A look into what electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, are and how they could potentially affect our health.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, chances are you’ve spent more time in Zoom calls than ever before. Your phone and computer emit what’s called EMF, classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by a group working under the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But what does this mean and should we be worried?

What is EMF?

Without going into the excruciating detail like my two astrophysicist roommates did when I asked them this question, EMF stands for Electromagnetic Field, which is composed of two separate but related fields: magnetic and electric. Anything that runs on electricity creates an electromagnetic field around it when it’s turned on, from your phone to your lamp and even your microwave. This is because magnetic fields are caused by electric charges moving in a current, for example through a wire, while electric fields are created by the potential ability for charges to move

Electric and Electromagnetic Fields

An electric current will create a magnetic field while electric fields are created by the ability for electricity to flow. COURTESY OF SINTEF.

What is EMF pollution?

There are 5 types of pollution: air, water, soil, noise and radiation. Electromagnetic fields are considered radiation pollution, but no need to break out the hazmat suit yet. Radiation simply refers to energy radiating from a source. There are two types of radiation pollution: ionizing and non-ionizing. High frequency EMFs, like those found in cancer therapy or other medical applications, are ionizing. Low frequency EMFs, like those in our computer, power lines and even WiFi are non-ionizing.

Electromagnetic Spectrum

The Electromagnetic Spectrum. COURTESY OF NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE

What are the health effects of EMF pollution?

It is known that chronic exposure to ionizing radiation can cause DNA damage, however this is not a problem for most people. Short term exposure to high levels of non-ionizing radiation pollution can cause discomfort such as headaches or trouble sleeping, but the effects of chronic exposure are not completely clear. While some studies have reported that children who live closer to power lines, in a daily long-term EMF exposure of 0.4 μT or higher, are 2 times more at risk to develop childhood leukemia, less than 1% of children in the study experienced that level of exposure. It is recognized by the World Health Organization and the National Cancer Institute that these studies are not sound enough to conclude a link between EMF exposure and cancer. Even if the findings were completely accurate, EMF pollution would only contribute to 0.20-4.95% of the total cases of childhood leukemia per year

What is a “safe” amount of EMF pollution?

In 2009 a panel of scientists met in Seletun, Norway to recommend a .1μT chronic daily exposure limit to EMF to safely avoid levels suspected to cause cancer. However, as with many other environmental laws, it is difficult to enact the precautionary principle to pass as legislation. Most legislation enacts what’s called the Kehoe Principle, which assumes a pollutant is safe until proven otherwise. Extensive research is required to prove the pollutant is harmful to human health. Therefore, creating regulations around EMF levels can be a challenge where there is not solid evidence for the harms EMF causes. As a result, in the U.S. there are no federal limits to EMF exposure.

What can you do to limit EMF exposure?

The average EMF reading in homes in North America is about .11μT, so chances are you are within safe exposure limits. As with anything, too much is bad for you so it’s important to limit your exposure to reasonable levels, especially with the long term effects of low frequency EMF unconfirmed. Products like these laptop barriers, wifi router boxes and even bracelets claim to protect the users from EMF pollution. However, with no previous data on detrimental health effects, there is no need to barricade your house with lead and oust technology, just ensure you make a concerted effort to go outside and enjoy nature…without your cellphone and microwaved food.