Non-Ionizing Radiation and Health

For several decades, we have all heard about electro-smog and the potential health hazards of electromagnetic pollution. Though electric companies have spent untold millions trying to prove that electromagnetic fields do no harm to humans, controversy still exists. Electromagnetic waves are a type of non-ionizing radiation, or a type of low-frequency radiation lacking the power to break off electrons from their orbits around atoms and ionize (charge) the atoms. In other words, non-ionizing radiation has enough energy to move around atoms in a molecule or cause them to vibrate, but not enough to remove electrons. Microwaves, radio waves, radar, and radiation produced by electrical transmission are examples of non-ionizing radiation sources. By contrast, far ultraviolet light, X-rays, gamma-rays, and all particle radiation from radioactive decay are regarded as ionizing. There has been an ongoing debate, dividing science in two opposite fields: one side denying any appreciable carcinogenic effect of non-ionizing radiation; the other side hypothesizing their effects in many types of carcinogenesis and degenerative disease. More evidence from around the world continues to suggest that chronic, low-level exposure to non-ionizing radiation from extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF-EMF) and radiofrequency/microwave (RF) sources may increase the risk of cancer in children and adults. Studies in human populations include exposure to RF from cellular and cordless phone use and exposure to ELF-EMF from the transmission and distribution of electrical power.1 Measurements of ELF-EMF are performed to characterize emissions from sources and exposure of persons or experimental subjects. The strength of the electric field is measured in units of volts per meter (V/m). The strength of the magnetic field is measured in units of amperes per meter (A/m) but is usually expressed in terms of the magnetic flux density measured in units of tesla (T) or microtesla (μT). Another unit which is commonly used to measure the magnetic field is the gauss (G) or milligauss (mG), where 1 G is equivalent to 10⁻⁴ T (or 1 mG = 0.1 μT). Background magnetic fields in the home are usually around 0.1 µT. Background electric fields in the home can be up to 20 V/m. Near some appliances, the instantaneous magnetic field values can be as much as a few hundred microtesla and the electric field several hundred volts per meter. At ground level, directly below powerlines, magnetic fields reach as much as 20 µT and electric fields can be between several hundred and several thousand of volts per meter (~100 V/m - ~10 kV/m). The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (INCIRP) has set limits of 1 mT (millitesla) for occupational exposure to ELF-EMF, and 200 μT for public exposure. While these limits are not breached by individual man-made sources, cumulative effects over time should be considered. Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) EMF Working Group have classified EMF exposures as possible human carcinogens based on the scientific literature related to EMF and childhood leukemia.2 The California Department of Health Services in 2002 found that EMF increases the risk of adult brain tumors.3 It remains unclear how ELF-EMF may harm the body or potentiate cancer. A 2008 Chinese study, however, suggests that genetic variability in DNA repair mechanisms may increase some children’s susceptibility to leukemia when chronically exposed to ELF-EMF during prenatal development.4 Two comprehensive meta-analyses using different pooling techniques reached the same conclusion: high and prolonged average levels of ELF-EMF exposure were linked with elevated risk of childhood leukemia.5,6 These studies defined high levels as above 4 milligauss, which are very rare and affect less than 1% of children. In the laboratory, EMF has been shown to increase mammary tumors in animals and in vitro systems in which human breast cell tumors are grown in culture. Interestingly, effects in rodents are found in some strains of animals, but not others, indicating that subtle differences in genetic background might make some animals more susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of EMF.7 In an in vitro study, EMF exposure to breast cancer cells (MCF-7) led to an activation of genes that have been associated with the induction of metastasis in breast cancer cells.8 An occupational study implicated EMFs in an increased risk for breast cancer among female radio and telegraph operators exposed to radiofrequency and ELF-EMF. Premenopausal women showed an increased risk of estrogen-receptor positive tumors, while post-menopausal women had an increased risk of estrogen-receptor negative tumors.9 Other research has shown increased mortality from breast cancer in women employed in the telephone industry10, with premenopausal women at higher risk than post-menopausal women.11 Studies of residential and occupational EMF exposure found a 60 percent increase in breast cancer risk among women of all ages living near high-voltage power lines. Occupational exposure also increases the risk of cancer, but not as noticeably as residential exposure. Women younger than 50 exposed to EMF both at home and at work had a modest increase in risk of breast cancer.12, 13 Numerous studies have shown that men who work in electrical occupations have an elevated risk of breast cancer, even though the disease is rare among men.14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 Although several studies point to a connection between EMF exposure and male breast cancer, two large meta-analyses have concluded that there is no clear relationship between EMF exposures and breast cancer in women.20, 21 Cell Phones and Cell Towers There are currently over four billion cellular telephones in the world today, and the towers and antennas that transmit their signals have intensified the radiofrequency/microwave radiation (RF) environment more than any other single device. Exposure to RF is, for most of us, a part of daily life. The exponential growth of wireless technologies has increased the ambient levels of RF exposure ten-fold since the mid-1970s.22 Wireless communications are so closely integrated into our daily lives, electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are all around us, and increasing in intensity daily. