How much EMF is safe?
All humans are irradiated 24 hours a day by electromagnetic fields (EMF). Some are subjected to much higher levels than others. How much is too much?
Keywords: EMF, electromagnetic field, electromagnetic radiation, safety limits, safe limits, guidelines
How much EMF is too much?
The short answer is that nobody really knows, that scientists are hotly debating this, and that much science suggests that many people are already exposed too much.
The debate is also influenced by the fact that lowering today's limits have enormous financial implications for some very large and powerful sectors of society, including manufacturers of wireless gadgets, operators of mobile phone towers, electric utilities and the military. On top of that is the general public which has become used to wireless gadgets and would be upset by any restrictions on their use.
The official limits
Today's legal limits are almost everywhere solely based on the heating effect. A strong enough EMF will literally vibrate the water molecules inside a human body so strongly that it heats up. The same effect is used inside a microwave oven. An induction stove cooks the food by EMFs as well, using a somewhat similar effect.
This is called the "thermal effect" and is all well understood and accepted. The problem is that EMF has other effects on the human body, at much lower levels. They are called the "non-thermal" effects and are documented by literally thousands of scientific studies (Sage 2012; Blank 2014; Belyaev, 2016).
The disagreement is whether these effects are harmful or not and at what levels they are safe. This issue has been fought over for several decades now.
Regulators who set the limits are very cautious about changing the old standards. Like all political bodies they are trying to weigh the evidence and the political winds. People are rarely marching in the streets demanding lower radiation limits.
Or the other side there is much political lobbying to keep things as they are.
Meanwhile, where the new limits should be is murky at best. Regulators tend to be very afraid of making mistakes, while no action is usually safe for them.
Some people need lower limits than others
It is hotly debated among scientists, but it appears that some people are more affected by electromagnetic radiation than others.
Some scientists believe that EMF is an important factor in the epidemic of childhood autism, ADHD and asthma seen in recent decades (Sage 2017; Divan 2008, 2012; Herbert 2013; Thomas 2009; Li 2011).
This could mean that pregnant women and children need lower EMF levels than other people.
There are also reports that autistic children become calmer when the EMF level is lowered (Clear Light Ventures 2016).
Even more hotly debated is whether there are people who are hypersensitive to EMFs, even at very low levels (Belyaev 2016; www.eiwellspring.org/health/IntroductionToEHS.htm).
What scientists suggest
Scientists who are independent of financial interests tend to accept the non-thermal effects. Three groups of them have come up with some suggestions. As more data became available, their suggested limits were lowered.
Suggested radio-frequency radiation levels from independent scientists.
Please note that some people use other units for radio-frequency radiation. 1 uW/cm2 = 10,000 uW/m2..
The EUROPAEM group is the first to suggest radiation limits for sensitive populations, including people with electrical hypersensitivity (EHS). The two BioInitiative reports stated there was a need to further protect vulnerable people, but could not offer a suggested range.
These recommendations are in sharp contrast to the limits recommended by ICNIRP, which forms the basis for the legal limits in most countries (ICNIRP 2020):
ICNIRP radio-frequency radiation limits.
ICNIRP does not accept the non-thermal health effects, so their guidelines are solely based on the thermal (heating) health effects. They are also for short term only, not ongoing exposures.
ICNIRP is a private organization, which is closely aligned with the interests of the wireless industry. Membership is by invitation only and their funding is kept secret (Hardell 2017, 2020; Buchner, 2020).
As anyone with a cheap RF-meter can verify, the radiation levels in urban areas are already well above 1000 uW/m2 in many places. Sometimes they can be above 100,000 uW/m2 (Hardell 2018).
Other EMF guidelines
The radio frequencies get the most interest these days, but there are other forms of EMF that are equally important, such as from power lines and household wiring.
The table below is a condensed version of the EUROPAEM guidelines (Belyaev 2016):
EMF guidelines from EUROPAEM
(nT = nanotesla, mG = milligauss, V/m = volt-pr-meter).
