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The Body Electric: Are Electrical Appliances
Dangerous To Your Health?
For decades, power companies and official scientific entities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization have been telling the public that there are almost no credible health risks from electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that emanate from power lines, power transformers and every single appliance that runs on electricity. The official public-health-agency position is that, aside from a small increased risk of childhood leukemia, consumers are perfectly safe no matter how many appliances litter their homes and offices, or how many power lines exist nearby. But a newly completed $8 million, seven-year study by the California Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMF) Program has something quite different -- and quite alarming -- to say.
"To one degree or another, all three of the scientists who worked on the EMF Program are inclined to believe that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) can cause some degree of increased risk of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease and miscarriage," says Dr. Raymond Neutra, one of the scientists who wrote the report. Neutra is chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control for California's Department of Health Services (DHS), which ran the study with funding provided by the state's Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
Considering that most of us work and live in areas full of electronics in appliances from refrigerators to television sets to computers, each of which emits more than one EMF frequency, the EMF Program's linking of health problems to the fields is cause for some alarm. If you sit in front of a computer all day long, should you be worried? Will you get a brain tumor if you live too close to a power line or routinely use a copy machine? Is that friendly-looking little electric pencil sharpener sending out waves of energy that'll kill you someday?
The answers aren't easy, but assessing your risk starts with some basic background on the fields. Artificially generated EMFs are produced when alternating current passes through a wire or device -- like when you flip on your computer, or pop bread down into the toaster. The force that's produced, an EMF, exerts pressure on everything around it -- your body, the kitchen counters, your desk, you name it. This pressure is not necessarily harmful. After all, you may remember from Science 101 that Earth has its own static magnetic fields, with magnetic poles located roughly at our North and South Poles. We don't fully understand why these magnetic fields exist or how they're generated, but humans evolved in their presence, and it's thought that many basic functions such as sleep and sense of direction are governed largely and unconsciously by these fields.
About a hundred years ago, however, humans started figuring out how to generate and use electricity, thereby changing the kinds of fields we are exposed to. These fields are not static, as are Earth's own EMFs. Human-exposure conditions created by artificially generated EMFs can vary dramatically according to the type of wiring, the number of appliances in an area, how many of those appliances are turned on at a given time and how close a person is to those devices. Exposure to EMFs can range from barely detectible levels (less than one milligauss, the unit used to measure magnetic fields) to quite strong levels (up to 100 milligauss and more).
Power companies and public-health agencies would have you believe that these artificially generated EMFs have practically no effect on human health. I was surprised when a communications officer at the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health told me flatly that "there are no known health effects from appliance EMFs" and then refused to let me talk to an FDA doctor to confirm or deny this statement. But despite this hard-line stance, evidence is mounting that, in fact, EMFs do affect health -- and not in a good way.
"There is some evidence to suggest that magnetic-field exposure reduces melatonin levels," says Dr. W. Gregory Lotz, chief of non-ionizing radiation for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). "It's an open question for now which needs more study, but at least some animal studies have shown melatonin changes."
EMF-related hormonal changes in the amount of melatonin your body produces may not, on the surface, seem like a big deal when compared to something as scary as a brain tumor. But melatonin has a far larger effect on your health than you may realize. The hormone, which is secreted by the pineal gland in the center of the brain, controls your sleeping and waking cycle. But melatonin also shores up your immune system, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure and, most important of all, is a potent antioxidant that plays a part in preventing cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and heart disease. Make no mistake: Anything that messes with melatonin messes with you in a big way.
"The effects of EMFs on melatonin have been known for at least 10 years, as has the evidence linking EMFs to cancers, Alzheimer's and childhood leukemia," says Libby Kelley, executive director of the Council on Wireless Technology Impacts (CWTI), a San Francisco-based nonprofit health-advocacy group.
Even the shadow of a threat from these potent killers may have you wanting to throw the computer and all your other electronics out the window and jump after them. But for most people, the dangers aren't as severe as they may seem at first.
