An electromagnetic field can be likened to an invisible energy web (shaped somewhat like the contour lines on a topographical map) produced by electricity that, in turn, creates a magnetic field. While EMFs are part of nature and in fact are radiated by the human body and its individual organs, the quality and intensity (called respectively frequency and gauss field strength) of the energy forming this contoured web can either support or destroy health. As a general rule, EMFs generated by technological devices tend to be much more harmful than naturally occurring EMFs.
Researchers once thought EMFs, especially very low frequency and extremely low frequency EMFs, were safe because they were of such low strength compared to other forms of radiation, such as those from a nuclear reactor or X rays. But now, as technology proliferates and people are using more electronic devices, some researchers suspect EMFs are contributing to a subtle assault on people's immune systems and overall health.
Electromagnetic changes in the environment can adversely affect the energy balance of the human organism and contribute to disease. We are surrounded by stress-producing electromagnetic fields generated by the electrical wiring in homes and offices, televisions, computers and video terminals, microwave ovens, overhead lights, power lines, and the hundreds of motors that can generate higher than normal gauss strengths (magnetic energy measuring unit). EMFs interact with living systems, affecting enzymes related to growth regulation, pineal gland metabolism (regulation of the sleep hormone, melatonin), and cell division and multiplication.
In 1979, Nancy Wertheimer, Ph.D., and Ed Leeper, Ph.D., epidemiologists at the University of Colorado, found that children who had been exposed to high-voltage lines in their early childhood had a two to three times higher than normal risk of developing cancer, especially leukemia.3 That was the first study to establish the direct link between EMFs and cancer. In 1987, a large-scale study conducted by the New York State Department of Health confirmed Dr. Wertheimer's findings and added that the EMFs from the high-voltage power lines also affected the neurohormones of the brain.4 Since then, various studies have linked electromagnetic fields to increased incidence of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, headaches, sexual dysfunction, and blood disorders -- the latter including a 50% increase in white blood count.5
At the same time, however, some researchers and medical professionals see promise in using very low currents of electromagnetic radiation to heal the body instead of harm it. Dr. Becker discovered that a small electrode implanted inside the body next to an unhealed bone fracture could speed healing.6 Becker also has explored the possibilities for using electrical current to heal other conditions, including cancer, but cautions that more work needs to be done to establish solid scientific evidence.7 Other medical professionals, such as physical therapists, acupuncturists, physicians, and chiropractors, use various kinds of devices, such as the TENS (transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation) unit or electro-acupuncture machine, that send a very small electromagnetic current into an injured part of the body, usually to reduce pain.
The EMFs, because they are on the weak end of the radiation scale, are categorized as non-ionizing radiation. That means the fields are not of sufficient energy to change atoms into charged particles called ions. Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, such as that generated by nuclear bombs or X rays, is strong enough to change the atoms into ions. No one who has seen the aftermath of a bomb explosion, or read reports about the health problems suffered by neighbors of Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant after its 1979 accident, needs to be convinced that ionizing radiation is harmful.
As to X rays, Dr. John W Gofman, a noted physician and researcher in the field of radiation, has calculated that even relatively minor exposures increase the cancer risk.8 Gofman has estimated that one million people could be spared death from cancer if medical and dental X-ray radiation doses were lowered. But as to the potential for harm from non-ionizing radiation, such as EMFs, emitted by your toaster or hair dryer, the rules and guidelines are still being established.
Sources of EMFs
The greatest concern about EMFs is not from a one-time use of a hair dryer or an hour in front of a computer, but from cumulative exposures: hour after hour, day after day, continuous high levels of EMFs. For example, people who travel extensively in airplanes can have high exposure rates, up to 85 milligauss in the airplane cabin. The EMF exposure from hair dryers, heaters, electric shavers, and other appliances can be injurious to health over time. Food mixers, hair dryers, and vacuum cleaners emit EMFs that are 30 to 100 times greater than the suggested safe limit.10 Ordinary household appliances tend to generate larger cumulative EMF exposures than power lines. The reason is proximity: most people do not live close enough to power lines to be greatly affected by their EMFs, but the situation is different with kitchen appliances, computers, cellular phones, televisions, even electrical outlets if they're located behind the head of a bed. Although the EMFs from appliances drop off at a distance of about 16 feet, people often stand or sit closer than this to the source of EMFs -- typically 18 inches from computers, a few feet from televisions, and almost no distance from cellular phones.11
A unique type of EMF exposure is from electric blankets, which give you close-up exposure at high levels (50-100 milligauss) all night long. According to noted brain researcher Russel J. Reiter, Ph.D., electric blankets are dangerous because they expose the whole body to EMFs, they are close to the body, and they are thought to lower melatonin levels. Because electric blankets are used at night, when the pineal gland is producing its highest amount of melatonin, they have the greatest chance of disrupting melatonin production and sleep.12
Melatonin is the hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the center of the brain. Melatonin does the pineal gland's work of controlling sleeping and waking cycle and regulating the body's internal time clock, or circadian rhythm. The pineal gland adjusts its melatonin output based primarily on the body's exposure to light, although many other factors, including EMFs, can influence melatonin production.
