observed across animal studies in response to cell phone radiation.
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalances. Has been shown to reduce or increase major neurotransmitters (including glutamate, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine) in the brains of rats.

5G

The above frequency ranges take into account cell phone radiation for 3G and 4G. 5G operates within these frequency bands and higher ones, expected to be capped at around 80 GHz. Despite the favorable technological advancement, both short and long term health effects of 5G EMF are relatively unknown[24] [25]. Experts are in two minds about the safety of 5G EMF, especially with regard to long-term exposure.[26]

In addition to sharing potential health effects induced by the lower frequency bands pertaining to cell phone radiation, preliminary evidence suggests that 5G technology may promote:

  • Skin Cancer Risk. 5G technology may have the potential to increase the risk for skin cancer in a similar way to that of UV radiation[27].
  • Neuro-Excitotoxicity. In vitro studies reveal that 5G technology can amplify nerve impulses through causing potassium to leave the cell.[28] This can technically promote sodium and calcium imbalances in the cell, leading to increased electrical activity (i.e. excitotoxicity), swelling, inflammation and eventual cell death.

WiFi

WiFi (or WLAN) refers to wireless network technology that allows WLAN-enabled devices to connect to the internet wirelessly. WLAN-enabled devices include laptops, desktops, cell phones, tablets, smart watches, some electric cars and a few smart appliances.

There are two main frequency bands within which WiFi is known to operate, which include 2.4GHz and 5GHz (not to be confused with 5G mobile technology, which operates at much higher GHz frequencies). Most of the research carried out on WiFi has focused on 2.45GHz or both WiFi bands, as summarized below.

Thermal effects are not recognized for WiFi use, unless one is right on top of the transmitting device (16-33cm).[29] More research is required to determine long-term consequences of WiFi exposure, particularly accumulative exposure as seen in malls and complexes. Experimental research over the last two decades has begun to reveal that low-grade WiFi exposure may negatively affect health in susceptible individuals. However, the results are varied[30].

Animal and in vitro studies regarding close proximity to WiFi exposure reveal the following*:

  • Stress Response. WiFi exposure can promote stress-related brain changes in a similar way to restraint stress in rats.[31] Further studies on rabbits indicate that WiFi can increase blood pressure and heart rate in line with the stress response, as well as reduce the cardiovascular action of neurotransmitters.[32]
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalance. WiFi range EMF promoted neurotransmitter imbalances in the brains of rats, specifically through lowering the activity of stimulatory neurotransmitters.
  • DNA Damage has been found in the testes of rats as a result of continuous WiFi exposure over the course of a year.[33]
  • Pancreatic Lesions.  This condition was found following an exposure of 3 hours per day for 30 days in rats.[34]
  • Increased Inflammation. Rats exposed to low-intensity WiFi for 2 hours per day for 35 days were shown to have a significant increase in oxidized fat particles than non-exposed counterparts[35]. Excessive lipid peroxidation is associated with cardiovascular inflammation and metabolic diseases, indicating that WiFi may enhance symptoms in susceptible individuals.
  • Natal Insufficiency. Pregnant rats exposed to either WiFi or cellular radiation exhibited reductions in hormones, including estrogen, progesterone and prolactin, suggestive of fetal developmental disruptions and breast milk deficits.[36] Other studies reveal that WiFi exposure in utero may disrupt neurological development in rat offspring and increase markers of neuroinflammation.[37]
  • Mild Thymus Atrophy. In the thymus glands of female rats, WiFi EMF increased the growth of weak, permeable blood vessels, increased levels of biomarkers associated with over-heating and elevations in biochemical stress markers.[38]
  • Teeth Mineral Density. Bone mineral imbalances were observed in the teeth of developing rats exposed to 2 hours of WiFi per day. Copper, zinc and boron levels were decreased while iron and strontium increased, suggestive of inflammation in the teeth.[39]
  • Leydig Cell Reductions. WiFi frequency bands reduced the number of Leydig cells which are required for producing most of the circulating testosterone in men and sperm cells.[40]
  • Calcium Influx and Cell Death. WiFi promotes calcium accumulation through modulating membrane calcium channel receptors (present on a large variety of cells). This is able to induce swelling and cell death (apoptosis) in both ordinary and cancerous cells.[41]

*NOTE: Interpret this data with caution. Most of these results reflect more intense exposures than the average person would ever experience and in test subjects much smaller than humans. The studies suggest that intensive exposure may be potentially damaging, providing a context that encourages more research to be undertaken on the effects of long-term and accumulative exposures to WiFi fields.

Human studies indicate that WiFi gives rise to many of the same results as cell phone radiation:

  • Male Infertility. Men who are exposed to WiFi for 4 hours or more per day were shown to have reduced sperm counts, sperm motility and overall fertility.[42] The outcome was substantially improved in men who used wired internet connections for the same duration per day.
  • Gender-Based Changes to Neural Activity. Women exposed to WiFi or cell phone radiation were found to experience substantial reductions in neuronal excitability by comparison to men. In the case of males, neurological activity increased slightly, but the results were negligible.[43]

Microwave Ovens

Microwave ovens radiate food at frequencies between 915MHz - 2.45GHz. Unlike Wifi, the concentration of the field at this wavelength is much greater, involving the use of a magnetron in order to enhance the effect. The microwaves generated increase the spin of the water particles of food or beverages placed inside the oven, causing them to rapidly heat.

