International Health News

Magnetic Fields and Your Health

by Hans R. Larsen, MSc ChE

Hans Larsen The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has just released a major report dealing with the health risks of strong electromagnetic fields generated by appliances and power lines (50-60 Hz). The first indication that strong electromagnetic fields may be linked to cancer came in 1979 when American researchers discovered that children living near high-power wiring had double or triple the chance of developing leukemia, lymphoma, or tumors of the nervous system. Since then many studies have refuted this finding while others have supported it. Recently though, the number of studies supporting the connection have started to significantly outweigh the studies denying it.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that workers at an aluminum plant who were regularly exposed to high currents died from leukemia and lymphoma at five times the expected rate. A study of 223,000 electric utility workers found that workers with a high exposure to strong currents had a three-fold increase in their risk of developing leukemia and a twelve-fold increase in the risk of developing certain brain cancers. Researchers at the University of North Carolina concluded that female electrical workers were 40 per cent more likely to die from breast cancer than were women in non- electrical jobs. A four- to six-fold increase in breast cancer among male electricity and telephone workers has also been observed. In a study released in the summer of 1994, American and Finnish researchers discovered that dressmakers have a three times higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease than does the general population. Dressmakers are routinely exposed to electromagnetic fields from their sewing machines which give them about three times the occupational exposure of power line workers.

Laboratory work has shown that exposure to electromagnetic fields slows the outflow of calcium in chicken brain cells. Field exposure also speeds up the copying of DNA strands, a potential cancer-causing mechanism. Electromagnetic fields also disrupt the lipid membranes of the cell; this would change the cell's control over what chemicals enter and leave it. A very recent study of breast cancer cells found that cancer cells react to exposure by electromagnetic fields by proliferating. Healthy cells do not show this reaction.

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The increased interest in electromagnetic fields has also had some benefits. Some hospitals are now using strongly pulsed fields to stimulate the healing of broken bones.

While the connection between electromagnetic field exposure and cancer is still not acknowledged by the medical community, progressive researchers are recommending prudent precautions. They point out that many appliances in the home and office generate potent fields; among them: electric blankets, TV screens and computer terminals, electric clocks, hair dryers, electric shavers and toothbrushes, photocopiers, ovens and microwave ovens, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and fluorescent lights. Other sources of powerful fields are electric closets, entry boxes, and wiring. Faulty wiring can cause extremely high fields and can be discovered by checking out your home with a gauss meter. Office buildings frequently expose workers to very high fields. Some companies have decided to vacate their office space rather than risk their employees' health. According to an article in Microwave News several offices in the Chrysler Building and at Gateway Plaza in New York were recently vacated because of very high fields.

So what can you do to minimize your exposure to harmful electromagnetic fields?

  • Have your home evaluated for electromagnetic hotspots and elmininate them or try to stay away from them even if it means rearranging the bedroom.
  • Replace your electric blanket with a down-filled comforter or turn it off (remove plug from outlet) when you get into bed.
  • Replace your computer monitor with one that meets Swedish safety standards (MPR II standards).
  • Use your electric razor and hair dryer sparingly, if at all.
  • Move electric clocks and telephone answering machines so that they are at least 1.5 meters away from the bed.
  • Move your bed away from walls with major appliances or wiring on the other side and away from measured hotspots.
  • Sit at least at arm's length distance from your computer monitor; at least 1.5 meters from the back of another monitor, and at least 2 meters away from your television screen.
REFERENCE: Perry, Tekla S. Today's view of magnetic fields. IEEE Spectrum, December 1994, pp. 14-23


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