There are today no standards for dirty electricity. The issue has received too little scientific attention to set any official standards. Dirty electricity is in the VLF range (3 kHz – 3 MHz) and thus somewhat covered by the EUROPAEM guidelines.
Limits for people with EHS
Setting protective limits for people with electrical hypersensitivity is exceedingly difficult and much science still needs to be done (and virtually no funding for it is available).
The level of sensitivity varies from person to person. People can be sensitized to some frequencies and not to others. Other factors may also be important, such as wave forms.
There have been virtually no scientific studies done to establish the safe radiation levels for people with severe EHS, as that is a very slow and difficult task.
Even the lowest limits suggested for "sensitive" people will not be low enough for some people with severe EHS. Based on anecdotes, they would need to be lowered by another factor of 10 to 100, and possibly even more, to be truly inclusive. Such levels used to be widely available, but today are found only in remote rural areas.
Articles about protection against EMF are available on www.eiwellspring.org/shielding.html.
For information on how to measure EMF, go to www.eiwellspring.org/measureemfmenu.html.
Austrian Medical Association. Guideline of the Austrian Medical Association for the diagnosis and treatment of EMF-related health problems and illnesses (EMF syndrome), Austrian Medical Association EMF Working Group, 2012.
Belyaev, I. et al. EUROPAEM EMF Guideline 2016 for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of EMF-related health problems and illnesses, Reviews on Environmental Health, 2016.
Blank, Martin. Overpowered: what science tells us about the dangers of cell phones and other wifi-age devices, Seven Stories Press, 2014.
Buchner, Klaus and Michele Rivasi. The international commission on non-ionizing radiation protection: conflicts of interest, corporate capture and the push for 5G, Brussels, June 2020.
Clear Light Ventures. Autism One 2016: The wireless-free tent experience, www.clearlightventures.com, September 8, 2016.
Divan HA, Kheifets L, Obel C, Olsen J. Prenatal and postnatal exposures to cell phone use and behavioral problems in children, Epidemiology, 19, 523-529, July 2008.
Divan HA, Kheifets L., Obel C, Olsen J. Cell phone use and behavioral problems in young children, British Medical Journal, 2012.
Hardell, Lennart. World Health Organization radiofrequency radiation and health - a hard nut to crack, International Journal of Oncology, 2017.
Hardell, Lennart et al. Radiofrequency radiation from nearby base stations gives high levels in an apartment in Stockholm, Sweden: a case report, Oncology Letters, 2018
Hardell, Lennart and Michael Carlberg. Health risks from radiofrequency radiation, including 5G, should be assessed by experts with no conflicts of interest, Oncology Letters, 20: 15, 2020.
Herbert, Martha and Cindy Sage. Autism and EMF? Plausibility of a pathophysiological link – part 1, Pathophysiology, 20, 191-209, 2013.
ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection). Guidelines for limiting exposure to electromagnetic fields (100 kHz to 300 GHz), Health Physics, 118, 483-524, 2020.
Li, De-Kun, Hong Chen, Roxana Odouli. Maternal exposure to magnetic fields during pregnancy in relation to the risk of asthma in offspring, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 2011.
Sage, Cindy and David Carpenter (editors). BioInitiative, a rationale for a biologically-based public exposure standard for electromagnetic fields (ELF and RF), 2007.
Sage, Cindy and David Carpenter (editors). BioInitiative, a rationale for a biologically-based public exposure standard for electromagnetic fields (ELF and RF), 2012.
Sage, Cindy and Ernesto Burgio. Electromagnetic fields, pulsed radiofrequency radiation and epigenetics: how wireless technologies may affect childhood development, Child Development, 2017.
Thomas, S. et al. Exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields and behavioral problems in Bavarian children and adolescents, European Journal of Epidemiology, December 2009.