Like other EMF-based devices, safety standards are aimed at testing short-term thermal effects and there are no true conclusions regarding long-term exposure effects.

Door Microwave Leakage. Most microwave ovens comprise a faraday cage to contain the radiation they produce. Despite this precaution, radiation is known to escape the microwave oven while in use, even with the door closed, and this can potentially radiate those nearby. Escaped emissions are far less focused than those permeating the food inside.[44] The degree of radiation leakage varies across microwave ovens, yet exposure is unlikely to exceed safety limits.[45] [46]

Microwave Ovens Add to WiFi Intensity. Preliminary data has shown that the use of a microwave oven inside a WiFi field was shown to temporarily increase the intensity of the WiFi field by 91-109%[47]. This suggests that microwave radiation can contribute towards potential adverse effects of other EMF in similar frequency bands.

Effect on Food. There is limited research regarding whether microwave radiation remains behind in food after heating, however, calculations suggest that it rapidly dissipates before one can open the door to retrieve the contents from the oven.

For a small variety of foods, digestibility is decreased as a result of microwaving, particularly those with very complex proteins such as rice and wheat gluten[48]. Some studies show that fats become more oxidized after microwave cooking than conventional cooking, which increases the risk for rancidity and promotes inflammation post-consumption.

For most other nutrients, microwave cooking is comparable to other cooking methods, provided the exposure is brief and of very short duration. Longer microwave exposures are known to harshly degrade some nutrients (e.g. proanthocyanidins) as compared to other cooking methods and this can increase the inflammatory potential of the food.[49]

Other Devices Operating within Similar Frequency Bands

Other devices operating at similar higher intensity EM frequencies include the following:

  • Baby monitors 40MHz, 446MHz, 865MHz and 2.45GHz
  • Smart meters 900-1900MHz or 2.4GHz
  • Cordless phones 1880-1900MHz
  • Bluetooth devices 2.45GHz
  • Medical equipment, e.g. high intensity medical lasers 2.45GHz
  • Radar 30MHz – 300GHz

These may pose effects similar to the ones listed above due to their technological similarities and potential for pulsed EMF emission.

Is Artificial EMF Safe? EMF Exposure Limits and Safety

Thermally Safe. The official consensus on EMF exposure safety limits far exceed known exposure limits, therefore EMF technologies have been approved as safe for general use. [50]

Realistically Undecided. Unfortunately, the majority of the data on EMF support safety for short-term exposures, under constant conditions and largely focus on merely the thermal effects of EMF. Research regarding EMF safety is still being carried out in the following areas:

  1. Long-term exposure effects of EMF with special regard to constantly evolving EMF technologies.
  2. The effects of different types of EMF wavelength, such as pulsed, continuous, square, or triangular waves
  3. Effects of all types of EMF at varying magnetic field strengths
  4. Accumulative effects of EMF of all types and durations

Preliminary evidence reveals that the long-term outcome of EMF accumulation from unique sources and types is difficult to predict; tending to be either non-favorable or neutral. Thus, true safety margins have not been defined yet. Current guidelines are discussed briefly below.

EMF Exposure Duration

Short-Term Exposures are Safer. Most studies reviewing the safety of EMF take into account short-term exposure and exposure to only one type of EMF. In this respect, the majority of people are exposed to levels of EMF well within safety limits. Furthermore, the effects of short-term exposure are known to disappear the moment one is no longer exposed. These observations do not consider accumulative exposures in the short term.

Long-Term Exposures are Potentially Deleterious. Despite these findings, further research has indicated that EMF-induced effects have a potential for accumulation, particularly over long periods of exposure. The longer one is exposed and the higher the EMF intensity, the more negative the outcome. Over long periods of time, the accumulative damage of EMFs does not go away when exposure stops and is seen to become increasingly more difficult to reverse.

Relative Surface Areas of EMF Exposure

Thermogenesis (heat generation) is the most studied side effect of EMF exposure, in general. If extensive, heat in the skin can be easily distributed to the internal compartments of the body. [51] The testes and developing fetus may be at an increased risk for overheating due to EMF exposure. Other factors can increase or decrease the rate of EMF-induced thermogenesis (see below).

Surface Area. With regard to thermal effects of EMF, lower frequencies have larger wavelengths and can cover a broader surface area than higher frequencies, which have smaller wavelengths and cover a lesser surface area.

Low Intensity EMF. Electrical grids, cables, vehicles, artificial light sources and devices emitting low frequency EMF will emit larger wavelengths and cover a broader surface area. However, the heat generated from these devices are often greatly dispersed, which lowers the danger of overheating. The field strength dwindles substantially with short distances from these technologies as well, reducing their capacity for inducing non-thermal related effects. Thus, limiting contact with these devices can be an effective strategy for minimizing any potential harm.

