This paper will explore what, if any, health effects are correlated with exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). This is an area of growing interest as wireless technology (resulting in ever increasing exposure to these fields) has quickly become ubiquitous throughout the world, with little public debate having taken place amongst individuals exploring these effects, or knowledgeable in the matters concerning them. The paper will dive into research that has been conducted over the past fifty years, and culminate with a more realistic discussion over these topics that has been absent from the current socioeconomic climate.
A quick search online concerning the health effects of electromagnetic fields might leave the reader with some questions, perhaps even confusion. Indeed, a number of sites quickly dismiss the notion that low-level electromagnetic fields could be playing any adverse role in human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) states on their website that
“Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”
According to these authors, there is nothing to be concerned about except, as is often argued, psychosomatic symptoms upon exposure to the current levels of electromagnetic fields, clearly having no correlation with any real adverse biological processes. But instead of just assuming what we already have been told, the author believes that in science all perspectives should first be discussed, and then further dissected to present a complete truth. After all, assuming anything is entirely correct based on the authority of the day is what is commonly referred to as dogma, an approach science is supposed to steer far away from.
Before we get into the dissection of the literature that has been published to date, it is first important to discuss what mechanisms of action EMFs have on biological systems. The argument made from those who say there are no adverse health effects will point to the idea that this longer wavelength electromagnetic radiation demonstrates non- ionizing interactions (right, Figure 1) with biological materials. Those scientists who argue there are adverse effects acknowledge this and claim it is a result of certain mechanisms related to non-ionizing radiation.
It is important to point out that no scientist or person knowledgable on these matters would claim EMFs do not interact with matter. If they claim this, then they do not understand even the most fundamental aspects of science and matter. Matter and energy are complementary, with a clear recognition of observed duality between energy waveforms and particles, where matter on an atomic scale behaves according to wavefunctions described for particular atomic and molecular arrangements. This duality has become known as the de Broglie hypothesis, proposed by Louis de Broglie in his 1924 thesis entitled On The Theory of Quanta. Here is the first truth: All EMFs DO interact with biological materials. But to what extent, and when is it problematic?
Ionizing radiation causes direct chemical changes (left, Figure 1) in biological materials, which have been studied extensively and found to result in a number of adverse health effects, such as DNA damage, reproductive problems, leukemia, as well as various other types of cancers. In this regard, there is no doubt among scientists that high- doses of ionizing radiation can wreak havoc on biological systems, resulting in all of the aforementioned adverse health effects. Here is the second truth: High-dose ionizing radiation presents many serious adverse health effects and should be avoided.
It should be noted that while all scientists should be quick to point out that there is a direct correlation between ionizing radiation and adverse health effects, this is not entirely true. Recent literature has discussed that when exploring the epidemiology of cancer resulting from low doses of ionizing radiation, there are no clear correlations between the two. This is a typical problem with epidemiology studies, along with other problems such as exposure misclassification. therefore as a scientist, one must be guided less by these studies but instead looking to the direct effects on biological materials from these different types (and concentrations) of radiation. Low-doses of ionizing radiation cannot be definitively viewed as adverse to human health, considering humans are exposed to low-dose ionizing radiation each day. This exposure comes from ultraviolet (UV) rays of sunlight, X-rays and gamma rays that originate from cosmic origins, as well as nuclear decay processes occurring terrestrial; both natural and manmade. Here is the third truth: Low-dose ionizing radiation is not directly correlated to adverse health effects. Note that this is not the same as saying this type of radiation does not cause adverse effects. Ionizing radiation, as discussed above is well-known to cause adverse effects, especially at high doses. So then it becomes a semantic argument, and unless we know specific concentrations and the cause and effect from those specific concentrations, all of the data becomes uncertain. This is virtually impossible to control for in any given epidemiological study, further complicated by the ethical constraints of such experiments (exposing individuals to radiation).
Looking next at the effects of non-ionizing radiation, the question becomes, does there exist strong evidence supporting the notion that high dose non-ionizing radiation causes adverse health effects?
