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Are EMFs Harmful? The Science on Health Effects of EMFs

Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:

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Note that each number in parentheses [1, 2, 3, etc.] is a clickable link to peer-reviewed scientific studies. A plus sign next to the number “[1+, 2+, etc...]” means that the information is found within the full scientific study rather than the abstract.

This is one of those posts that will grow in time. I did a bit of searching but this isn’t comprehensive. I haven’t come to any conclusions yet as to how harmful EMFs are.

Realize that science is discovering new things all of the time, so you shouldn’t be closed minded about EMFs.

With something relatively new like EMFs, it’s best to understand the underlying physiology of it, which I don’t understand yet on a deep level. That’s why I plan on relearning physics and monitoring this subject more.

Definitions and Intro

Between 1 Hz to 300 Hz is called Extremely Low-Frequency Electro-Magnetic Fields (ELF-EMF). These wave ranges can be found everywhere in modern societies.

ELF-EMFs are widely employed in electrical appliances and different equipment such as television sets, mobile phones, computers, and microwaves.

What International Bodies Have to Say

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies electromagnetic fields as ‘possible human carcinogens’ that might transform normal cells into cancer cells [1]. This means that they can’t rule out that it’s carcinogenic.

It advised the public to adopt safety measures to reduce exposure, like the use of hands-free devices or texting [2].

I consistently find the WHO to be generally the least biased and most reliable organization when it comes to health advice.

ANSI standards for safe exposure levels to RF and microwave radiation have a safety factor of ten. This means that they only allow 1/10th of the exposure that they deem harmful [3].

The Environmental Working Group recommends cell phone users limit their exposure to cell phone radiation by looking for cell phone models that emit low radiation [4].

If you read SBM, the group of religious zealots posing as skeptics, you’d get the impression that it’s implausible for cell phone EMFs to be harmful. They exude undeserved confidence.

Russia and eastern European countries, in particular, set much lower EMF thresholds for Microwaves and RF than western countries [3].

EMFs Are Especially Harmful to the Eyes and Testes

Two areas of the body, the eyes, and the testes can be particularly susceptible to heating by EMFs because of the relative lack of available blood flow to get rid of the excessive heat load. Laboratory experiments have shown that short-term exposure to high levels of RF radiation (100 – 200 mW/cm²) can cause cataracts in rabbits and temporary sterility (lowered sperm count and motility) [3].

Long-term exposure to high levels of microwaves is recognized from experimental animal studies and epidemiological studies in humans to cause cataracts [3].

Here’s Wikipedia:

“A number of studies have shown relationships between mobile telephone use and reduced sperm count and sperm quality. Peer reviewed studies have shown relationships using statistical questionnaire techniques,[70][71][72][73][74] controlled experiments on living humans,[75] and controlled experiments on sperm outside the body.[76][77][78][79]

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a web page entitled “Cell Phone Radiation Damages Sperm, Studies Show” published August 2013.” [3].

For eyes, the mechanism is unclear but may include changes in heat sensitive enzymes that normally protect cell proteins in the lens. Another mechanism that has been advanced is direct damage to the lens from pressure waves induced in the aqueous humor [3].

Bottom line: It is a fact that our vision is getting worse and male sperm quality is also declining. EMFs seem to be a piece of the puzzle.

EMFs and The Brain

EMFs and Cognitive Function

A 2009 study examined the effects of exposure to EMFs emitted by standard GSM cell phones on the cognitive functions of humans.

The study found slower response times to a spatial working memory task when a cell phone was placed next to the head of males. The duration of exposure was also a factor [5].

EMFs and Anxiety in Mice

Mice were exposed to High-frequency EMF (2.45GHz) for 60min/day for 120 days. The exposure was through a BLUETOOTH device transferring filed (100mW). This did not produce anxiety, OCD or depression-like behavior in mice [6].

A study done in 2009 from Iran showed that rats exposed to 900mhz of cell phone EMF had higher levels of cortisol and lower levels of T3 [7]. Both conditions are common amongst clients and EMFs may contribute to this.

However, another study found increases in ACTH at chronic 1Hz exposure [8].

Another study found that the offsprings of pregnant mice exposed to 9.417 GHz radiation showed more anxiety-related behaviors in their children. However, the mice also had decreased depression-related behavior.

Male offspring demonstrated decreased learning and memory, while females were not affected in learning and memory, which suggested that microwaves had gender-dependent effects [9].

I think the human race has become one nervous wreck. I thought this was because of lectins, but EMFs could play a role, too.

Bottom line: my guess is that some people with a genetic susceptibility might be affected by this, but I can’t say how significant it is.