Another concentrated source of EMFs is the fuse box where the electric power line branches off from the neighborhood utility pole to your house. That fuse box -- which connects the outside line with the inside wiring -- generates large amounts of EMFs on a continual basis. EMFs are able to penetrate through normal building walls, but they decrease in force dramatically as you move further away from the generating source. Another potential EMF source is the wiring in your home. Older wiring sometimes generates high amounts of EMFs at the electrical outlets where you plug in your appliances. Check the outlets with a gauss meter and, if necessary, either install new wiring or have a professional reconfigure the existing wiring pattern.
Outside the home, electric power lines can also be a major EMF source. Some scientists allege that exposure to electric and magnetic fields generated by electric power lines is reponsible for certain cancers, reproductive dysfunction, birth defects, neurological disorders, and Alzheimer's disease. Some activist groups believe the hazard to be so great that they are calling for closure of schools and other public facilities near power lines and restructuring of the entire electric power delivery system.13 Dr. Becker says we are constantly exposed to a background level of EMFs generated by the electric power delivery system. In urban areas, this so-called ambient field level, which is inside and outside the home, could exceed three milligauss. In the suburbs, the ambient field ranges from 1-3 milligauss. Dr. Wertheimer and others said in their studies on power lines that constant surrounding levels of three milligauss or more were significantly related to increases in the risk of childhood cancer. Dr. Becker advocates one milligauss as a safe limit for continuous exposure to 60-hertz fields (the usual kind generated by electric power systems).14
The Dark Side of Technology
by Herbert Ross, D.C.
and Keri Brenner, L.Ac.
with Burton Goldberg
Continued from Part I
Electromagnetic Fields and Sleep Disorders
Researchers suspect artificial EMFs cause sleep problems in a number of ways. First, the fields have a higher rate of oscillation (vibrate at a higher number of cycles) and strength than the natural electromagnetic energy fields of the body at rest. In addition, EMFs can disrupt the body's production of melatonin, a hormone that controls the body's sleep-wake cycle.
High Oscillation Rate Disrupts Sleep
The frequency at which an EMF is pulsed determines whether or not it is harmful. For example, the voltage of the electric current used in homes in the United States is 60 Hz (cycles per second). In contrast, the ideal frequencies of the human brain during waking hours range from 8 Hz to 20 Hz, while in sleep the frequencies may drop to as low as 2 Hz. The higher frequencies of EMFs generated by artificial electrical currents may disturb the brain's natural resonant frequencies and, in time, lead to cellular fatigue, according to John Zimmerman, Ph.D., president of the Bio-Electro Magnetics Institute in Utah.15
While common household electric currents oscillate at a rate of 50-60 Hz, this is slow compared to an FM radio station broadcast that comes to you on waves that oscillate at 100 million times per second, or 100 megahertz. Generally, the higher the frequency of the wave, the more energy it has and also the more potential it carries for damage.
But even 60-Hz EMFs are vibrating much faster than the human body's brain wave patterns at rest, says acupuncturist M.M. van Benschoten, O.M.D., based in Reseda, California. For example, if you have an electric clock radio on your bedside nightstand, it is generating 60-Hz EMFs probably not more than a foot or two from your head. This is a problem because your brain waves in deep sleep oscillate at 2-4 cycles per second (2-4 Hz), Dr. van Benschoten says. The EMFs from the clock radio could interfere with the rest pattern and prevent you from falling asleep or from staying in deep sleep. Dr. van Benschoten recommends removing all electric appliances from the bedroom or from close proximity to the bed.