Artificial light may be an exception in this category, as the light itself serves as an additional type of high-intensity EMF emitted by the device. Artificial light is known to contain higher proportions of blue light by comparison to natural light, which can lead to ocular inflammation that may increase through the course of time and exposure.

High Intensity EMF. Cell phones, WiFi, bluetooth, satellites, microwaves and devices that operate within similar higher frequency bands target smaller surface areas. The heat generated and field strength does not diminish as rapidly with distance, as seen with devices operating at lower frequency bands. Furthermore, these devices make use of pulsed waves, which amplify their impact. Often their safety potential is subject to circumstances, such as their position in the building (often relative to a transmitting device, such as a cellular network mast tower, router or satellite), the frequency of their use and the proximity of the individual to them.

One can apply these principles to various forms of technology in order to minimize exposure (see ‘tips for living healthy with EMF’ later on).

Factors that Influence the Effects of EMF

The effects of EMF differ depending on the individual and the environment. Below several factors are briefly discussed that may exacerbate the effects of EMF:

Physical Factors:

  • Elevated core temperature, as a result of a fever or other cause for overheating, can serve to increase the thermal effects of EMF.
  • Metabolism, energy balance and redox (antioxidant) status can increase or decrease the effects EMF poses to the individual. This suggests that those with inflammatory diseases may be more prone to the effects of EMF than other population groups.
  • Age. Most of the research on EMF safety has revealed that children are the most sensitive group[52], due to having thinner skulls that absorb more radiation and undergoing phases of rapid growth and development.
  • Those with Cardiac Implants may find they have difficulty with several EMF-emitting devices, particularly when in close proximity and when harboring an older generation implant. Newer cardiac implant technology is designed to be more resistant to EMF interference.

Environmental Factors:

  • Heat in the environment can contribute towards increasing the thermal effects of EMF.
  • High humidity, ambient water content and thin cloud cover can serve to temporarily scatter and disperse ambient EMF if in close contact, which may enhance side effects in those exposed to such environments.
  • Metallic Objects or Structures have the ability to reflect EMF, which may be protective or may intensify the side effects.
  • Pollutants including heavy metal ions[53] [54], pesticides[55], flame retardants and other environmental toxins may magnify the effects induced by EMF through two means:
    1. Directly (if charged) through absorption (when ingested) or reflection (when present in the environment)
    2. Indirectly through negatively affecting metabolism[56]

EMF Hypersensitivity and Related Health Conditions

“Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity” (EHS) is a condition characterized by a series of non-specific symptoms attributed to EMF overexposure and/or lower tolerance to EMF. Despite being well-documented since the 50s[57] [58], no consensus has yet been reached over the underlying cause and therefore it is not yet recognized as an official diagnosis.

EHS Epidemiology reveals that it has a prevalence across various countries from between 1.5% (Sweden) to 13.3% (Taiwan)[59]. It is estimated to have a global average prevalence of 1-3%.

Symptoms Are Non-Specific. The symptoms typically vary in their manifestation and intensity. The World Health Organization has proposed that EHS be renamed as “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI) with attribution to EMF.” IEI is a condition without a known etiology, presumed to be triggered by unknown environmental factors.[60]

Symptoms include:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced concentration span
  • Dizziness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Redness, burning or tingling of the skin, particularly the face
  • Nausea and digestive issues
  • Emotional instability
  • Heart palpitations and related abnormalities
  • Pain in muscles and joints
  • Sensitivity to light

Potential Causes. While EHS is causally linked with EMF, there are currently three theories on underlying symptom manifestation. These include[61]:

  1. EMF overexposure
  2. Negative psychological association with EMF harmfulness, inducing nocebo symptoms
  3. Lowered tolerance to EMF as a result of a pre-existing inflammatory condition

No single theory accurately accounts for EHS in its entirety.  The cause is likely to be unique to the individual and could also be a composite of the above theories.

Risk Factors. As EHS is a poorly defined health condition, data regarding potential risk factors is scarce. A few possible risk factors that have been outlined include:

  • EMF. Overexposure to EMF, either over a long period of time or during one intensive exposure, can serve as a risk factor for EHS. Occupational exposure is known to command the highest level of risk, applying to electrical workers, those operating industrial equipment, radio operators, telecommunications and large scale computer network mechanics, and power plant workers.[62]
  • Disease. There is a wide variety of health conditions associated with the occurrence of EHS, including chronic fatigue, anxiety disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, depression, somatic syndrome and migraine. In addition to these, genetic and inflammatory biomarkers of EHS overlap with a few other conditions, such as demyelination diseases[63], neurodegenerative disorders, depression and neuropsychiatric diseases[64], inflammatory diseases, musculoskeletal complaints, skin conditions, moderate allergy[65] and multiple chemical sensitivity[66].
  • Photosensitizing Medication. Those taking photosensitizing medications or with skin conditions that make them sensitive to light (xeroderma pigmentosum) may be more sensitive to the effects of EMF as well as contracting EHS.
  • Other. Middle age, female gender and poor health perception have all been linked with EHS and may increase one’s risk[67].

This article series is to be continued in part 5.

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