It is well-documented, even by authors at the WHO that there exist correlations between high-dose non-ionizing radiation and adverse health effects. These correlations have been shown by many groups to be the result of local heating from exposure to the microwave spectrum, ranging from roughly 300MHz (1 m) to 300 GHz (1 mm), which are typical ranges for common devices such as cellular phones, cordless phones, WiFi, and eventually 5G technologies. This leads to a fourth truth: High exposures to non-ionizing radiation is found to be highly correlated with adverse health effects, just as is the case with non-ionizing radiation. This mechanism differs from that of ionizing radiation (see Figure 1) but still poses problems for biological systems. You would not want to place your hand inside an operating microwave oven, and yet these same signals embody all of the current wireless communication technologies at lower concentrations.
This obviously leads one to wonder if low-dose non-ionizing radiation causes adverse effects. The reader can probably surmise that the data for these processes is uncertain, just as was the case with ionizing radiation. Numerous studies point out that while there is no direct statistical correlation between the two, this does not imply that there are no effects. It is peculiar then that mainstream science uses these publications to argue that there is clearly no correlation or reason for concern and that these effects are created entirely by the mind, when after the IARC places RF radiation in Group 2B, as a possible carcinogen. It would seem that the responsible approach to take as a scientist would be stating that there are clearly effects, we just do not understand the exact implications of long-term health at present. If we review the claims made by many of the largest agencies, such as the American Cancer Society, World Health Organization, and others, it would seem on the surface that there are virtually no concerns whatsoever, even though we can say with certainty that this is not the case, as even by their own statements, there have not been enough studies to fully conclude anything. This brings us back again to the concept of dogma, and the pride of these individual scientists who have made vicious claims against those people who believe they suffer from conditions originating from RF exposure, writing these effects off as psychosomatic.
Even back in the early 2000s, a paper came out by an author from the WHO that states
“Reports from in vitro research indicate that low-level RF fields may alter membrane structural and functional properties that trigger cellular responses. It has been hypothesized that the cell membrane may be susceptible to low-level RF fields, especially when these fields are amplitude modulated at low frequencies. At high frequencies, however, low-level RF fields do not induce appreciable membrane potentials. They can penetrate the cell membrane and possibly influence cytoplasmic structure and function.”
This brings us to the next important question; what exactly are low-frequency RF fields doing to the biological tissues? Recent work from Martin Pall highlighting numerous research articles has considered a specific mechanism of action upon cellular membrane structural and functional properties, as generalized in Figure 2. Pall reviewed the literature and found strong evidence to suggest these fields modulate the voltage-gated calcium channels of membrane structures, which are responsible for controlling the intracellular concentrations of Ca2+. An important note is that these channels are most predominant in ocular and neural cells. A byproduct of increased intracellular calcium ions is peroxynitrite, which reacts in various fashions with different biomolecules. It has been shown to induce lipid peroxidation, cause DNA strand scission, oxidize cysteine, lysine, methionine and histidine residues as well as nitrate heterocyclic compounds like tryptophan and guanine or phenolics like tyrosine. Further work by Pall highlights the widespread neuropsychiatric effects as a result of these various types of signals. He concluded that the pattern of evidence suggests, based on previous statements by other researchers that “the primary questions now involve specific exposure parameters, not the reality of complaints or attempts to attribute such complaints to psychosomatic causes, malingering or beliefs in paranormal phenomena.” In fact, the standardization organization IEEE noted back in 1991 that non-thermal effects, such as efflux of calcium ions from brain tissues, were potential health hazards from exposure to low levels of microwave irradiation.
We then turn to look at the specific exposure parameters, starting with signal modulation. As stated by the WHO in 2001, biological effects seem to be attenuated when the fields are amplitude modulated which is a standard modulation scheme for modern telecommunications. Figure 3 illustrates the basic types of signal modulation.
