EMF: Is Electricity Harmful to Your Health?

Ransom Riggs

I've been shocked by plenty of faulty lamps and even backed into an electric fence one time, so I know how un-fun having unwanted electricity coursing through your body can be. But what about much lower doses of exposure, over long periods of time? Electric fields are everywhere, but aside from the vague sense that positioning my face near a turned-on microwave is a bad idea, I never thought much about the health implications of everyday EMF. That is, until I found a handy little pamphlet enclosed with my last Southern California Edison power bill: Understanding EMF!

It went something like this: "Questions have been raised about the possible health effects of 60-Hertz electric and magnetic fields, which are found wherever you have electric power. This brochure contains practical tips to help you reduce your exposure at home and at work." Suddenly, it seemed I had cause for alarm! Could the ambient electrical fields in my own home be hurting me? Of course, I had to find out.

The bottom line is: no one really knows. Various health agencies, including the World Health Organization, seem to agree that if there is a risk, it's a fairly small one. At the same time, they talk about things like the link between EMF fields and childhood leukemia in not-reassuring ways like "the link isn't strong enough to be considered causal but is sufficiently strong to remain a concern." (Oh. I feel ... better?)

Magnetic fields are measured in milligauss, and your exposure to them multiplies exponentially with your proximity. For instance, if you're standing 4 feet from your microwave while it's busy nuking fishsticks, you're getting between 3 and 8 milligauss. At 12 inches, it's up to 80. And if you're standing at the entirely unreasonable distance of 1.2 inches from your microwave, it's arguably nuking you, too, with up to 2,000 milligauss.

But is that a lot? For comparison's sake, here are the 1.2 inch exposures of other household appliances:

Clothes washer: 400
Electric range: 2,000
Flourescent lamp: 4,000
Television: 500
Hair dryer: up to 20,000

Considering that a hair dryer can be five times stronger than a microwave, and you're much more likely to hold one just inches from your head, perhaps there's reason to limit exposure. (But keep in mind, exposure drops off radically with distance: at 12 inches, that same hair dryer's only giving you 70 milligauss.)

Another bit of comparison: if you're standing directly under heavy-duty buzzing power transmission lines, you're only receiving about 300 milligauss -- the equivalent of sitting on top of your washing machine while it's on its spin cycle.

While the experts, power companies and pamphlet-makers all seem to be in disagreement about what health effects (if any) EMF can have on us, they all seem to agree on one thing: it's not a bad idea to limit exposure, when possible. (It's also not scientifically demonstrably a good idea ... sigh.) For instance, the world health organization has issued a very milquetoast "recommendation" that power utilities "explore very low-cost" methods to reduce EMF exposure "from new facilities." Methods like issuing pamphlets, I assume, which in turn recommend that readers of said pamphlet "may" want to "consider" taking "no-cost measures" to reduce EMF exposure at home.

Measures like:
"¢ Placing phone answering machines and electric clocks away from the head of your bed.
"¢ Don't sit so close to your computer monitor or the television.
"¢ Limit the time you spend using hair dryers, electric razors, heating pads and electric blankets.
"¢ "You may also want to limit the time you spend using electric cooking appliances."
"¢ Locate sources of EMF in your work environment and "spend break time in lower-field areas." (But if your boss wants to run transmission lines under your desk, there's nothing you can do about it?)

So now the OCD hypochondriac in me is thinking, oh God! I should sell my electric stove and get a gas range! Is my digital alarm clock giving me face cancer while I sleep? This is terrible!

But the power company pamphlet closes by saying, essentially, that none of this matters to anyone but OCD hypochondriacs: "Human studies have not produced a consensus about any health benefits from changing the way people use electric appliances," and goes on to recommend taking steps to reduce exposure "only if you feel it would be beneficial." Thanks, power company. Thanks a lot.

in sum, I've got just one thing to say about the link between EMF and cancer: