We like to think of ourselves as flesh and bone, as water and minerals and other tangible things. But another way of looking at us is as bundles of millions of minuscule electric currents.
Anytime we do anything — raise a finger, think a thought, feel an emotion — and anytime our bodies carry out a function, such as raising or lowering a level of adrenaline, or pumping blood through the heart, there are electric currents involved.
The currents relay messages that tell body parts what to do, how to react, or what to feel. And every electric current generates an electromagnetic field.
Would it be any surprise, then, if the electromagnetic fields of power lines and appliances such as vacuum cleaners, power saws, monitors in babies cribs, or computers interfered with the transmission of messages within our bodies? That they did this by altering our bodies’ electrical impulses directly or by changing their tiny electromagnetic fields?
And if the transmission of messages were altered, could we not expect to see physical consequences?
To ask these questions is to enter the land of deja vu. There is no unanimity of opinion. Vehement positions are taken on all sides, just as they were in the early days of controversy over acid rain, DDT, asbestos, smoking, and global warming.
Those who minimize the possibility of health impacts say studies that raise concerns are inconclusive or contradictory.
On the other hand, those who express concern point to a growing number of studies that link electromagnetic fields to cancers, especially to leukemia in children and to breast cancer, as well as to miscarriages, birth defects, and lowered fertility in men.
For anyone interested, there’s an excellent survey of the state of research published by Magda Havas a year ago in the Environmental Review (vol. 8, pp. 173-253). Havas teaches a course on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields at Trent University in Peterborough, and is on the side of those concerned about health impacts.
She points to a series of studies that show that the rate of childhood leukemia doubles for children living in electromagnetic fields that are constantly in the 2-4 milliGauss range. Other studies she quotes show that breast cancer cells multiply more rapidly when exposed to a 12 milliGauss electromagnetic field.
Electromagnetic fields are measured in milliGauss (mG), and it is the pulsing of a field created by alternating electrical current that seems to cause the problem. The earth’s average magnetic field (which is non-pulsing) is 500 mG. By comparison, the electromagnetic field under a power transmission line (pulsing) ranges from 10 to 20 mG. And the fields generated in the human body by cells (non-pulsing) are « considerably less than 0.01 mG.’’
What I found most disturbing about Havas’s study was a lengthy tabulation of the electromagnetic fields produced by what’s around us every day. It shows that we live in a constant stew of pulsating fields. And that should make us wonder about the cumulative impact.>
Here are some of the fields Havas itemizes, with measurements taken 15 cm. from the source. The strength varies according to the manufacturer of the device, and I’ve quoted the high end of the range in each case: hair dryers, 70 mG; baby monitors, 1.5 mG; electric can openers, 150 mG; dishwashers, 10 mG; electric stoves, 20 mG; microwave ovens, 30 mG; vacuum cleaners, 70 mG; photocopiers, 20 mG, fluorescent lights, 10 mG; computers with colour monitors, 2 mG; power saws, 100 mG.
The reason there’s so much controversy over the impact of electromagnetic fields, according to Havas, is that « We have no mechanism that shows us why it’s happening, and until we have that, there are people who don’t want to accept the data.’’
As far as I’m concerned, there’s enough information available to warrant caution. To suggest that, in buying a new appliance we should inquire about its electromagnetic field. To be leery about sitting too long before a computer, or sleeping under an electric blanket, or putting a baby monitor too near a sleeping infant.
NEXT WEEK: Dosage