Our ancestors would have never imagined the amount of everyday convenience today. Hungry in the middle of the night? There's no need to wait for daybreak when it's safe to go out and hunt for food; there's a slew of food delivery apps on your mobile phone that'll guarantee a piping hot meal in an hour–or less. The drastic technological advancements humanity has made in the past century have undoubtedly made life more convenient and enjoyable. But… There’s a worrying aspect to this modern-life convenience. Some experts believe that all the gadgets that make our lives easier may be making us sick. And it's all due to the stream of invisible waves–otherwise known as electromagnetic fields (EMFs)–they emit.
Admittedly, the concern about the effects of EMFs isn't a new thing. Researchers have been looking into EMFs exposure's safety since the 1970s when a study indicated a possible relationship between living near high-voltage power lines and childhood leukemia (1). Even though recent studies have shown a weak link between the two, many people are still apprehensive about EMFs’ influence on health–mainly since we're now living in an era where our exposure is higher than ever (2, 3, 4). Are they right? Should you be concerned about your EMF exposure? Let’s explore.
First Things First, What Is EMF?
To understand what EMF is, you first need to understand its 2 separate components: electric and magnetic fields. An electric field is produced by voltage; you can think of this as the pressure used to push electrons through a wire (much like water being pushed through a pipe) (5). An electric field's strength scales proportionately with the increase in voltage. On the contrary, a magnetic field results from the flow of current through wires or electric devices and increases in strength as the current increases (6, 7). That said, its strength decreases rapidly with increasing distance from its source.
Now, finally, the definition you’ve been waiting for with bated breath. Electric and magnetic fields, together, are defined as electromagnetic fields (EMFs). EMFs’ combination of electric and magnetic forces are caused by something known as electromagnetic radiation (8).
Major Sources Of EMFs In Everyday Life
Here’s something surprising. Not all EMFs are the same. For one, EMFs aren’t just a by-product of technology–the Earth creates them naturally, and human cells are known to use electromagnetic radiation to communicate with each other (9). But… Those aren’t EMFs sources you should be worried about. The ones that do pose a threat to your health are human-made EMFs (10). And these can be further broken down into 2 categories: ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation.
Fields Of Ionizing Radiation
Fields of ionizing radiation have shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies (11). These fields contain enough energy to break chemical bonds; worryingly, in the human body, high doses of ionizing radiation can lead to unstable atoms (i.e. free radicals) that cause oxidative damage. Worse still, studies have found evidence that these fields do increase cancer risk in low doses (12, 13). Examples of fields of ionizing radiation include X-rays and gamma rays. That said, as the risks of ionizing radiation are pretty well-known, the average individual is relatively protected against these fields (e.g. you'll get a lead apron when getting an X-ray or CT scan). This brings us fields of non-ionizing radiation.
Fields Of Non-Ionizing Radiation
Non-ionizing EMFs have longer wavelengths and lower frequencies (14, 15). Unlike ionizing EMFs, these fields do not have the energy to break chemical bonds. They are not known to damage DNA or cells directly. Although, as you'll see in just a bit, this still doesn't necessarily mean that they're safe. You can find common sources of non-ionizing EMFs in every corner of your house: your microwave oven, computer, house energy meter, Wi-Fi router, Bluetooth devices, power lines, and yes–cell phone.
How Does EMF Radiation Impact Health?
Because it’s well-established that ionizing EMFs are damaging to health, this section is solely going to focus on the discussion of non-ionizing EMFs’ health impacts.
Brain Tumor Risks
One of the greatest concerns scientists have is the increasing EMF exposure we're subjected to due to our cell phones. That's simply because of the mobile phone's proximity to the cranial nervous system in everyday life. Think about it: how do you call someone on your phone? You hold it right to your ear… Right? Worryingly, a 2007 epidemiological study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that using cell phones more than one hour a day for more than 10 years could increase the risk of brain tumors (16). Many other studies have also reported associations between mobile phone usage and brain tumors (17, 18, 19).
Neurological, Cognitive Disorders
As it turns out, the adverse effects of electromagnetic radiation on the brain aren’t limited to the manifestation of brain tumors, either; various studies have also shown that EMFs can cause various neurological effects related to sleep disturbances, including headaches, loss of memory, loss of concentration, and dizziness (20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25). But what is the relationship between EMF exposure (from your cell phone, for example) and sleep disturbance? While researchers aren't sure of the exact mechanism yet, they hypothesize that EMF exposure can mess with the brain's ability to stay in the slow-wave sleep stage–which, ultimately, impacts overall sleep quality (26).
Possible Eye Diseases
Remember how one of the major sources of EMF radiation is the microwave? Here's something that may shock you. Studies have suggested that your mobile phone carries the potential of heating your brain tissues–much like a microwave (27). Admittedly, some degree of temperature elevation in the brain can be lowered partially by blood circulation in the region, but this is not the case for tissues such as the human eye. And at exceptional risk is your cornea, for which there is no thermoregulatory system through blood circulation. Highlighting this is a 2003 study: when researchers exposed rabbit eyes to 2,450 MHz for 30 minutes, the lens increased in temperature, leading to cataracts (28).
Should You Be Concerned About Long-Term EMFs Exposure?
There's a lot that can be inferred from the International Agency for Research on Cancer's declaration of EMFs as possible human carcinogens (29). Ultimately, it appears that there is growing evidence of the adverse effects EMF exposure can bring about, including on sleep, brain tumor risks, and eye health.
Ways To Reduce Your Exposure To EMFs
And so, if you've been experiencing noticeable effects from EMF exposure (e.g. if you've noticed that your cell phone radiation disrupts your sleep), you may want to take a few precautionary measures to lower the amount you're subjected to daily.
Have Your Phone On Speaker If You Can
There's a slew of literature (that's increasing in number!) that shows the harmful effects of holding your mobile phone up to your ear. To reduce the risks of brain tumors and the possibility of overheated corneas, try to put your calls on speaker if you're able to. But if you're unable to do so, a good alternative would be to use a wireless earpiece. Or anything that enables you to have your call without holding your cell phone so close to your brain.
Set Your Mobile Phone To Airplane Mode When Sleeping
Notice that your mobile phone radiation wrecks your sleep at night? Here's an easy solution. Set it to airplane mode right before you turn in for the night, so it's not emitting EMF radiation all night long; this is particularly crucial if you use your phone as an alarm clock and have it on your dressing table right beside your bed. Bonus tip: you can also choose to put your mobile phone on airplane mode whenever you do not need to stay in contact (e.g. during a commute or when enjoying a movie).
Invest In EMF-Blocking Sleep Gear
Of course, as mentioned earlier, your mobile phone is not the only source of EMF radiation. There’s also your power lines, Wi-Fi router, microwave, laptop, TV, and even power mains. Imaginably, setting your mobile phone to airplane mode will not provide you adequate protection against EMF while sleeping! Don't worry. You're not helpless against all the adverse health effects EMF radiation can cause. A great option available for you is that of EMF-blocking sleep gear. These are precisely what they sound like: bedroom products that'll help block electromagnetic fields.
Examples that'll help you get better quality sleep include the EMF-protection bed canopy and EMF-shielding sleeping bag. Oh, and avoid the sleep number and adjustable beds if you can–these types of plugged-in beds can emit high levels of EMFs. Just about the last thing you want!
While various government institutions' current consensus asserts that there is nothing to worry about, recent, emerging evidence suggests otherwise. Ultimately, it appears that electromagnetic radiation can indeed adversely impact your health–and particularly, your brain. So, it’d be wise for you to reduce your EMF exposure in your daily life whenever possible.