EMFs and the Blood-Brain Barrier

Researchers from Lund University have found leakage of albumin into the brain via a permeated blood-brain barrier from EMFs. This confirmed earlier work on its effects on the BBB. However, other groups have not confirmed these findings in vitro cell studies or whole animal studies [10].

Prof Leszczynski of Finland’s radiation and nuclear safety authority found that, at the maximum legal limit for mobile radiation, one protein, in particular, HSP 27, was affected. HSP 27 plays a critical role in the integrity of the blood-brain barrier [10].

I am inclined to believe that cell phones can affect the blood-brain barrier. Like everything else, whether someone will experience harm will depend on their genetics and other factors.

EMFs Affect Some Neurons

ELF-EMF exposure affects neuronal dendritic spine density and NMDAR and AMPAR subunit expressions in the entorhinal cortex (EC).

ELF-EMF exposure specifically influences the intracellular calcium dynamics of cultural EC neurons via a calcium channel independent mechanism [11].

This part of the brain plays a crucial role in memory and navigation. It’s also the first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s [12].

Cellular calcium levels are extremely important when it comes to the functioning of neurons and if this is altered by EMFs then it would be significant.

Oxidative stress increased in rat brains exposed ELF-EMF [13, 14].

EMFs and ADHD

In mice, exposure to radiation from cell phones during pregnancy affected the brain development of offspring and caused symptoms that resembled ADHD [15].

EMFs and Autism

There has been an explosion of autism in the developed world and nobody has a clue why. Some have tried to link vaccines to this, but the studies ultimately showed that vaccines aren’t the cause of autism.

The CDC says that 1 in 68 kids now have autism. The explosion started in the late 80’s and has been continually increasing since. This would correlate with the increase in EMFs.

There are certainly many reasons for this, but I’d say EMF exposure could definitely be an under-appreciated piece of the puzzle.

Many studies of people with autism show oxidative stress and evidence of free radical damage, cellular stress proteins, and deficiencies of antioxidants such as glutathione. Autism also shows various kinds of immune system disturbances.

Specifically, people with autism have brain oxidative stress, inflammation, and a compromised blood-brain barrier. All of these mechanisms have been demonstrated by EMFs in cells and animals.

A review study published in 2013 in the journal pathophysiology had this to say:

“With dramatic increases in reported Autism that are coincident in time with the deployment of wireless technologies, we need an aggressive investigation of potential Autism – EMF/RFR links. The evidence is sufficient to warrant new public exposure standards benchmarked to low-intensity (non-thermal) exposure levels now known to be biologically disruptive, and strong, interim precautionary practices are advocated.” [16].

Bottom line: Right now, there is a theoretical legitimacy to EMFs negatively affecting the brain. However, we don’t know how much this affects people in the real world. Our brains are susceptible to oxidative stress and the brain will be one of the first organs negatively affected. This subject shouldn’t be ignored.

EMFs and Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and ALS

Several available epidemiological studies and meta-analysis data seem to suggest a potential association between occupational exposure to ELF-EMFs and Alzheimer’s onset. (typical of electric power installers and repairers, power plant operators, electricians, electric and electronic equipment repairer, telephone line technicians, welders, carpenters, and machinists) [17].

It’s hypothesized that ELF-EMFs exposure might increase amyloid by increasing cellular calcium levels [17].

However, in genetically manipulated mice bound to get Alzheimer’s, both cognitive-protective and cognitive-enhancing effects were found from EMFs [17].

See the graph below, which show mostly positive effects (in genetically manipulated mice):

Screenshot 2014-12-20 11.00.17
http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijcb/2012/683897/tab2/

EMFs Increase Levels of Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress is when there is an altered balance between ROS/free radicals generation and its elimination by antioxidants. They play a critical role in a variety of diseases including neurodegenerative diseases, aging, and cancer.

Various cell lines have found ELF-EMF exposure causes oxidative stress [18, 19, 20, 21]. However, some cells lines don’t show an increase in ROS [22]. The effects in other cell lines depended on the conditions of these cells such as if they were exposed to other free radicals [23].

Oxidative stress increased in rat brains exposed ELF-EMF [13, 14].

In rat lymph organs, oxidative stress increased and it was found that immature rats were more susceptible to the damage [24].

Interestingly, in cell lines, ELF-EMF could increase antioxidants in our body when used in a hormetic way and can be used as a pretreatment for stronger radiation (but we’re exposed to it chronically) [19, 20].

Screenshot 2014-12-20 10.51.09

EMFs May Impair Sleep Quality

Medical students who used a mobile phone for more than 2 hours/day were more likely to be sleep deprived and experience daytime sleepiness, affecting cognitive and learning abilities of medical students [25].

