How to Minimize Your Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields

November 4th, 2009

Electromagnetic RadiationThe tremendous amount of electromagnetic radiation produced by modern technology has been associated with many health concerns. Although it’s impossible to completely avoid this radiation, there are fortunately a number of precautions that you can take to minimize your exposure.

Because electromagnetic radiation is such a complicated subject, one of the biggest challenges is simply understanding what it is. Once you have a basic understanding of electromagnetic fields and the radiation that they produce, it’s much easier to identify the different forms, appreciate the dangers that they pose, and understand what can be done to reduce your risk.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Electromagnetic fields are the combination of an electric field and a magnetic field and are created by electrical current. The electromagnetic radiation produced by modern technology is the energy that is generated by such fields. The following table lists the different ranges of electromagnetic radiation along with some of their common sources.

Frequency Range Type Common Sources
3 Hz – 3 KHz Extremely Low Frequency Power lines, appliances, electronics
3 KHz – 300 MHz Radio Waves AM/FM radio, television broadcasting, CB radios
300 MHz – 300 GHz Microwaves Cell phones, wireless internet, satellite broadcasting, microwave ovens, radar, medical imaging
300 GHz – 300 THz Infrared radiation Lasers, alarm systems, motion detectors
300 THz – 30 PHz Ultraviolet radiation Fluorescent and incandescent lights
300 THz – 30 PHz X-rays X-ray medical imaging
30 PHz – 30 EHz Gamma rays Nuclear material

The Thermal and Ionizing Effects of Electromagnetic Radiation

The electromagnetic radiation with the highest frequencies and shortest wavelengths tend to contain the most energy and be the most dangerous. X-rays and gamma rays are considered to be ionizing radiation because they have enough energy to detach electrons from atoms and turn them into ions. This can cause permanent damage at the cellular level including genetic mutation and cancer.

Although radio waves and microwaves aren’t ionizing, they can have thermal effects that causes tissue to overheat and become damaged. This is how microwave ovens cook food and is one of the primary reasons why there’s such concern over the safety of cell phone usage.

It’s well known that thermal and ionizing effects of high frequency electromagnetic radiation are dangerous. However, the health effects of lower frequency radiation, often referred to as biological effects, are a much more controversial issue that isn’t getting the attention or respect that it deserves despite a significant amount of convincing evidence.

Because the body is reliant on the earth’s natural electromagnetic field and its own subtle electrical currents, it’s very sensitive to electromagnetic fields. As such, the radiation produced by modern technology can interfere with human biological function even at frequencies that are much lower than the thermal and ionizing ranges.

How to Measure Electromagnetic Radiation

Since you typically can’t see or feel electromagnetic fields, they can be very difficult to detect which is one of the many reasons why electromagnetic radiation is so unsettling.

For important situations such as choosing a new home or office, the most reliable option is to hire an experienced electrical engineer to take measurements for you. They will be much more likely to have the expertise and advanced equipment necessary to make an accurate assessment. For situations that are less critical, you can buy your own meter at an affordable price. I have the TriField Electromagnetic Field Meter which measures electric fields, magnetic fields, and radiation in the radio and microwave ranges.

If you’d rather not spend money on a meter, you can use a portable battery operated AM radio to detect electric fields, but it’s obviously not as precise and won’t detect magnetic fields. You can set the radio to a station that receives no signal and turn the volume up. When the radio encounters an electric field, which is generally also a good indication of a magnetic field, you’ll hear noise. Although this won’t give you a clear indication of how strong the field is, it will at least let you know that it exists.

Units of Measurement

Measurements of low frequency electromagnetic radiation are usually based on magnetic field strength. Based on a conservative evaluation of existing research, most experts who are concerned about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation recommend 1 milligauss or less as a desirable reading. However, some research has shown unfavorable results even at this level. Some urban areas have ambient fields of 3 milligauss or higher. Even though this is regarded as safe by some standards, many experts suggest doing as much as possible to reduce exposure to lower levels.

The higher frequencies of electromagnetic radiation are measured by power density instead of magnetic field strength. Although different frequencies of radio and microwave radiation can have varying effects, a power density of 1 milliwatt per centimeter squared is generally considered safe in the United States. However, many experts believe that this is too much. The standard in Russia is 100 times more protective at 1 microwatt per centimeter squared, and undesirable health effects have even been found at levels below this.

Electrical Power Lines and Residential Wiring

One of the most common sources of low frequency electromagnetic radiation is power lines. Depending on which country you live in, the electrical current that flows through power lines alternates at a frequency of 50 or 60 Hertz which produces electromagnetic radiation at the same frequency. Some power lines operate at very high voltages with a significant amount of current running through them, and if your house or office is close enough to them, you may be continuously exposed to potentially dangerous levels of electromagnetic radiation. A considerable amount of research has linked cancer and a number of other health concerns with the electromagnetic radiation produced by power lines which has made them the subject of numerous lawsuits regarding health issues and real estate devaluation.

