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.

12 Responses to “About That EMF…”

  1. Joel Housman on September 13, 2011 11:31 pm

    Hey – noticed that you said in your post that they are moving to VA. They’re actually moving to WV. You missed by 1 state. I checked b/c I hadn’t heard the story and was curious where in VA they were moving to (I live in VA) and the BBC article says WV.

  2. chris on September 14, 2011 12:50 am

    I did some work on a large radar facility one day, and at the end of the day had a pretty good headache.

    Convinced myself that it was caused by being in such close proximity to EMF all day.

    Then I remembered that the site had been turned off while we were working on it. So um… yeah.

  3. Kirsten Sanford on September 14, 2011 1:06 am

    Thanks for the catch, Joel! Fixed 🙂

  4. Curvian on September 14, 2011 1:13 am

    Great article!

    I once took my mom and sister up to the roof of the building where I work to show them the view. Above one of the exits a panel was missing from the ceiling where maintenance was being done. As soon as my mom got close to the exit she turned around holding her chest looking very panicky and backed away from the exit. She said she kept feeling a tightness on her chest getting worse the closer she got to the exit. Strange thing is the exact same thing happened to me when I approached the exit! My sister had no trouble getting through. It was the strangest feeling I’ve ever had.

    Could this be related to EM hypersensitivity?

  5. Zap Andersson on September 14, 2011 4:46 am

    Just a detail; if this was an old CRT TV, the difference in EMF radiation between “on” and “off” is quite staggering. There’s a 25 kilovolt acceleration voltage to get those glorious electrons to hit the screen, and large magnets who deflect the glorious electrons left and right thousands of times per second (left to right) and 50 or 60 times per second (up or down). TV’s are in general quite crappily sheilded from this (much better on CRT computer monitors where there has been regulation).

    That said, I am extremely sceptical about the “EMF oversensitivity” thing myself, and nobody this decade has a CRT TV anyway…. but I just wanted this precision to be added to your excellent article.


  6. patrick.m.roanhouse@gmail.com on September 14, 2011 6:58 am

    The one thing though is these people have started to complain more so lately with the presence of modern Microwave transmission systems. The broadcast TV systems are in a much lower EM Band than say that of Cellphones, Wifi, GigFi. Also there is talk but not hard fact yet that projects like the HAARP High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program has effected both birds and fish migratory patterns when activated. I like to air on the side that with your argument, that some people are born with certain sense perception outside the standard norm. If the person is getting strange sensory response from EMF maybe the only way for the brain to understand it is to illicit a psycho-somatic response in a certain few.

  7. lwatcdr on September 14, 2011 9:07 am

    @chris yes very strong RF causes harm It actually generates heat. That is why the FCC has exposure limits. If there was a problem with the shielding it could have been. The thing is that RF follows the inverse square law and distance really helps. Just for fun I looked up weather radar. The standard NOAA weather radar puts out 750kW of power which is a lot. Wifi is limited to 100 miliwatts. Think of something as harmless as sound. Imagine stereo blasting out 750kW of sound. My guess that would be several rock concert speaker systems at point blank range on full. The 100 mW of a wifi set up would be like a pin drop at 50 feet.

    The rest of this is just sad. These people have been convinced that EM is hurting them and are living lives of misery.

  8. MacKull on September 14, 2011 10:35 am

    Important new research in rabbits and rats find that pulsed digital signals from today’s smartphones damage sperm, brain, liver, eyes and skin of exposed offspring, and impair their memory and behavior. According to independent studies at the Cleveland Clinic and Australia’s national research center, men who use cell phones four hours a day have about half the normal sperm and three times more damage to their DNA than those with much less use.

    Source: http://www.cisionwire.com/the-investor-relations-group/r/environmental-health-trust-cites-conflict-of-interest-surrounding-new-published-study,c9142949

    Anyone who does a little reasearch on electomagnetic field radition would not be able to support the position that EMF radiation is safe.

    Research on Biological Effects of Radio Frequency Radiation in Eurasian Communist Countries, 1976.
    (Source: http://www.magdahavas.com/2011/02/24/pick-of-the-week-23-research-on-biological-effects-of-radio-frequency-radiation-in-eurasian-communist-countries-1976/ )

    Effect of Microwaves on the Central Nervous System 1965 – German translation
    (Source: http://www.magdahavas.com/2010/12/02/pick-of-the-week-18-effect-of-microwaves-on-the-central-nervous-system-1965-german-translation/ )

  9. Harlan on September 14, 2011 10:41 am

    How about living in the same place, and constructing a Faraday cage? 🙂

  10. Iljitsch van Beijnum on September 25, 2011 8:21 am

    I’m missing the discussion about double blind testing to see if these people are really sensitive to electromagnetic radiation or that they are just blaming their symptoms on that without any foundation.

  11. Gary Levin MD on September 25, 2011 10:07 pm

    Actually several studies are underway using MRI scanners for treatment of depression. Although this is not EMF it is a strong magnetic field which may cause EMF changes in the brain

  12. Stefanos on March 2, 2012 7:50 am

    I ve never thought of the possibility for an evolutionary cause behind a -possible- EMF hypersensitivity. Still, the way you describe it I cant see very clear benefits giving a natural selection-advantage to people with it. Of course I am not a biologist so .. yeah..
    There is a serious problem emerging from over-reacting to alleged adverse reactions to various things.People usually are afraid of science because they dont understand some aspects of it (I dont mean it in a derogatory way.We cant know everything). And the media,internet etc are not always helpful in discerning between pure fantasy and possible reality. So if you are afraid of something and dont really understand it, with the added bonus that behind it you can cram words like “scientists”, “corporations” “invisible electromagnetic rays” and “disease”, you have a perfect recipe for misinformation and terror.
    So it is the responsibility of all scientists to do two things:
    a. Try to communicate better to other people what is true and what is not. What you say, “science ninjas unite”. Speak up.
    b. Be patient. Very patient. Because usually, first reactions of people vs. a “scientist” are not that good.
    bonus c: reach out to kids. If you are woo-proofed in an early age..
    Thanks for reading this.

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