About That EMF…

September 13th, 2011

… radiation / hypersensitivity story that has been making its way around the internet today. Thanks to Tom Merritt for inviting me onto Tech News Today to talk briefly about the story!

So, people are moving to West Virginia to get away from electromagnetic radiation. They’ve chosen the particular area in WV because it is a “quiet zone” with little in the way of EM transmission going on (mainly so the government dishes listening to the rest of the world and signals coming here from space can hear things better).

This type of story is not new. People have been moving away from modern society for any number of reasons for years. I recall watching a made for TV movie some years back about a woman isolating herself from everyone and everything because she was convinced that chemicals (in paint, perfume, fabrics, etc.) were making her sick. It was depressing. I turned it off.

Scientifically, there is no concrete evidence that EMF radiation causes the symptoms related to electromagnetic hypersensitivity (specifically, we are talking about only that portion of the EM spectrum related to the production and transmission of electrical and magnetic energy — people with hypersensitivity report symptoms when computers or tvs are turned on, near cell towers, near power lines, in areas with wi-fi, etc.). The symptoms are real though, so there definitely is a cause. What that cause is has yet to be discovered.

It’s been suggested that EM hypersensitivity results from an unknown sensory transduction process, that the individuals’ physiological responses actually lie outside normal variability, or it is psycho-somatic in nature. There is a high likelihood that some percentage of those with EM hypersensitivity do fall in the fringes of what we call normal; we know about people with tetrachromacy (they can see more colors); there are super-tasters; kids can hear higher frequencies than adults (and, I can hear the high pitched whine of fluorescent lights and had to get rid of my old CRT monitor because its refresh rate was too slow).

I, personally, like the idea that it could be due to some unknown process. How cool to have some people with an extra sense for EMF! It wouldn’t be too surprising either, considering that we evolved in a radiation-bathed world. The question that rises from that knowledge is what kind of survival benefit would come from being able to sense EMF, and from the symptoms described, in a really unpleasant way? What other things do we sense unpleasantly? Noxious stimuli. Burning hot, freezing cold, sharp objects that could injure our skin, and so on. We need to sense things that could injure us in order to survive better.

Is EMF harmful then? Is the sensation and resulting behavioral response a brilliant survival mechanism? Well, if so, why is it only self-reported in 5% of Americans? Shouldn’t it be more widely spread? Could be that we are seeing evolution in action with this one… I suggest the geneticists get on it to look for evidence of the genes responsible.

Anyway, my bad news for those trying to get away from EMF radiation is that since they live in this universe, there isn’t really any place that is technically 100% quiet. Sure, they can avoid some specific EMF signals created and transmitted by people since there aren’t any cell towers or electrical wires nearby, and they’ve chosen not to use wi-fi, and in some cases even live without electricity; however, they are still subject to all the signals (”It’s like a particle and a wave, man…”) that bounce around inside our atmosphere. Just because they don’t have a television doesn’t mean they aren’t still being bombarded by TV’s EM waves. TVs are not magnets for TV broadcast signals; they’re more like a bird net that can be tuned to catch specific kinds of birds.

And, to the poor suffering seventy year old Nichols Fox from the BBC article, who said she felt the symptoms come and go when she used her remote control to turn the TV on and off, I just have one thing to say. TVs with wireless remotes are always on in a stand-by mode waiting for the signal from the remote control to “turn it on”. Ok, two things to say… the EM radiation emitted by a TV decreases exponentially with distance, so sit further away if you are worried.

I’m not saying we know everything about EMF radiation and public health. By all means, no. We have a lot more to learn, and thankfully scientists are doing studies to inform our future decisions. If you are worried about EMF pollution by human activities, do your best to limit your exposure. You might find yourself breathing fresh air a lot more often, which science has shown to be very good for you.