Wherever you are right now, you are being impacted by electromagnetic waves. They are a fundamental force in our universe. However, we humans have created a modern world that is increasingly full of electromagnetic radiation. Before we can understand the impact of EMFs, we have to look at what they are. Let’s ask the big question; what are EMFs, and why do they matter?
What Does EMF Stand for?
EMF stands for electromagnetic field. Electromagnetism is one of nature’s fundamental forces. We use this term in physics to describe the force that holds subatomic particles together and to describe the way in which a magnetic field can be created when electricity moves. In physics, electromagnetism is the study of the interaction between magnetism and electricity.
What are EMFs?
Perhaps the terminology is unfamiliar to many of us, but electromagnetic radiation itself is known to us all. In fact, the most common form of electromagnetism is the light all around us. Electromagnetic waves move at the speed of light and are all around us. The electromagnetic spectrum is how we describe the range of electromagnetic waves of different wavelengths and is made up of seven different waves. Beginning with the longer wavelengths, the electromagnetic spectrum is made up of radio waves, microwaves, infrared waves, ultraviolet light, visible light, x-rays, and gamma rays. If you picture waves moving towards you, it is easy to imagine how longer wavelengths mean fewer waves, while shorter wavelengths mean more waves in the same space of time.
So what are EMFs? At its most basic, an electromagnetic field is created by moving electrical charges. The electromagnetic field is the area in which an electromagnetic wave (or radiation) occurs. Sometimes visualizing this can be helpful, especially when pondering the question of what EMFs are and how they differ from electromagnetic waves. So electromagnetic fields are the medium through which the radiation moves. You can picture this by imagining that waves are waves of water, and the field is the sea.
The Discovery of EMFs
You could argue that the first living thing to see light or feel the heat of the sun discovered electromagnetism! Electromagnetic radiation is created by the action of the sun itself. While electromagnetism has been a fundamental part of life on earth since the universe began, scientists didn’t discover it until the late 19th century. While both magnetism and electricity had been known to science, the way in which they interacted was not understood; after all, they each behave very differently. It was Albert Einstein’s work on his special theory of relativity that provided the most comprehensive evidence that these two forces were interconnected. The work of leading names in physics such as Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell built on this foundation, with many physicists exploring the implications of these new discoveries. These discoveries and developments were taking place at a time when the world was fast filling up with electrical devices. It was increasingly apparent that electrical appliances created EMFs.
Ionizing and Non-Ionizing Radiation
Not all exposure to EMFs is the same. Scientists divide EMFs into two types; ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. UV light from the sun falls somewhere in the middle between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Distance matters too! The further you are from a source of radiation, the weaker the radiation will be.
Ionizing radiation (sometimes called high-level radiation) is shorter wave electromagnetic radiation such as gamma rays, UV light from the sun, and X-rays. These EMFs have shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies. These waves have the power to break chemical bonds by removing electrons from atoms. Removing electrons from atoms destabilizes them. When the human body is exposed to this type of radiation, serious oxidative damage can be caused. For this reason, we are carefully protected when these types of radiation are used. In medical procedures such as x-rays, we limit our exposure to the waves. Gamma rays are used to target and also destroy cancer cells, but again this is carefully monitored and controlled and only used when absolutely necessary so that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Non-ionizing EMFs cannot break chemical bonds in the same way that ionizing radiation can. This is because the waves have a lower frequency and a longer wavelength. Many scientists feel that these EMFs have not been studied sufficiently to establish that they are safe and are no risk to human health. We experience non-ionizing radiation all the time, from communication devices, computers, microwaves, power lines, wireless routers, cell phones, and Bluetooth devices, to name just a few.
Concerns About EMFs
Most people are less interested in asking what EMFs are and more interested in whether they are safe. We know that ionizing radiation poses a health risk. While extensive research has gone into trying to establish whether non-ionizing EMFs are safe or not, the evidence is unclear. It is well known that long-term or intense exposure, even to non-ionizing EMFs, can cause health problems, particularly to areas with low blood flow, such as the eyes and testicles. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified mobile phone EMFs as possibly carcinogenic to humans, and this has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization. The main reason why we don’t have conclusive evidence on whether certain devices produce radiation that is dangerous to our health is that many of these devices are so new that they simply haven’t been around for long enough. We simply don’t have the data to prove they are safe, and so studies continue. It is even harder to establish the safety of being exposed to multiple EMFs at a time. There have been major concerns about the danger posed to children and young people with developing brains. Many people feel strongly that it is not good enough to simply assume that EMFs are safe, and there is an increasing demand for studies into the subject and for ways to protect ourselves from potential harm.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has this to say:
“Now, in the age of cellular telephones, wireless routers, and the Internet of things, all of which use EMF, concerns persist about possible connections between EMF and adverse health effects. These exposures are actively being studied by NIEHS. NIEHS recommends continued education on practical ways of reducing exposures to EMFs.”