EMF: Pollution You Don't See or Smell

May 16, 2012 | HWN Team | Heads or Tails
EMF: Pollution You Don't See or Smell

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From the great outdoors to our workplace and even our homes, we are surrounded by EMF. Is long-term EMF exposure hazardous to our health?

There is pollution and there is pollution. There's the kind that we see (rubbish) and smell (air pollution) and hear (noise pollution). Then, there is electromagnetic fields (EMF), the invisible, inaudible pollution that our senses cannot detect. There was a time when EMF pollution was simply dismissed as a figment of overactive imaginations or just another product of conspiracy theories. Now it is an established fact that EMF exists.

Mobile phones, from handsets to base stations and transmission towers are always thought to be the culprits of EMF pollution. There are more than 4 billion mobile phones worldwide. Although it is true that these are a big source of EMF, they are by no means the only ones...all electrical appliances emit EMF – and not only the TV set and computer. Quite useful gadgets like microwave ovens and dishwashers and even the seemingly innocuous ones like computers, toasters and baby monitors emit their share of EMF too. They all work 24/7, a round-the clock source of EMF. And refrigerators are the biggest consumer of electricity among household appliances. And, now we even have to contend with the power companies' "smart meters'.1

Even, the great outdoors does not spare us from EMF. Besides earth's electromagnetic fields and radiation from the sun, the ubiquitous power lines and towers also emit EMF, which can vary depending on the voltage and the distance. And what about the trains, trams, and electric buses many of us use every day?

What's EMF?

EMF is a field of energy created by electrically charged objects. An electromagnetic field has two "components", a magnetic component and an electric component. The electric field is produced by stationary charges and the magnetic field by moving charges (currents). Electromagnetic fields are also often referred to as "Electromagnetic Radiation" (EMR). You can't see, feel or hear electromagnetic fields, apart from visible light, which is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum.2-4

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

How prevalent is it at home and at the workplace?

EMF is measured as magnetic flux density in Tesla units (T) or V/m. The accepted guideline limit for EMF exposure is 100microT or 5000 V/m. Typical electric field strengths measured near household appliances at a distance of 30 cm from the Federal Office for Radiation Safety, Germany 1999 and reported by the WHO:5

Electric appliance Electric field strength (V/m)
Stereo receiver 180
Iron 120
Refrigerator 120
Mixer 100
Toaster 80
Hair dryer 80
Colour TV 60
Coffee machine 60
Vacuum cleaner 50
Electric oven 8
Light bulb 5
.Exposure at the workplace from EMF Watch:6


Equipment/Appliance 15cm/6" 30cm/1' 60cm/2' 1.2m/4'
Air conditioner 3 1 0 0
Computer monitor (CRT) 14 5 2 0
Computer monitor (LCD flat) 1 0 0 0
Computer (desktop) 3 1 0 0
Computer (laptop) 5 1 0 0
Fax machine 6 0 0 0
Flourescent Light 40 6 2 0
Coffee maker 7 0 0 0
Printer (desktop) 3 1 0 0
Printer/copier (large/office) 90 20 7 1

Other jobs also expose workers to other levels of EMF (in mG)

Power drill 150 30 4 0
Power saw 200 40 5 0
Power supply (UPS) 90 25 3 1

Doctors and healthcare personnel are often exposed to EMF and radiation levels which could be higher than exposure of a non-medical professional. Other people who are exposed to high levels of EMF in the workplace are those who work in military installations, telecommunications and transportation systems and deal with radar, sonar and other forms of transmitters on a daily basis.

So, what are the most commonly reported effects of EMF?

When we think of exposure to radiation, we visualize something horribly gruesome and painful as portrayed in films. But when we get exposed to low doses of EMF, the effect is very subtle in that we don't feel it at all. However, heating can be a discernible effect, as demonstrated by how a microwave oven functions or how a radio can warm up with continuous use.

Low-frequency EMFs induce circulating currents within the human body. The strength of these currents depends on the intensity of the outside magnetic field. If sufficiently large, these currents could cause stimulation of nerves and muscles or affect other biological processes.

Headaches, migraines, and dizziness are commonly reported symptoms of EMF exposure. Other complaints include sleeping problems and disorientation. These symptoms are attributed to  electromagnetic hypersensitivity.7,8

Is long-term EMF exposure hazardous to our health?