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a committee of 27 scientists from 14 different countries working on behalf of the World Health Organization, concluded that exposure to cell phone radiation is a "possible carcinogen" and classified it into the 2B category. This is the same category as the pesticide DDT, lead, gasoline engine exhaust, burning coal and dry-cleaning chemicals, just to name a few. Though there are conflicting studies about the carcinogenic effect of radiofrequencies from cell phones and towers, the primary concern with cellular phones and cancer seems to be the development of brain tumors, particularly gliomas. There is international concern about the effects of cellular phone use by children under the age of 10 because their small heads and thin skulls allow RF radiation to penetrate deeper into their brains.23 French scientists found that children absorb twice the RF from cell phone use as adults do24, which may increase their risk of brain cancer as young adults. As with ionizing radiation, regulatory standards have not kept pace with changing technologies. Existing safety standards for non-ionizing radiation are inadequate to protect public health. The standards are based on acute exposure and on thermal effects alone. This outdated, erroneous concept assumes that unless EMF exposure is strong enough to heat human tissue within 30 minutes, it is safe. There are no U.S. federal standards for EMF exposure based on long-term, chronic exposure or on non-thermal effects, which are the most common types of exposure and the most likely to cause human health effects, including cancer. The overall evidence for a carcinogenic effect of forms of non-ionizing radiation has not been convincing enough to change consumer protection policy. Economics and politics govern and protect the status quo. Modern societies depend on the use of electricity and radio-frequency communications. Any restrictions on the use of these technologies could have significant economic consequences. Electric utility and telecommunications industries wield extraordinary political influence, and even support a major portion of the research on health effects of EMF. The cell phone industry is one of the fastest growing and strongest global industries in the world today, and is even financially greater than the pharmaceutical industry. As a multi-trillion-dollar industry that funds media around the world, the industry makes sizable political donations and persistent lobbying efforts that dictate government policies. The cell phone industry also influences EMF cancer research carried out at universities and prominent cancer institutes. Swiss researchers analyzed cell phone studies and found that the source of research funding affected the reporting of the results. Studies funded by industry were least likely to report a statistically significant result.25 The researchers’ findings added to the existing evidence that single-source sponsorship is associated with outcomes that favor the sponsors’ products. During the last several decades, researchers have been evaluating the impact of in vitro and in vivo radiofrequency and microwave radiation exposure in animal and human cells. The overall data used for scientific evaluation as well as the knowledge gained are more extensive now than ever before. Nonetheless, it is important to distinguish between an “adverse effect” and a “biological effect”. The International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation defined an adverse effect as: “A biological effect characterized by a harmful change in health that is supported by consistent findings that the effect was published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, the evidence of the effect being demonstrated by independent laboratories and, where there is consensus in the scientific community that the effect occurs for the specified exposure conditions” and, the biological effect as “alterations of the structure, metabolism, or functions of a whole organism, its organs, tissues, and cells. Biological effects can occur without harming health and can be beneficial. Biological effects also can include adaptive responses”.26 In general, there is widespread concern regarding the possible health effects associated with the use of cellular phones, mobile telephone base stations, or broadcasting transmitters. Most of the studies report on specific biological effects. However, there are numerous studies (too many to list them all here), both at the cellular level, and at the epidemiological level, showing potential harm from AC magnetic field exposure and cellular phones.27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47 Almost all the recent reports recommend pre-cautionary measures to reduce exposure levels (decreasing the number of calls, call time and using hands-free-devices). We cannot depend on the telecommunication industry to police itself, nor government legislators to enact necessary safety measures to protect the public from potentially detrimental electromagnetic fields. The following, however, are a few other ways to minimize or avoid the potentially adverse effects of cellular phones and radio frequency radiation.

  • Non-ionizing radiation exposure takes time to have an effect. Hence, short exposures are not as detrimental as long-term exposures. Take advantage of this by turning on cell phones only when necessary. Turn the computer on only when you use it and take breaks from using your devices when possible.