If it were only for this study, I’d wonder how much of this has to do with looking at the light from the screens rather than the EMFs directly… Light causes us to stay awake.

However, there are other studies, and as you will see there are clear mechanisms in how it can disrupt sleep quality.

In a study published in Plos One, it found that individuals with occupations that exposed them to EMFs, those who had more daily EMF exposure time also had more sleep disturbances.

This study measured other variables, which came back as negative. The more variables a study measures, it increases the chance that some variable will ‘hit’ and be statistically significant. But the P-Value was low enough that makes me think that this outcome was not by chance (P=.004).

The study adjusted for age, gender, cigarette smoking, tea drinking, BMI, and work pressure [26].

In the case of occupational exposure, I wonder how much of the effect could have been due to factors that were unaccounted for such as poorer people needing to work more at such occupations that had EMFs or maybe they worked harder, but adjusting for ‘work pressure’ didn’t fully account for this.

Two surveys showed that the prevalence of difficulties with falling and remaining asleep increased with increasing short-wave frequency magnetic field exposure. Both panel studies reported that sleep quality improved after interruption of the exposure [26].

Exposure to EMFs by cell phones prior to sleep decreased the time it took to get to REM sleep and, overall, increased REM sleep [27].

EMFs have been reported to disrupt melatonin production, a critical hormone involved in sleep [28].

In an Indian study, Melatonin levels were reduced in workers exposed to the most ELF-EMFs [29].

Not surprisingly then, EMFs have been reported to disrupt circadian rhythms [30].

Studies have been conducted that have demonstrated that people’s circadian rhythm resets itself when they go in the woods away from electronics [31].

I had assumed that this was because of the lighting – and I still do – but EMF exposure could also play a role. I think most of the effect has to do with lighting because when I put on these Glasses I get tired.

Conversely, Austrian surveys found that sleep quality was not related to electromagnetic exposure [32].

A Swiss study also did not indicate an impairment of subjective sleep quality due to exposure from various sources of RF-EMFs in everyday life. However, the top 10% or most exposed had an 11% increased risk for sleep disturbance [33]. That’s not very significant.

Here’s how Wikipedia sums it up:

Sleep, EEG and waking rCBF have been studied in relation to RF exposure for a decade now, and the majority of papers published to date have found some form of effect. While a Finnish study failed to find any effect on sleep or other cognitive function from pulsed RF exposure,[54] most other papers have found significant effects on sleep.[55][56][57][58][59][60] Two of these papers found the effect was only present when the exposure was pulsed (amplitude modulated), and one early paper found that sleep quality (measured by the amount of participants’ broken sleep) improved.

While some papers were inconclusive or inconsistent,[61][62] a number of studies have now demonstrated reversible EEG and rCBF alterations from exposure to pulsed RF exposure.[63][64][65][66] German research from 2006 found that statistically significant EEG changes could be consistently found, but only in a relatively low proportion of study participants (12 – 30%).[67]

Bottom Line: I thought people had a problem with sleep because of stress and inflammation, but EMFs seem to play a role as well. My guess is that some people are affected by this significantly while others aren’t. However, if you have sleep disturbances, I would suggest you experiment with reducing EMF exposure and see if that helps you. Realize that cell phones far play the largest role, so you want to reduce cell phone usage, especially at night.

I would experiment with this after you’ve tried all of my sleep hacks. For example, I think wearing red Glasses is much more important. See my post on how to fix your sleep.

EMFs Inhibit ATP Production

It was found that in five cancer cell lines exposed to ELF-MFs within the range of 0.025–5 µT there were changes in their DNA (karyotype contractions).

The study found that the mechanism is as a result of interference with mitochondria’s ATP synthase. This is the machinery it uses to create ATP, the energy currency of our body and if the same thing happened in normal cells, it would result in lower ATP [34].

When our cells have low ATP, our body activates AMPK to make up for the energy shortfall. This activation in bursts can increase health and longevity, which wouldn’t make this occurrence negative.

However, having chronically lower levels of ATP is not something I’d call good.

EMFs and Cancer

A meta-study (2009) of 101 publications on the genotoxicity of EMFs showed that 49 reported a genotoxic effect and 42 not. The authors found “ample evidence that RF-EMF can alter the genetic material of exposed cells in vivo and in-vitro and in more than one way” [10].

If EMFs can change our DNA then they can cause cancer and other problems. It would take a long time (maybe 50 years) to realize an increased incidence of cancer if the effects aren’t very strong. It took a really long time to demonstrate smoking causes cancer and that has a massive effect.

Bottom line: ELF-EMFs may increase our risk for cancer, but only time will tell how significant the effects are in humans.

