The omnipresence of electrical appliances in our daily life is a cause for concern. To date, no scientific study has succeeded in demonstrating the harmfulness of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields. Some studies have uncovered statistical correlations, but fail to explain the causal link. When in doubt, the precautionary principle is applied.
Difficulty in assessing the risks
Although the mainly carcinogenic risks of ionizing radiation (X-rays, medical X-rays, scans, nuclear energy) are proven, those of non-ionizing radiation are more controversial for several reasons:
- we do not yet have the necessary perspective to study the appearance of certain diseases that can sometimes take 30 years to appear (cancers)
- for ethical reasons, it is difficult to conduct experiments on humans
- the results of the studies (most epidemiological) are varied and contradictory
- the risk related to exposure to electromagnetic fields is multifactorial, so it is difficult to isolate the factor that is most responsible for the risk: cumulation of fields, exposure time, intensity, etc.
What are the risk factors for electromagnetic fields?
The risks and dangers of the waves of an electromagnetic field may depend on:
- the frequency of the wave (Hz))
- the intensity of the electromagnetic field (V/m for radio frequencies and μT for extremely low frequencies)
- the duration of the exposure
- the exposed body part.
The lower the frequencies, the greater the difference between the electric and magnetic fields.
A distinction is therefore made between the effects on health of the electric field and those of the magnetic field:
- the electric field does not penetrate the body or only to a very slight degree
- the magnetic field penetrates the body.
It is therefore generally the magnetic fields that pose the greatest problem (extremely low frequencies).
DID YOU KNOW? In general, it is enough to move away from an electrical appliance to cause its magnetic field to decrease considerably. At a distance of 30 cm, the magnetic field around most appliances does not exceed one hundredth of the limit value of 100μT at a frequency of 50Hz.
Mobiles, Wifi and mobile networks: what are the risks?
To date, no scientific study has been able to demonstrate that WiFi, mobiles or other devices producing radiofrequency electromagnetic fields represented a risk to health.
Some studies have shown a correlation between prolonged use of mobiles and the occurrence of glioma (brain tumor). For this reason, radiofrequency waves emitted by mobiles are classified as possible carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Exposure levels to Wifi or wireless phone base stations are much lower and further away from the body, so the risk, if any, should be much lower than that of mobiles.
To date, there is no scientific consensus on the causal links between mobile phone waves and the risk of developing cancer.
Research is continuing to try to assess the risk of low but prolonged exposure.
The arrival of the new mobile network 5G, has given rise to fake news and conspiracy theories. Next to the frequency range used by the already installed networks, 5G also emits higher frequencies as part of the optimal operation of the 5G network (e.g. 26 and 66 GHz). Given the small depth of penetration at higher frequencies, effects will mainly occur in the superficial layers of the skin and eyes, and not in the deeper tissues as may be the case with lower frequencies.
DID YOU KNOW? The intensity of a magnetic field depends on the technology of the appliance: recent computer screens and mobile phones emit weaker magnetic fields than the old ones. In addition, the smaller the appliance, the higher its magnetic field because it is less “encased”. Appliances used in the immediate vicinity of the body (drill, hair dryer) increase the exposure to the magnetic field.
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High voltage power lines, computers and electrical appliances (50Hz): What are the risks?
All household and electronic appliances we use on a daily basis produce weak electromagnetic fields with exposure well below biological effects thresholds and standards (100 µT, DAS 4W/kg).
Studies show a significant statistical relationship between childhood leukemia and prolonged residential exposure to low frequency magnetic fields above 0.2 and 0.4μT. However, no biological effect makes it possible to explain this link today.
Underground cables emit only a weak electric field (thanks to the metallic sheath) but the magnetic fields are still present and can even be higher than those generated by an overhead line, but they also decrease faster with distance.
Sun and ultraviolet radiation: what are the risks?
Ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun and sun beds are on the border between non-ionizing waves and ionizing waves, and are considered carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)..
In fact, intense and repeated exposure to ultraviolet rays causes premature aging of the skin and increases the risk of skin cancer.
The ultraviolet rays for sun beds is 6 times more intens then the sun at noon. Moreover, they consist mainly out of UVA rays. The frequent use of sun beds is nowadays strongly discouraged (anti cancer foundation).
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Ionizing radiation is harmful to the body and is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a proven carcinogen.
Unlike non-ionizing radiation, the risks exist at the lowest radiation intensities and these effects accumulate over time. Thus prolonged exposure to low doses may produce the same effects as shorter exposure at high doses. The risks depend on radiation intensity, source, duration of exposure, exposed organs and tissues.
Medical imaging examinations are the main source of exposure to ionizing radiation. This is why there are special precautions to follow when undergoing an x-ray, a scan or using medical imaging in general.
Please note! Medical examinations are still essential for diagnosing diseases!
DID YOU KNOW? Some workers are particularly exposed to ionizing radiation and for these reasons have to take special precautions. The standards for occupational exposure are generally lower because workers are more familiar with the risks and better informed about prevention measures.
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Electrohypersensitivity is a controversial subject on which there is no consensus among scientists.
As yet, there is no compelling evidence of a causal link between non-ionizing electromagnetic fields and the symptoms described by people suffering from EHS.
Several scientists have advanced the hypothesis of a nocebo effect in the development of electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome. In contrast to the placebo effect, which describes the positive effects attributed to a substance or a drug in the absence of an active ingredient, the nocebo effect is characterized by the development of negative effects when the presence of a substance or of a physical agent considered to be harmful is suspected. But the nocebo effect is questioned by other researchers, especially in the early stages of development of electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome.
Sciensano is currently involved in a research project whose goal is to develop a provocation test that would study the link between exposure to electromagnetic fields and symptoms (Project 2018-2020 PNREST ANSES, EST/2017/2 RF/19). Please do not hesitate to contact us if you are interested in participating.
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Beneficial effects of electromagnetic fields
While electromagnetic fields can pose health risks, they can also have a beneficial effect.
At low frequencies and at measured doses, they can stimulate the immune system, facilitate the healing of burns and fractures.
In the context of radiotherapy, some hospitals first irradiate the cells with microwaves. As they are already sensitized to the waves, the cells react better to radiotherapy which reduces the amount of ionizing radiation.