The electrical wiring in homes and offices is also a concern. Wiring can still produce electromagnetic fields even without anything being plugged into it’s outlets. Incorrect wiring, which is usually more common in older homes and buildings, is especially problematic because it can produce much stronger electromagnetic fields.

If the measurements throughout hour home or office are consistently elevated, chances are that it’s coming from power lines or faulty wiring. Although it might be a large and potentially costly project, faulty wiring can be fixed relatively easily. Ambient electromagnetic fields from power lines, however, can only be avoided by relocating to a different area or taking action against the utility company. Because of the difficulty and inconvenience associated with either course of action, it’s important to properly assess a home or office for electromagnetic radiation exposure prior to moving in.

Electronics and Appliances

Electromagnetic fields from electronic devices and appliances are one of the most common sources of radiation in homes and offices. As such, it’s important to measure the magnetic fields produced by all of the commonly used electronics and appliances in your home and office. By doing so, you can identify which items present the most risk and the distance at which their radiation drops to a safe level. It’s even a good idea to measure electronics and appliances when they’re shut off because they can still produce electromagnetic fields as long as they’re plugged in. Microwave ovens are notorious for this.

The items that were found to produce potentially dangerous electromagnetic fields should either be replaced or used as infrequently as possible. I recently replaced a computer monitor that produced a magnetic field of 100 milligauss at 3 feet away. This is 100 times the recommended level of 1 milligauss, and I spent a considerable amount of time in front of this monitor. Fortunately, the newer flat screen monitors produce a much weaker magnetic field that’s undetectable at 3 feet away which is about how far you should aim to have your monitor from your face.

When using electrical equipment or appliances, especially when first turning them on, you can reduce your exposure to their electromagnetic fields by standing as far away from them as possible. It’s also a good idea to stay out of the kitchen when using the oven or dishwasher, or to at least avoid standing directly in front of them. If you use a hair dryer, try to hold it as far away from your head as possible, and if you use an electric razor, consider switching to a regular razor.

Here are the ranges of magnetic field measurements provided by the Environmental Protection Agency for a number common electrical devices and appliances. For most of these items, I included measurements taken in my home. All measurements are in milligauss.

Source Range 6″ 1′ 2′ 4′
 
Hair Dryer low 1 - - -
median 300 - - -
high 700 70 10 1
home > 100 75 9 -
 
Electric Razor low 4 - - -
median 100 20 - -
high 600 100 10 1
home 10 3 - -
 
Blender low 30 5 - -
median 70 10 2 -
high 100 20 3 -
home > 100 > 100 30 1
 
Dishwasher low 10 6 2 -
median 20 10 4 -
high 100 30 7 1
home 75 10 6 -
 
Garbage Disposal low 60 8 1 -
median 80 10 2 -
high 100 20 3 -
home 75 50 17 1
 
Microwave Oven low 100 1 1 -
median 200 40 10 2
high 300 200 30 20
home > 100 > 100 > 100 25
 
Electric Oven low 4 1 - -
median 9 4 - -
high 20 5 1 -
home 9 4 2 -
 
Toaster low 5 - - -
median 10 3 - -
high 20 7 - -
home > 100 75 10 -
 
Refrigerator low - - - -
median 2 2 1 -
high 40 20 10 10
home - - - -
 
Iron low 6 1 - -
median 8 1 - -
high 20 3 - -
home 50 12 2 -
 
Vacuum Cleaner low 100 20 4 -
median 300 60 10 1
high 700 200 50 10
home > 100 > 100 75 3
 
Television low - - - -
median 7 2 - -
high 20 8 4 -
home 6 2 1 -
 
Alarm Clock low - - - -
median 1 - - -
high 8 2 1 -
home 1 < 1 < 1 - -
home 2 8 2 1 -
 
Power Drill low 100 20 3 -
median 150 30 4 -
high 200 40 6 -
home > 100 > 100 > 100 5
 
Power Saw low 50 9 1 -
median 200 40 5 -
high 1000 300 40 4
home > 100 > 100 > 100 15

Communication Towers and Antennas

In addition to the ambient electromagnetic fields produced by power lines, we are constantly exposed to an ever increasing amount of radio and microwave radiation from communication towers and antennas. This includes signals for radio, television, and satellite broadcasting, cell phones, military radar and communication, air traffic control, and local police and fire department communication.