EMFs and Our Immune System

ELF-EMFs are capable of altering the immune response when challenged with a pathogen.

ELF-EMF alone caused increased hsp70 levels, which are a protein that protects our cells from stress. This indicates that our cells are stressed in some way [35].

HSP70 is strongly increased by heat stress and toxic chemicals, particularly heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, mercury, etc.

Hsp70 helps prevent damage to our cells by preventing denatured proteins from aggregating, which allows them to refold. It also helps damaged proteins get discarded [36].

Hsp70 is generally an immune suppressor, which may be good or bad depending on what your immune system is like [37].

Bottom line: ELF-EMFs can potentially affect our immune system, but we can’t know the full significance of this from cell studies.

Other

Cell phones can alter the accuracy of blood glucose monitors when within a half of a meter away [38]. Just found this interesting.

EMFs have been found to increase calcium levels in our cells [39]. Calcium levels in our cells play a critical role in their function and high levels are harmful.

A study published in 2011 in JAMA found that that exposure to RF signal waves within parts of the brain closest to the cell phone antenna resulted in increased levels of glucose metabolism, but the clinical significance of this finding is unknown [10]. The takeaway from this study is that EMFs, especially cell phones, have an effect and we need to understand them more.

Should We Buy EMF Blocking Products?

Whether EMFs are harmful or not, I’d still want to see studies on the efficacy of products that claim to block EMFs.

I would like to see at least animal studies before I spend money to experiment with it on myself and see if it works.

It’s possible these products can work, but it’s not worth shelling out money for a product that has a small chance of helping me, IMO.

If something is 50 dollars, like a Grounding mat, then I don’t care. But I’m not ready to shell out 400 bucks or more for a shot in the dark.

What bothers me about the EMF products is that I can’t subject them to the type of experiments that I like to ordinarily do. Normally, I keep upping the dosage until I notice an effect from a supplement or intervention.

When I got my Grounding mat, I was lying in bed trying to figure out if the slight effect I had was a placebo or not. It certainly was well within the placebo range of effects. I can’t double or triple the dosage. If I do get an effect from the grounding, it’s honestly not very strong. But I find myself doing it anyway because I have it and it gives me a psychological comfort that I’m protecting myself from EMFs (even if I don’t know if it works). As humans, we are afraid of the unknown.

Now, if something had a lot of evidence behind it, I’d do it even if I couldn’t subject it to my preferred type of experimentation. But I have not seen objective evidence for EMF blockers.

Bottom line: As of my current state of knowledge, I can’t bring myself to buying EMF protectors or recommending them. However, with increased knowledge, this may change in the future. I need to look into it more.

Note that PEMF device have some evidence for it, but that’s not for this post. You can read about it here.

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Takeaway

As of now, I would only reduce cell phone usage, as this is the most significant source of EMFs.

The highest typical daily exposure, according to a study of 2009, came from cellphone base stations, cell phones, and DECT cordless phones [R].

For example, the Health Protection Agency claims that if a person spends one year in a location with a Wi-Fi hotspot, they will receive the same dose of radio waves as if they had made a 20-minute call on a mobile phone [R].

However, I realize there’s a lot more to know before we/I can proclaim EMFs as ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’.

Science is not there yet, so in the meantime, I will study the theories. It’s very hard for science to say something is safe. Science takes time – sometimes a really long time to demonstrate safety or a lack of it.

A lack of evidence of harm is not evidence of EMF’s safety. However, we do see the beginnings of evidence that it may be harmful.

About the Author

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen won the genetic lottery of bad genes. As a kid, he suffered from inflammation, brain fog, fatigue, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, and other issues that were poorly understood in both conventional and alternative medicine.Frustrated by the lack of good information and tools, Joe decided to embark on a journey of self-experimentation and self-learning to improve his health--something that has since become known as “biohacking”. With thousands of experiments and pubmed articles under his belt, Joe founded SelfHacked, the resource that was missing when he needed it. SelfHacked now gets millions of monthly readers.Joe is a thriving entrepreneur, author and speaker. He is the CEO of SelfHacked, SelfDecode and LabTestAnalyzer.His mission is to help people gain access to the most up-to-date, unbiased, and science-based ways to optimize their health.
Joe has been studying health sciences for 17 years and has read over 30,000 PubMed articles. He's given consultations to over 1000 people who have sought his health advice. After completing the pre-med requirements at university, he founded SelfHacked because he wanted to make a big impact in improving global health. He's written hundreds of science posts, multiple books on improving health, and speaks at various health conferences. He's keen on building a brain-trust of top scientists who will improve the level of accuracy of health content on the web. He's also founded SelfDecode and LabTestAnalyzer, popular genetic and lab software tools to improve health.

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