Electric devices and infrastructure and wireless communication are hallmarks of modern life. The proliferation of these technologies in recent years has dramatically increased our exposure to electromagnetic radiation (EMR), or electromagnetic fields (EMF). While the science on the health impacts of this form of radiation is inconclusive, many people are concerned about how long-term exposure to excessive EMR may impact human health and nature.
About electromagnetic radiation
EMR is a form of energy with both electrical and magnetic fields that travels in waves. Wavelength and frequency vary depending on the source. There are many sources of EMR, both natural and human, but the term is sometimes used more narrowly to refer to emissions from wired and wireless electric technologies. EMR from these sources is in the non-ionizing range of the electromagnetic spectrum. In other words, it does not carry enough energy to break chemical bonds. EMR is greatest close to the source and decreases quickly with distance from the source.
(Credit: Scientific American)
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The ubiquity of wireless communication technologies can result in near-constant exposure to low levels of EMR close to the source.
The full picture of chronic health risks associated with long-term exposure to EMR at present levels is not yet fully known — in part because the proliferation of wireless technologies is relatively recent. The World Health Organization maintains that "no adverse health effects are expected." However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified extremely low frequency EMR (associated with power lines) and radiofrequency EMR from cell phone use as possible human carcinogens.
Compared to cell phones, radiofrequency EMR exposure from other wireless devices is lower — because other devices are typically located farther away from the body — but in some cases continuous. Other wireless devices, such as smart meters, transmit only intermittently. PG&E claims that EMR exposure from a home electricity smart meter transmitting intermittently for 1000 years is equivalent to one month of typical cell phone use. IARC has not drawn any conclusions about an association between cancer and radiofrequency EMR from sources other than cell phones.
In 2007, an independent, international collaborative of 14 scientists and public health and policy experts reviewed more than 2000 studies of health effects from EMR (the Bioinitiative project). They concluded, "Chronic exposure to EMF is associated in some scientific studies with increased health risks that vary from impaired learning, headaches, mental confusion, skin rashes, tinnitus and disorientation to a variety of cancers, and neurological diseases like ALS and Alzheimer's." The Bioinitiatve Report is probably the most comprehensive literature review on the subject, but some critics claim it is one-sided.
A smaller number of studies hint at possible environmental impacts of EMR. In one, scientists found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby, suggesting that EMR may play a role in colony collapse disorder. Another study linked Wi-Fi exposure to tree leaf damage. The results of these studies are considered preliminary and inconclusive.
Electrosensitivity — Some individuals experience immediate and sometimes intense adverse health effects in the vicinity of devices that emit EMR. This phenomenon is very rare and not a generally recognized medical diagnoses but, the Canadian Human Rights Commission has acknowledged the need to accommodate individuals with environmental sensitivities, including electrosensitivity, as with other disabilities.
The David Suzuki Foundation does not have a specific position on EMR. We recognize that some applications of wireless technology have environmental and health benefits but note the early warning issued by the European Environment Agency:
"There are many examples of the failure to use the precautionary principle in the past, which have resulted in serious and often irreversible damage to health and environments. Appropriate, precautionary and proportionate actions taken now to avoid plausible and potentially serious threats to health from EMF are likely to be seen as prudent and wise from future perspectives."
What you can do
If you are concerned about health risks from EMR, here are some ways to reduce your exposure:
• Limit the number and length of cell phone calls and use "hands-free" options instead of holding the phone to your ear.
• Increase the distance between yourself and wireless devices.
• Avoid superfluous wireless transmissions. For example, turn off WiFi when not in use.
• Turn off wireless devices at night or keep them out of the bedroom.
• Monitor the levels of EMR in your home (Toronto Hydro will provide this monitoring equipment to customers who are concerned, other monitoring equipment is also commercially available)