Instant expert

Instant Expert: Electromagnetic radiation

Breaking down the buzz of a shock-worthy pollution.



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What is electromagnetic radiation?

Electromagnetic radiation (EMR), sometimes called electrosmog or electromagnetic pollution, is emitted by all electrical and wireless technologies. Radiofrequency EMR is invisible but it’s everywhere – it is naturally produced by all matter in the Universe, with high levels produced by the Sun, and low levels by your body. However over the past 100 years or so, radio, television, power-lines, computers and, more recently, telecommunications (in particular mobile phones), have changed the way humans, plants and animals are exposed to EMR.

What do we know about it?

Naturally occurring levels of EMR probably have little or no effect on humans, but the proliferation of appliances in the 21st century has raised questions about setting safe levels of exposure. Unnaturally high levels of EMR – as used by microwave ovens or radio transmitters – have been suggested to cause cancers, miscarriages, genetic damage and other health problems, but there is no firm scientific evidence.

Since the late 1970s there have been hundreds of peer-reviewed papers published discussing the link between living near high voltage power-lines and the development of childhood leukemia, but while there is some statistical association between the two, no definite, causal link has been proved.

Research on the health effects from mobile phone technology is wrought with controversy, with some people suggesting that commercial interests are clouding the truth. The average age of mobile phone users is now lower than ever, so any effects of prolonged exposure could become more evident in the next decade.

Does it affect all living things?

Birds and bees use the Earth’s natural magnetic field for navigation, but magnetic interference from power lines and mobile phone technology may alter their ability to do this. Studies suggest wildlife is affected by radiofrequency (which is emitted by all wireless technology, from WiFi and cordless phones to phone masts) and there have been calls to ban the installation of phone masts in protected natural areas and where endangered species are present.

What is being done about it?

In May this year, the Council of Europe was so concerned about the possible harm caused by EMR to children that it debated removing WiFi and mobile phones from schools but the proposal was dropped.

The International Agency for the Research for Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of the World Health Organisation, coordinated the largest study on the health effects of mobile phone radiation to date, covering 13 countries, including Australia, called the INTERPHONE Project. Some statistical links were found between high phone use and brain tumours, and in May IARC classified mobile phone radiation as possibly carcinogenic.

How can I avoid it?

“To avoid electromagnetic radiation in the home it’s important to use wired connections wherever you can and avoid wireless connections,” says Lyn McLean, author of The Force: Living safely in a world
of electromagnetic pollution.

While she advises avoiding “long-term exposure while you’re sleeping”, Dr Lindsay Martin of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency says sensible precautions should be weighed against advantages of technology that could provide security and health benefits.

McLean says there are safer alternatives to using a phone as an alarm clock, such as battery-operated or electric devices, and she suggests using non-bluetooth hands-free on a mobile, and texting instead.

What the movers and shakers think

Professor Ian Olver, CEO Cancer Council Australia
“There are no large studies to date that prove power lines or mobile phones cause or increase your cancer risk. Current evidence suggests the low frequency electromagnetic fields do not damage our DNA. However, we keenly monitor new research in this area.”  

Lyn McLean, author of The Force
“If we could see electromagnetic radiation we’d see ourselves surrounded in a haze of pulsing biologically-active energy. This is irradiating every animal, every plant, every organism on the entire planet and it’s changing the electromagnetic environment of the planet.”

Dr. Lindsay Martin, Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency
“While there is little evidence of widespread health effects or environmental impact from EMR, there is enough circumstantial evidence to justify precaution in regard to prolonged exposure to magnetic fields from electrical infrastructure such as power lines and children’s use of mobile phones.”