We all know not to stand under power poles or in front of the microwave. But there is a great divide when it comes to answering this question and it depends who you are listening to. Government and international agencies such as WHO contend that current EMF exposure levels for the general population pose no long term health risk.

The reference most cited to support this claim is the Federal Office for Radiation Safety in Germany survey conducted in 1999 involving 2000 individuals across a range of occupations and public exposures.  "The measured exposure varied widely but gave an average daily exposure of 0.10 µT. This value is a thousand times lower than the standard limit of 100 µT for the public and 200 times lower than the 500 µT exposure limit for workers. Furthermore, the exposure of people living in the centres of cities showed that there are no drastic differences in exposure between life in rural areas and life in the city. Even the exposure of people living in the vicinity of high voltage power lines differs very little from the average exposure in the population."

But bear in mind that this data is old and may be flawed.  As an example an electric shaver is quite harmless with an EMF strength 0.08 to 9microT at 30 cm, but at 3 cm, EMF exposure can increase up to 15 to 1500microT.

There are indicators that there may be significant health care risks from long-term EMF exposure:

According to the EPA:  In 1998, an expert working group, organized by the National Institute of Health's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), assessed the health effects of exposure to extremely low frequency EMF, the type found in homes near power lines. Based on studies about the incidence of childhood leukemia involving a large number of households, NIEHS found that power line magnetic fields are a possible cause of cancer. The working group also concluded that the results of EMF animal, cellular, and mechanistic (process) studies do not confirm or refute the finding of the human studies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO) reached a similar conclusion.

The Bio Initiative Working Group in 2007 consisting of scientists, researchers and public health policy professionals issued the Bio Initiative Report which questions the current safety limits for EMF. Specifically, the Bio Initiative Group believes the current thresholds are not sufficiently low to protect the public from the health hazards of EMF: "Today's public exposure limits for telecommunications are based on the presumption that heating of tissue (for RF) or induced electric currents in the body (for ELF) are the only concerns when living organisms are exposed to RF. However, in the last few decades, it has been established beyond any reasonable doubt that bioeffects and some adverse health effects occur at far lower levels of RF and ELF exposure where no heating (or induced currents) occurs at all; some effects are shown to occur at several hundred thousand times below the existing public safety limits where heating is an impossibility".9

The Bio Initiative Group also looked at evidence from published and unpublished data on links between EMF exposure and many types of disease, including immune disorders, stress response, neurological and behavioural problems and different types of cancer, including blood and childhood cancers, brain tumors and breast cancer. Several papers also reported on the effects of long-term EMF exposure on reproduction. Birth defects and reduced fertility have been reported among crew of a Norwegian torpedo boast who worked with radar.10,11

In 2009, The EU's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) to the European Commission reported: "Based on current evidence, the main conclusions remain that radio frequency fields used in wireless communication technologies are unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in the human population at large. However, further studies are needed to clarify if long-term exposure to mobile phones (well beyond ten years) increases cancer risk for an individual using a mobile phone frequently and to examine the effects on children".12

Alright, who is watching out for us?

In the U.S. for wireless technology (including mobile phones, wireless networks, TV, computer screens), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), together with the  FDA monitors and controls EMF exposure of consumers. However, there seems to be no agency policing power lines despite the possible cancer risk. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are no federal standards limiting occupational or residential exposure to power line EMF.  In Europe, it's the European Environmental Agency which recently released EMF risks from everyday devices and in Canada it's Health Canada.13

Independent watchdogs have been making their voices heard over the years including Powerwatch, EM Watch and The Environmental Working Group (EWG) which actively advocates for consumer safety for all consumer products, including those emitting EMF. It has published a comprehensive report on phone radiation exposure and even ranked phone safety according to the amount of EMF emission.14-16

We can't just depend on regulatory agencies and watchdogs to protect us. What can we do to minimize EMF exposure?

Estimate personal exposure

Using the EM Watch estimates of EMF emission, we can actually calculate our personal exposure and see how far below/above are we in relation the limits. EM Watch has proposed an "EMF" budget for LEFs only: A constant ELF/VLF exposure of 1.0 milligauss is generally regarded as safe. That would be equivalent to 24 milligauss/hours (1.0x24) per day.