Like power lines, communication towers and antennas have been the subject of numerous lawsuits and the cause of real estate devaluation. However, this is where the similarities end. Radio and microwave radiation covers a much larger spectrum and is produced by a variety of sources in a number of different forms. Less research has been done on the health effects of radio and microwave radiation, there is very little regulation, and the entire subject is surrounded by a lot of controversy. Some of the research that does exist has linked radio and microwave radiation to cataracts, reproductive issues, sleeping disorders, headaches, anxiety, impaired mental function, impaired lung function, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and multiple forms of cancer.

As with power lines, there’s not much that can be done to reduce exposure to the electromagnetic radiation produced by local communication towers and antennas. As such, it’s best to be aware of their presence prior to moving into a new home or office and to do everything you can to prevent new installations.

Cell Phones, Cordless Phones, and Wireless Internet

Because these technologies are convenient and have become a ubiquitous part of modern life, many people are resistant to the possibility that the radio and microwave radiation they produce is a legitimate health risk. The radiation produced by cell phones can produce both thermal and non thermal effects and is recognized by many experts as a cancer risk. The advent of high speed networks has resulted in more people using the internet through their phones which has significantly increased the amount of ambient electromagnetic radiation and also puts such users at more risk.

To minimize your exposure to cell phone radiation, use speakerphone or a wired headset, avoid using bluetooth headsets, don’t allow your conversations to be any longer than necessary, minimize your use of data features, and keep your phone turned off as often as possible, especially when carrying it close to your body. By following these suggestions, you may even be able to reduce your bill and enjoy fewer interruptions. For more information on cell phone radiation, including the radiation ratings of most phone models, visit the Environmental Working Group’s Cell Phone Radiation Guide.

Cordless phones and wireless internet routers are also a concern because of the amount of electromagnetic radiation that they continuously produce. In fact, they typically produce more radiation than cell phones. To minimize your exposure, use regular corded telephones and wired internet connections. If you insist on using wireless devices, at least use a timer to keep them turned off while you sleep.

Keep in mind that the radiation produced by these devices is similar in concept to second hand cigarette smoke. Your usage can affect the people around you, and your cordless phones and wireless routers can even affect your neighbors.

Medical Imaging Equipment

Medical imaging is another significant source of electromagnetic radiation that doesn’t get the attention or respect that it deserves. Although it’s fairly common knowledge that x-rays are harmful and that they should be taken as infrequently as possible, there are also concerns about other types of imaging such as MRI, CAT scan, ultrasound, and mammography. Although these technologies are extremely helpful for diagnosing medical conditions, they also produce a significant amount of radiation, and some experts believe that they’re used far too frequently. In fact, Dr. Robert Becker believes that medical facilities are pressured into recommending the use of these devices to help pay for their high cost. He also believes that many doctors abuse them as screening tools when they should really be used to confirm strong suspicions of a specific diagnosis.

The Most Important Place and Time to Reduce Exposure

Quality sleep is one of the most important aspects of good health. Exposure to electromagnetic radiation while you sleep can impair your body’s ability to repair itself and fight illness. In addition to following good sleep habits, it’s important to minimize the electromagnetic fields surrounding your bed as much as possible.

Many people sleep with an alarm clock close to their head and their bed close to electrical outlets. In addition, some people use electric blankets or sleep on water beds that are electrically heated. These are both continuous sources of strong electromagnetic fields that are present throughout the entire night. To minimize your exposure while you sleep, keep your alarm clock away from your head, power it with batteries instead of plugging it in, shut off the circuit that feeds the outlets near your bed, and if you sleep on a water bed or use an electric blanket, turn them off before getting into bed.

Ley lines and underground rivers can also interfere with your sleep by altering the earth’s natural electromagnetic field. If your sleep isn’t as restorative as you’d like and you feel that you’ve done everything you can to improve it, try moving your bed to a different part of the room. Alternatively, before you decide to rearrange your bedroom, you can try sleeping in a different room to see if you notice a difference.

Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?

The tremendous amount of electromagnetic radiation that we’re exposed to today can be very unsettling, but it does more harm than good to stress over it. What’s important is that you do your best to minimize your risk in the most practical ways possible. Although it might take some effort to do so, there’s no reason to be anxious about it.

To assess your level of exposure, use a device like the TriField Electromagnetic Field Meter to take your own measurements, or hire a professional to do it for you. For each source of electromagnetic radiation that you’re exposed to, including those that can’t be measured, assess your level of risk and decide if the exposure is justified by the benefits that it offers. For example, it’s probably not worthwhile to chat unnecessarily on a cell phone or have an excessive number of ultrasounds during pregnancy, but in other situations, the same technologies can save lives. Likewise, you might not be able to reduce your exposure beyond a certain point without moving to a new home or office.

For a better understanding of electromagnetic radiation and how to minimize your exposure, I highly recommend reading Electromagnetic Fields by B. Blake Levitt and Cross Currents by Robert Becker MD.

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