For one thing, most of the risks associated with EMFs kick in when fields are at a strength of 3 milligauss and higher. According to the DHS' Raymond Neutra, most California office workers are exposed to daily fields at an average strength of 1.5 milligauss daily, well below the level of exposure known to cause deleterious health effects.
But don't be putting on the party hats yet -- though the average worker has a safe level of exposure, some workers may be getting stronger doses of EMFs due to faulty wiring or an unusually high number of appliances in some areas. And since the strength of EMFs increases as you get closer to an appliance, those working eyeball-to-screen on a computer many hours a day face some increased risk of harmful EMF exposure, as does anyone who works very near other office appliances such as fax machines, copy machines and printers. The more electronic equipment you have clustered near you and the more time you spend in the high-EMF zone, the greater the risk you face.
"Copy machines, as it turns out, have one of the strongest magnetic fields, and they increase as you get closer," says the NIOSH's W. Gregory Lotz. "I've seen some measurements taken a foot away from the machine. The lowest field measured was 2 milligauss. The highest was 40 milligauss. Electric pencil sharpeners are even worse -- I've seen measurements of up to 90 milligauss."
"People are practically wrapped around their equipment at home or at the office, and while you're working on it, it's working on you," says the CWTI's Libby Kelley. "It's one thing to pass by your microwave in the kitchen, which produces a very strong field but isn't typically used all day, every day. It's quite another to work 40 hours a week or more right next to a piece of equipment putting out a strong field."
If you're not quite worried enough to get your wiring checked by a competent electrician, there's a simple solution -- distance. Stay at least two to three feet away from your computer as you work, and make sure other appliances are at least that far from your work space. Move your desk if you have to, or cluster your appliances so that they are as far away as possible from where you generally work or hang out in your house. Practice prudent avoidance of EMFs and you will lower your risks.
Of course, these are just suggestions for what you can do on a personal level, and there's a limit to how much risk you can avoid. Moving farther away from your appliances won't do much if your home is quite near a power line, an electricity-generating plant or a power-company fuse box, where you are exposed to constant, ambient strong EMFs. And, until now, the location of these facilities and lines has been largely unregulated, with the power utilities deciding almost carte blanche where to place facilities. And, also until now, those utilities have shown a distinct tendency to ignore the mounting evidence of EMFs' effects on health.
"The EMF Program report is the strongest evidence yet of the health risks the power companies have been trying to pretend didn't exist," says Louis Slesin, publisher of Microwave News, the definitive journal on EMFs and health. "The utilities have played a very sophisticated game and have managed to smother the health risks as a nonissue -- and, to an extent, it's worked. You never see coverage of EMFs in most media, and after the California EMF Program closes down there will be no research on the issues going on in the United States. The risks can be controlled, but only if the utilities stop pretending that there are no risks and start addressing them."
"Estimated lifetime risks smaller than the ones we've uncovered have triggered regulatory evaluation and sometimes actual regulation of chemical agents such as airborne benzene," says the DHS' Neutra.
Will the California EMF Program's report trigger increased regulation of the power utilities, bringing about some sorely needed changes in how power and its attendant EMF fields are allowed into our lives? Only if the utilities -- and their regulatory agencies -- start hearing a whole lot of protest from the public. Have you ever examined your PG&E bill closely? Ever wonder why there's a disclaimer releasing PG&E from responsibility over childhood leukemia on there? Take a good look -- and then think about what you'd like PG&E, the CPUC, the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies to hear.
"As we bring more and more electronics into our homes and neighborhoods, we are being exposed more and more to EMFs," says the CWTI's Libbey Kelley. "We're already seeing breast cancer at younger ages, the onset of cancer at younger ages. It could be due to EMFs, environmental toxins or a whole combination of things -- we just don't know. Meanwhile, we have these aging electrical power systems, we're not looking at alternative power sources, we're building power lines and generating plants near homes. It's business as usual. Unless there's public outrage over making the world a safer place, the dangers are just going to continue."
For more information on the California EMF Program Report or plans for public hearings, or if you have questions about EMF health and safety, call the California EMF Program at Oakland's branch of the DHS at (510) 622-4300. You may also call the CPUC at (800) 649-7570, or the CWTI at (415) 892-1963.