There has been extensive scientific interest in the biological effects of pulsed versus continuous wave exposure, inspired by the rapidly decreasing cost of laser components. Research has explored many therapeutic benefits or adverse effects from each, depending on various factors. Relating back to the work of Pall, Hashim et al. have noted the correlation in studies between the kinetics of voltage-gated ion channels and pulsed wave schemes. The timeframe for the opening and closing of the pores in the voltage-gated ion channels is on the millisecond scale, so a typical pulsed light wave will often be employed in that same regime (0.1 to 160 milliseconds). Furthermore, the authors discuss another mechanism of action which is the direct photodissociation of nitric oxide (NO) from heme-type enzymes (such as cytochrome c oxidase). They postulated that if the light wave is pulsed, multiple photodissociation events could occur, compared with CW mode where the number of dissociations may be much smaller. This work is intimately related to the expanding field of optogenetics, which employs light waves to modulate light-sensitive ion channels, typically genetically modified neural cells.
But the research exploring these differences go much further back than just recent years. Research in the early 1980s demonstrated that rodent exposure to continuous wave versus pulsed microwaves shows a clear correlation with reduced performance metrics. They found that across all power densities, rodent response rates after pulsed wave exposure was statistically lower than after CW exposure (P< 0.05). There also appeared to be a power-density-related decrease in the rate of response, with the highest PW exposure level (15 mW/cm2) producing the largest decrease. Sander et al. compared the effects of pulsed versus continuous wave schemes on the production and homeostasis of NADH, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and creatine phosphate (CP). While they did not notice differences between the two modulation schemes, it was found that 591MHz microwave irradiation influenced the concentrations of these components, without an increase in temperature, which was held constant throughout the study. The authors of the study suggest that a direct interaction mechanism occurs, and is consistent with a hypothesis of microwave inhibition of mitochondrial electron transport chain function of ATP production. Regel et al. explored the effects of continuous wave versus pulsed wave exposure to human working-memory tasks. They found that no effects were observed for continuous-wave signals, but noted a statistically significant decrease in performance after exposure to pulsed sequences. They suggest that their findings provide further evidence for non-thermal biological effects of pulsed electromagnetic fields. Czerska et al. found an effect on pulsed wave irradiation of human lymphocytes, causing enhanced transformations beyond expectations from simply the heating effect. These examples are not intended to illustrate that continuous wave exposure is safe, and pulsed wave exposure is not. It is clear from the literature that there are many factors to consider in these studies, such as cell type, irradiation wavelength (frequency), exposure time, or others. It was discussed above, however, that a pulse of the right timescale (milliseconds) can activate ion-channels to a greater degree than for CW exposure.
This is in stark contrast to the statements from the large agencies, which state that the effects of microwave irradiation occur due to localized heating. Yet, much of the evidence arguing against adverse health effects from pulsed modulations come from inconsistent studies that are not able to draw direct correlations. This leads to the fifth truth: There is ample evidence dating back fifty years that suggests low-level exposures to EMFs cause changes in biological functioning outside of the scope for strictly localized heating effects.
The other specific exposure paradigm is what, if any, difference is there among individuals of different genders and body types/sizes. In 1982, “ANSI adopted a standard for whole body exposure at 0.4W/kg averaged over 6 min, and a 20-fold greater spatial peak SAR exposure over any 1 gram of tissue of 8 W/kg averaged over 6 min. Effectively, this allowed higher exposures within the small area of the brain than is permitted over the body, with evidence suggesting this is the area most susceptible to potential adverse effects. No reason was ever given for this increase. The ANSI standard noted the resonant frequency (70 MHz) results in an approximate sevenfold increase of absorption relative to that in a 2450 MHz field. These limits, which were adopted by IEEE in 1991 and eventually the FCC in 1997, were not based on accurate models of exposure to the cranial region due to a lack of standards for the modeling of liquid within the region. These thresholds limits are currently still applied uniformly, without direct acknowledgment that each gender and body type/size will respond quite differently to the fields. This is especially important for child exposures, where the absorption of these fields is found to be more pervasive, and penetrate much deep than the adult model used for standardization. Extensive recent research in this area has been carried out by Devra Davis, who has published numerous reports highlighting the deficiencies in the standards, correlating exposure to cellular microwave radiation with cancer, male and female reproductive problems, along with neurological effects. Another of the major concerns with the standardization process is that the studies are rarely carried out under typical operating parameters of the device (i.e. in a pocket, against the head). Instead, the studies employ a spacer between the head and device, in compliance with the operating instructions of the devices. This is the sixth truth:Your cellphone should never be kept in your pocket or against your body, even according to the manufacturer. Doing this significantly enhances exposure, with exposure power densities much higher than the standardized allowances.