Minimize exposure

The most logical solution to EMF pollution is to avoid exposure. But can we do without the appliances and modern amenities that are the very source of EMF pollution. EM Watch gives some practical advice:17 Keep distance. Reduce your exposure to electromagnetic radiation by increasing your distance. Keep it short. If you can't avoid the EMF exposure, try to keep it short. Turn it off. If it doesn't need to be turned on, switch it off.

The EPA recommends the following :

For TV and computer screens:  limit the time spent around your TV or computer screen and increase the distance between you and the radiation source. The FDA advises sitting a distance of at least two to three feet from the screen. For telephones: reduce the number/length of calls and use "hands-free" devices. And, keep in mind, there is data to show that cordless phones significantly emit more EMF than your mobile phone.

Protective devices

The usual products vary and include electronic devices such as electronic chips, diodes or even software to be installed in your computer, shields for your EMF emitting devices. There's even esoteric trinkets like health stones and jewelry! One such example is the Q-link which supposed "protects you from physical, mental, and environmental (EMF) stress." It comes in all sorts of models – as pendant, bracelet and even as a flash USB drive.18 

But, do they really work? Currently, as far as cloaking or protective devices go, it is not easy to tell the real thing from the sham and scientists remain skeptical about many of these products.  According to EWG, so-called radiation shields such as antenna caps or keypad covers are of no use because they "reduce the connection quality and force the phone to transmit at a higher power with higher radiation." On the other hand,  home modulation systems may be of some value, but do your homework.19

The Bottom Line

EMF is here to stay and it's becoming even more prevalent with the advent of 'smart meters'. Currently, there is still no definitive evidence showing that long-term exposure to EMF is or is not hazardous to our health. But by the time the evidence is clear, it may be too late for many of us.

The best option is to reduce exposure by minimizing use and keeping your distance. When it comes to protective devices, home modulation systems are worth looking into. At the very least, consider tossing out your cordless phones. Or better yet go live in a cave, although even in there, radon may still get you.


  1. U.S. Household Electricity Report, Energy Information Administration, July 14, 2005
  2. A basic guide to EMFs, Powerwatch
  3. Electromagnetic fields (EMF), World Health Organization (WHO)
  4. The Electromagnetic Spectrum, Nasa.gov
  5. What are electromagnetic fields? Typical exposure levels at home and in the environment, WHO
  6. Sample EMF Values (mG) for ELF/VLF sources, EMF Safety and Health, EM Watch
  7. Hutter HP, Moshammer H, Wallner P, Kundi M, Subjective symptoms, sleeping problems, and cognitive performance in subjects living near mobile phone base stations, Occup Environ Med2006;63:307-313 doi:10.1136/oem.2005.020784
  8. Preece AW, Georgiou AG, Dunn EJ, Farrow SC, Health response of two communities to military antennae in Cyprus, Occup Environ Med2007;64:402-408 doi:10.1136/oem.2006.028894
  9. BioInitiative Report: A Rationale for a Biologically-based Public Exposure Standard for Electromagnetic Fields (ELF and RF), Bioinitiative, 2007
  10. Mjøen G, Saetre DO, Lie RT, Tynes T, Blaasaas KG, Hannevik M, Irgens LM, Paternal occupational exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields and risk of adverse pregnancy outcome, Eur J Epidemiol 21:529-535, 20 February 2006
  11. Mageroy N, Mollerlokken OJ, Riise T, Koeford V, Moen BE, A higher risk of congenital anomalies in the offspring of personnel who served aboard a Norwegian missile torpedo boat, Occup Environ Med2006;63:92-97 doi:10.1136/oem.2005.021113
  12. Electromagnetic field emissions addressed by EU standards, Enterprise and Industry, European Commission, 25/06/09
  13. Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMF) Radiation from Power Lines, RadTown USA, U.S. EPA
  14. Powerwatch
  15. EMF Safety and Health, EM Watch
  16. Cell Phone Radiation Science Review, EWG's Guide to safer cell phone use, Environmental Working Group
  17. EMF Protection and Safety, EM Watch
  18. EMF-Health.com. Advanced EMF Protection Solutions to the Dangers of Electropollution
  19. EWG's Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use, Environmental Working Group

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