Electromagnetic radiation is all around us. It may be harmless—or it’s possible that exposure to high levels might lead to health problems. Are we turning a blind eye to a big problem? By Sophie Bond
What is it?
Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) consists of several types of waves that are produced by the movement of electrically charged particles. EMR can be classified into non-ionising radiation (including radio waves, microwaves and visible light) and ionising radiation (ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays). The hazards of exposure to ionising radiation are well understood, but research into the effects of non-ionising radiation on the body is still ongoing.
Many features of our daily lives—power lines, microwave ovens, computers, satellite dishes and mobile phones— emit non-ionising EMR.
Am I exposed to it?
Your level of exposure to EMR depends on where you live and the electrical appliances you use. Exposure from a hairdryer or a laptop will vary according to the model and your distance from it, as EMR decreases in strength as you move further from the source. According to the World Health Organization, at a distance of 30 centimetres the EMR from an appliance is more than 100 times lower than the recommended limit. However, safe limits for exposure are widely debated and vary from country to country.
Is it a problem?
For over two decades, concern has been expressed about the effects of EMR on our health. Much of the current research is either not peer-reviewed or the findings are inconclusive, although there is good evidence that EMR can affect our sleep patterns. A 2008 study sponsored by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum, which represents the main handset companies, found that using a mobile phone before bed delays sleep and reduces the time spent in deep sleep.
Much of the concern about EMR centres on mobile phones and cellphone towers, with numerous examples of selfreported health problems from people living close to the latter. It’s suspected that children may be more vulnerable to EMR than adults, in particular that from cellphones and wireless internet.
Some people experience electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), exhibiting a wide array of symptoms attributed to exposure to electrical impulses. Although a recognised impairment in Sweden and the UK, EHS can be difficult to diagnose as symptoms tend to be subjective.
As technology marches on and we gather ever-more gadgets, there’s clearly a need to improve our understanding of the cumulative effects of EMR. One initiative is the Venice Resolution, initiated by the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety in 2008. It recommends a precautionary approach, with separate safety standards for babies, children, pregnant women and the elderly, as well as limitations on the use of mobile phones by children and teenagers.
What can I do?
The possible effects of EMR on our health are still debated and research is ongoing. If you feel you may be sensitive to EMR or are worried EMR may affect your children, there are several precautionary steps you could take. When possible, use a landline. Treat your cellphone with a little caution: use it on loudspeaker or with a hands-free kit; keep your calls brief; and don’t let your children hold it close to their heads for long.
Don’t spend ages with your wi-fi laptop sitting directly on your lap, either. Professor Lawrie Challis, chair of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme in the UK, says such close exposure is comparable to that from a mobile phone, and suggests that children use wi-fi-enabled laptops only at a distance.
Albino Gola, a local bioenergy consultant who measures the electrical impulses in people’s homes, recommends keeping a distance of 70 centimetres between you and your computer screen, 1.5 metres between you and the TV screen, and never letting children sleep with cellphones under their pillows.