Equally as important as the oscillation frequency of the EMFs are their strength. The strength of EMFs are measured in units called gauss. Most common appliances, which are very low frequency or extremely low frequency EMFs, are measured in units of milligauss, or one thousandth of a gauss. The milligauss level decreases as your distance increases from the appliance or device. For instance, an electric fan has an EMF at four inches of up to 900 milligauss; at three feet, it is only 5-20 milligauss. A computer monitor has an EMF measuring up to 600 milligauss at a four-inch distance; at one foot, it is only 3-30 milligauss. A microwave oven has an EMF of 40-90 milligauss at one foot; at three feet, it drops to 3-5 milligauss.16
EMFs Can Disrupt Melatonin Production
One of the main reasons why medical professionals and others are concerned about EMF exposure levels is a growing body of research showing EMFs have a negative impact on melatonin production in the body. EMFs from household sources are so small that the electrical currents they induce in the human body are actually weaker than those induced by electrical activity in nerve and muscle cells. Yet even these low-frequency EMFs can alter gene expression, the activity of enzymes involved in growth regulation, calcium balance in the cell, and the brain's metabolism of the hormone melatonin.17
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, was once thought to be unimportant. However, in recent years, researchers have found that it is present in every cell of the body and is essential in regulating the body's clock, or circadian rhythm, the mechanism that controls our sleep-wake cycles.
The pineal gland registers the amount of light in our surroundings, and if it finds no light, it increases the melatonin level, signalling it is time to go to sleep. If light is present, the melatonin production decreases and we feel more awake. Thus, restoring and maintaining adequate amounts of melatonin is crucial for people with sleep disorders.
Other factors besides light decrease our melatonin supply, including aging, certain prescription drugs, stress, poor nutrition, and EMFs.
In addition to regulating sleep, researchers are discovering that adequate melatonin stores improve body immunity, have anti-cancer and anti-aging properties, can relieve depression, and may boost sexual function. Those types of health conditions are the same ones that researchers say can be hurt by EMF overexposure. The connection between melatonin and EMFs appears to be getting more solid evidence. A team of researchers in 1996, for example, found that blood melatonin levels in female rats decreased after exposure to 50-Hz magnetic fields, about the same frequency as most household appliances. Many similar studies on melatonin are now underway.18
At the same time, not being exposed to naturally occurring EMFs can have a
negative impact on health, for they function as a kind of energy nutrient.
Kyoichi Nakagawa, M.D., director of the Isuzu Hospital in Tokyo, Japan, observes
that the amount of time people now spend in buildings and cars (tightly enclosed
spaces) reduces their exposure to the geomagnetic field of the earth and may
interfere with their health. Dr. Nakagawa calls this condition "magnetic
field deficiency syndrome", noting it can cause headaches, dizziness,
muscle stiffness, chest pain, insomnia, constipation, and general fatigue
The Dark Side of Technology
by Herbert Ross, D.C.
and Keri Brenner, L.Ac.
with Burton Goldberg
REFERENCES for Electromagnetic Fields article:
3. N. Wertheimer and E. Leeper. "Electrical Wiring Configurations and Childhood Cancer." American Journal of Epidemiology 109 (1979), 273-284.
4. J. Wolpay. Biological Effects of Power Line Fields (New York: New York State Power Lines Project, Scientific Advisory Panel, 1987).
5. Lita Lee, Ph.D. Radiation Protection Manual (Redwood City, CA: Grassroots Network, 1990), 34.
6. Robert 0. Becker, M.D., and Gary Selden. The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life (New York: William Morrow and Sons, 1985).
7. Robert 0. Becker, M.D. Cross Currents: The Perils of Electropollution, The Promise of Electromedicine (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990), 160-166
8. John W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D. Radiation and Human Health (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981, 1983).
9. Robert 0. Becker, M.D., and Gary Selden. The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life (New York: William Morrow and Sons, 1985).
10. R. Edwards. "Leak Links Power Lines to Cancer." New Scientist 4 (October 7, 1995), 4.
11. C. Ezzell. "Power-Line Static. Debates Rage Over the Possible Hazards of Electromagnetic Fields." Science News 140 (September 1991), 202-203.
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13. D. Wartenberg. "EMFs: Cutting Through the Controversy." Public Health Reports 111:3 (May/June 1996), 204-217.
14. Robert 0. Becker, M.D. Cross Currents: The Perils of Electropollution, The Promise of Electromedicine (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990), 270.
15. Burton Goldberg Group. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide (Tiburon, CA: Future Medicine Publishing, 1993), 332.
16. Russel J. Reiter, Ph.D., and Jo Robinson. Melatonin: Your Body's Natural Wonder Drug (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), 178.
17. B. Holmberg. "Magnetic Fields and Cancer: Animal and Cellular EvidenceAn Overview." Environmental Health Perspectives 2:Suppl (1995), 63-67. See also: C. Decker. "ELF-Zapped Genes Speed DNA Transcription." Science News (April 14, 1990), 229.
18. M. Mevissen, A. Lerchl, and W. Loscher. "Study on Pineal Function and DMBA-Induced Breast Cancer Formation in Rats During Exposure to a 100mG, 50Hz Magnetic Field." Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 48 (1996), 169-185.