It seems that the body of evidence suggesting that there are deficiencies with the standard exposure limits across gender and age, the fundamental understandings of the bio-molecular processes, and the resulting physiological effects is staggering. To suggest it is limited, or even no evidence exists directly correlating biological consequences upon exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields is negligible at best, criminal at worst. Yet this is the current position of the World Health Organization, and many others.
Overview of the Clinical Literature
In the previous section, the author attempted to provide a detailed explanation of the potential mechanistic processes occurring upon exposure to both ionizing as well as non-ionizing radiation of various types. This section will provide an overview of recent work exploring some clinical outcomes upon exposure to radiation similar to that experienced in a typical day of modern life (dense fields from WiFi, cellular, etc). This is designed to be a brief overview of Magda Havas work from the University of Trent, who has recently published several review articles exploring these clinical outcomes in greater detail. I refer the reader to those works.
One of the best places to explore what motivates any academic group or individual is to explore who provided the resources to conduct the study. Indeed there are various studies that argue no direct correlation can be drawn, and these works are often exploring epidemiology studies, which have previously been discussed as being problematic in this particular context, given the high variability in exposure limits and other compounding factors. In a recent study, Leeka Kheifets and authors published a paper quite definitively stating that there was no concerning correlation to biological effects. They conclude that “Although the epidemiological evidence suggests excess risk with occupational EMF exposure for some health outcomes, there is no outcome for which the combined evidence is strong or consistent enough to support the conclusion that a health hazard exists.” Think about what was just written. The authors said that there exists evidence of links between “occupational EMF exposure for some health outcomes” but that because the results are not strong or consistent enough (semantics), no health hazards exist. You probably won’t be surprised to know that several of the co-authors were from the Electric Power Research Institute and National Grid, and the corresponding author (Kheifets) chaired and received intellectual contributions from those attending an Energy Networks Association (ENA) conference.
This is not to single out a single researcher, as many additional examples exist that conclude the same outcomes based on input and funding from companies that have a clear interest in a particular conclusion. Between 1994 and 1998, the Electric and Magnetic Fields Research and Public Information Dissemination (EMF-RAPID) Program funded greater than 40 million USD on research related to the biological effects of EMFs. These programs were sponsored by some of the largest power companies, including AEP, the Electric Power Research Institute, and others. This points out a fundamental flaw with research in the modern era, where instead of the public having a direct say in what is researched, industry sponsors nudge research outcomes in the direction that suits their particular needs. This could put the control back in the hands of the people.
While the debate certainly is tilted in the favor of the large funding bodies and institutions with large capital expenditures, the science simply does not support these notions. While many of epidemiological studies have found inconclusive results, this is to be expected. Exposure to the specific kinds of high-density microwaves used for modern telecommunications has been shown by several groups to take more than a decade of exposure to observe clinically significant effects. Indeed, Savitz et al. published in a 1998 study that the onset and lag of observed negative neurodegenerative problems can be on the order of >20 years. When considering that possible lag, there are countless other factors that can end up playing a role in exposure and diagnosis. They state in the work that “Cumulative career exposure was more strongly associated with Alzheimer's disease mortality, with a monotonic dose- response gradient for the underlying cause of death but imprecise risk estimate.” In layman terms, the effects take a long time to be noticed, and there are many problems associated with the studies and correlations drawn from them. A recent study by Khurana et al. excluded all epidemiological studies where participants were not exposed to microwave radiation from cellular phones for at least ten years. From this data, they concluded that the risk of developing cancer was nearly twice that for a control group.
