Electromagnetic Fields: The Toxin of the New Century

The standards used to identify safe electromagnetic exposure levels for users of cellular phone handsets are inadequate and therefore enable handset manufacturers to distribute a product that places the health of the user at risk.

Today, the manufacturers of the devices and the government have not yet agreed upon a standard for testing and exposure levels for cellular communications. The current standard that is used as a default is based on outdated research that pertains to microwave frequencies used in communication and radar systems and does not apply to the lower-end frequencies such as those commonly used in cellular phone communication (Levitt, 19). Therefore, the standards used today to judge our safety is based on information that does not pertain to cellular frequencies.

Electromagnetic fields (EMF) are all around us. They travel at the speed of light and pass right through our bodies. It is very hard to avoid exposure to EMFs as they are emitted from objects that are a part of ones everyday life such as CRT computer monitors, cordless phones, a laptop computer, florescent lighting in an office and even the electrical wiring in a house. Obviously, some of these emit a smaller level of electromagnetic fields than others but as our demand for a clearer cordless phone connection in our homes and better reception for our cellular phones increases, so too does the amount and strength of the EMF frequencies that surround us. Surely cellular handsets would not have reached the popularity that they enjoy if the health risks were disclosed before they were introduced into the market.

The safety standard used most widely in the United States is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) C95.1 guidelines for microwave exposure (Levitt, 19). The implementation of this standard dates back to 1966, but the research used to form the standard dates back to 1942 when the Navy, and later the Air Force, began their own testing and research on the effects of microwave transmissions used in radar and weapons systems for national defense.

At any given time during the researching of the effects of microwaves exposure levels, three research perspectives existed: clinical, biological and engineering/physics. Essentially the engineering/physics conclusions won out over other competing interests, none of which represented the general public (Levitt, 28). Amid all of these competing and conflicting interests, the question of how it would affect the general public continued to be left out. Microwaves were seen as synonymous with radar, which was the province of the military and its industrial contractors. Times have changed however as there are many products in everyday life that are based on technology developed by the military and its contractors.

Microwave equipment didnt become available for testing to non-military organizations until after World War II. The first group to use it for research was the medical industry. In 1948, researchers at the Mayo Clinic made the first conclusive assessment of the adverse effects solely attributable to microwave exposure. The medical research showed that the use of microwave frequencies as a source for deep heating of selective body tissue was perceived to have health benefits. It was because of this apparent health benefit that a safety standard was not implemented. Little was done to regulate exposure levels until 1953 when a medical consultant to the Hughes Aircraft Corporation sent a report to the military that established for the first time a link to effects such as internal bleeding, brain tumors, and leukemia in relation to prolonged exposure to microwave exposure. The response from the military was immediate and they directed a panel to investigate the biological aspects of microwaves with the goal of establishing tolerance and dosage levels.

It was concluded by researchers that the effects of electromagnetic fields depend on a range of variables. These include the bodys size, shape, tissue type, orientation toward and distance from the generating source, the duration of exposure, the size of the wavelength and the power at which it is being generated. Different tissue types absorb wavelengths and frequencies very differently. This is true of different human tissue structures, such as skin vs. liver tissue, and is also true of other species. Tissue response to electromagnetic fields also varies greatly according to the tissues water content. Skin and muscles are more sensitive than bone and organs like the bladder, the testicles, and the brain are more sensitive still (Levitt, 57). One of the most notable cases in point is the increase in testicular cancer among law enforcement officers. It was found that officers were resting functioning radar guns in their laps while not in use and this was linked to the rise in testicular cancer.

From all of this research came the ANSI C95.1 standard, which was set at an exposure of 0.1 watt per square centimeter. After the establishment of the standard, companies such as General Electric and Bell Telephone Laboratories set stricter standards based on their own findings. Bell Telephone even went as far as developing a standard 1,000 times greater. This after researched showed that laboratory technicians who were regularly exposed to microwaves at power levels of around 0.1 watt per square centimeter developed cataracts, or lenticular opacities of the eye. Prior to this, the damage was thought to be due solely to the ability of microwaves to heat tissue, a so-called thermal effect. In essence, both industry and the military agreed that physical damage could occur. Other biological effects were largely ignored and the subject continues to be of scientific debate today.

The human anatomy is quite resilient and as such our body can absorb significant amounts of radiation of energy from environmental RF exposures. Keeping in mind that a kilohertz (kHz) is smaller than a gigahertz (GHz), the RF band generally falls between 3 kHz and 300 GHz, and humans absorb radiation best between 30 and 100 megahertz (MHz), with the maximum absorption for the average person being around 77 to 87 MHz (Levitt, 356). This means that our body responds to the lower end of this spectrum. As a result, when a cell phone signal is next to the brain there are changes in the brainwaves occurring in 70% of people (Cherry, 4). This is based on a power output of only two microwatts of power, or a fraction of the power used in a cellular handset and the measurement mentioned above. A research team at the University of Washington exposed biological cultures to the same level of microwaves encountered by users of cellular handsets and found that it caused irreparable DNA damage, which is a precursor to cancer (Kennedy, 3). The research team also exposed laboratory rats to low levels of microwaves and found damage associated with spatial learning problems, as well as Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease.

The result of the research and the safety margins established by the military and private industry were never intended to be final, rather the beginning of a long-term solution for microwave exposures. Many involved with setting the C95.1 standard objected to setting the recommendation at that time, given the state of scientific uncertainty. Some say the adoption of the standard was about pleasing the military rather than addressing a genuine safety issue. Unfortunately, the standard went unchallenged and became entrenched.

In todays society, not many people are aware of the effects and/or concerned with this type of exposure risk. There are currently about 100 million cellular handset users in the United States. Although the topic continues to be researched, the manufacturers and even possibly the government are not doing all that they should in notifying the public. Only recently have steps been taken to combat the previously unchallenged manufactures, however not all steps have been implemented here in the United States. For example, in New Zealand the government has banned cellular antenna placement on schoolhouses. In Scotland, the government has banned teenagers from using cellular phones because of the possible damage that the electromagnetic fields are doing to their still developing molecular structure. There is one recent notable exception. The three largest manufactures of the cellular handsets, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola recently agreed on their own accord to place a warning label on their products sold in the United States. Still, when confronted with questions about risk, experts do a sort of balancing act. Professor Paul Steffes of the Georgia Institute of Technology was recently quoted as saying while there is no documented risk at the levels of exposure for current cell phones, there is some uncertainty, as there is with many things in life, including exposure to the sun, and you have to maybe manage risk.

Some have called the militarys watchful eye over this type of research to be akin to the fox guarding the henhouse. The electromagnetic fields emitted by cellular handsets have been shown to have damaging effects on the human body. It has been purported that the industry knows the effects that the products have on the human body and yet they are not doing anything to change their ways. The manufacturers are simply operating in an environment established and regulated by the government and there currently are no incentives or requirements to develop products that do not pose a health risk. If we do not oppose the industry, changes will never be made to ensure our safety while using these products.


Cherry, Dr. Neil. The Electromagnetic Radiation Health Threat Part I. <www.nzine.co.nz/features/neilcherry.html>

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Kennedy, Dan. Waves of Doubt. <www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/features/99/04/01/EM.html>

Levitt, Blake B. Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumers Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves. San Diego: Harcourt, 1995

Levitt, Blake B. Cell-Phone Towers and Communities: The Struggle for Local Control. <www.envirolink.org/enviroarts/art_and_activism>

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