There exist countless additional studies directly correlating exposure with clinical outcomes, not making use of epidemiological evidence. Leszczynski et al. showed that mobile phone exposure caused a transient increase in phosphorylation of hsp27, an effect which was prevented by SB203580, a specific inhibitor of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (p38MAPK). Also, mobile phone exposure caused transient changes in the protein expression levels of hsp27 and p38MAPK. All these changes are non- thermal effects, contrary to the notion that non-thermal effects cannot cause a change in biological systems. Salford et al. showed that both CW and pulsed 915 MHz microwaves have the potential to open up the blood-brain barrier for albumin passage. Diem et al. showed “RF-EMF exposure (1800 MHz; SAR 1.2 or 2 W/kg; different modulations; during 4, 16 and 24 h; intermittent 5 min on/10 min off or continuous wave) induced DNA single- and double-strand breaks.” The list goes on. This evidence sheds light on how well-known these effects actually are unless you refuse to look at the real scientific data. Yakymento et al. performed an extensive review recently and showed that ninety-three of one hundred articles drew a positive correlation to oxidative stress, which leads to a host of biological problems.
The previous sections detailed mechanistic considerations and clinical outcomes upon exposure to microwave radiation, providing ample evidence of the biological effects stemming from non-thermal effects. The author did not seek to provide an overview of epidemiological studies because of their clear methodological issues. These concerns include: (1) Is the study adequately modeling the reality of usage and exposure? (2) Is there an anticipated delay of onset before effects are seen (possibly ten years or more)? (3) Is the work being supported by financial interests that have a clear agenda, desiring specific outcomes? Epidemiological studies should only be utilized as a tool when one is unable to perform detailed mechanistic studies to understand biological effects of exposure.
Additionally, the standard exposure limit set has two major flaws that cannot be ignored. (1) The guidelines set are designed to account for strictly localized heating effects. This paper has highlighted that the standardization bodies have recognized for at least thirty years that there are various concerns of non-thermal effects related to microwave exposure, yet no effort has been made to remedy this discrepancy in knowledge. In fact, the national and global health agencies do not even publicly recognize the discrepancy brought forth by their own scientists. (2) The threshold limits are set for an adult male, when the exposure to children is increasing at an ever increasing rate. It would seem that the responsible choice for public policy would be to revise these standards in an effort to reduce childhood exposure, where the risks are clearly greatest.
The body of evidence for adverse non-thermal health effects from EMFs is overwhelming, with thousands of articles dating back almost a century studying biological effects from microwave radiation that can not be explained away simply through the notion of the standard argument that localized thermal heating effects have little or no adverse health outcomes.
This work has shown that their is a body of evidence for non-thermal effects from microwave radiation, first considering mechanistic and evidentiary-based science, and then an overview of clinical outcomes. The evidence used by industry interests suggest that there are no known health effects, with correlations in epidemiological studies being to inconsistent to warrant any public health risk. However, as has been illustrated in this piece, this is far from the truth. Epidemiology at its core is based on statistical analysis, not direct evidentiary science. If it is a matter of public health, society should expect nothing less than definitive answers, when possible. Fortunately, we have those answers and they clearly correlate exposure to microwave radiation to numerous non- thermal biological effects. The author has sought to demonstrate with a high level of certainty that there are a myriad of adverse health outcomes associated with these exposures, especially in children. This leads us to a final truth: The policy making, driven by associations with industrial partners (lobbying) is not designed to make beneficial decisions for future generations, but decisions based on how much it influences industry profits. These two interests rarely coincide. Science has the tools to understand processes with a high degree of certainty (mechanistic-based science), and it is important for the public to demand these types of studies (instead of statistical analyses) to protect the future generations from self-serving interests.
1 https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/radiation/electromagnetic-fields-fact-sheet#q4, https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/emf.html, https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/electromagnetic-hypersensitivity-and-wifi-allergies-bogus-diagnoses-with-tragic-real-world-consequences/
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