You may not realize it, but you are participating in an unauthorized experiment—“the largest biological experiment ever,” in the words of Swedish neuro-oncologist Leif Salford. For the first time, many of us are holding high-powered microwave transmitters—in the form of cell phones—directly against our heads on a daily basis.
Cell phones generate electromagnetic fields (EMF), and emit electromagnetic radiation (EMR). They share this feature with all modern electronics that run on alternating current (AC) power (from the power grid and the outlets in your walls) or that utilize wireless communication. Different devices radiate different levels of EMF, with different characteristics.
What health effects do these exposures have?
Therein lies the experiment.
The many potential negative health effects from EMF exposure (including many cancers and Alzheimer’s disease) can take decades to develop. So we won’t know the results of this experiment for many years—possibly decades. But by then, it may be too late for billions of people.
Today, while we wait for the results, a debate rages about the potential dangers of EMF. The science of EMF is not easily taught, and as a result, the debate over the health effects of EMF exposure can get quite complicated. To put it simply, the debate has two sides. On the one hand, there are those who urge the adoption of a precautionary approach to the public risk as we continue to investigate the health effects of EMF exposure. This group includes many scientists, myself included, who see many danger signs that call out strongly for precaution. On the other side are those who feel that we should wait for definitive proof of harm before taking any action. The most vocal of this group include representatives of industries who undoubtedly perceive threats to their profits and would prefer that we continue buying and using more and more connected electronic devices.
This industry effort has been phenomenally successful, with widespread adoption of many EMF-generating technologies throughout the world. But EMF has many other sources as well. Most notably, the entire power grid is an EMF-generation network that reaches almost every individual in America and 75% of the global population. Today, early in the 21st century, we find ourselves fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis.
What we know
The science to date about the bioeffects (biological and health outcomes) resulting from exposure to EM radiation is still in its early stages. We cannot yet predict that a specific type of EMF exposure (such as 20 minutes of cell phone use each day for 10 years) will lead to a specific health outcome (such as cancer). Nor are scientists able to define what constitutes a “safe” level of EMF exposure.
However, while science has not yet answered all of our questions, it has determined one fact very clearly—all electromagnetic radiation impacts living beings. As I will discuss, science demonstrates a wide range of bioeffects linked to EMF exposure. For instance, numerous studies have found that EMF damages and causes mutations in DNA—the genetic material that defines us as individuals and collectively as a species. Mutations in DNA are believed to be the initiating steps in the development of cancers, and it is the association of cancers with exposure to EMF that has led to calls for revising safety standards. This type of DNA damage is seen at levels of EMF exposure equivalent to those resulting from typical cell phone use.
The damage to DNA caused by EMF exposure is believed to be one of the mechanisms by which EMF exposure leads to negative health effects. Multiple separate studies indicate significantly increased risk (up to two and three times normal risk) of developing certain types of brain tumors following EMF exposure from cell phones over a period of many years. One review that averaged the data across 16 studies found that the risk of developing a tumor on the same side of the head as the cell phone is used is elevated 240% for those who regularly use cell phones for 10 years or more. An Israeli study found that people who use cell phones at least 22 hours a month are 50% more likely to develop cancers of the salivary gland (and there has been a four-fold increase in the incidence of these types of tumors in Israel between 1970 and 2006). And individuals who lived within 400 meters of a cell phone transmission tower for 10 years or more were found to have a rate of cancer three times higher than those living at a greater distance. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated EMF—including power frequencies and radio frequencies—as a possible cause of cancer.
While cancer is one of the primary classes of negative health effects studied by researchers, EMF exposure has been shown to increase risk for many other types of negative health outcomes. In fact, levels of EMF thousands of times lower than current safety standards have been shown to significantly increase risk for neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease) and male infertility associated with damaged sperm cells. In one study, those who lived within 50 meters of a high voltage power line were significantly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease when compared to those living 600 meters or more away. The increased risk was 24% after one year, 50% after 5 years, and 100% after 10 years. Other research demonstrates that using a cell phone between two and four hours a day leads to 40% lower sperm counts than found in men who do not use cell phones, and the surviving sperm cells demonstrate lower levels of motility and viability.
EMF exposure (as with many environmental pollutants) not only affects people, but all of nature. In fact, negative effects have been demonstrated across a wide variety of plant and animal life. EMF, even at very low levels, can interrupt the ability of birds and bees to navigate. Numerous studies link this effect with the phenomena of avian tower fatalities (in which birds die from collisions with power line and communications towers). These same navigational effects have been linked to colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is devastating the global population of honey bees (in one study, placement of a single active cell phone in front of a hive led to the rapid and complete demise of the entire colony). And a mystery illness affecting trees around Europe has been linked to WiFi radiation in the environment.
There is a lot of science—highquality, peer-reviewed science—demonstrating these and other very troubling outcomes from exposure to electromagnetic radiation. These effects are seen at levels of EMF that, according to regulatory agencies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates cell phone EMF emissions in the United States, are completely safe.
An unlikely activist
I have worked at Columbia University since the 1960s, but I was not always focused on electromagnetic fields. My PhDs in physical chemistry from Columbia University and colloid science from the University of Cambridge provided me with a strong, interdisciplinary academic background in biology, chemistry, and physics. Much of my early career was spent investigating the properties of surfaces and very thin films, such as those found in a soap bubble, which then led me to explore the biological membranes that encase living cells.
I studied the biochemistry of infant respiratory distress syndrome (IRDS), which causes the lungs of newborns to collapse (also called hyaline membrane disease). Through this research, I found that the substance on the surface of healthy lungs could form a network that prevented collapse in healthy babies (the absence of which causes the problem for IRDS sufferers).
A food company subsequently hired me to study how the same surface support mechanism could be used to prevent the collapse of the air bubbles added to their ice cream. As ice cream is sold by volume and not by weight, this enabled the company to reduce the actual amount of ice cream sold in each package. (My children gave me a lot of grief about that job, but they enjoyed the ice cream samples I brought home.)
I also performed research exploring how electrical forces interact with the proteins and other components found in nerve and muscle membranes. In 1987, I was studying the effects of electric fields on membranes when I read a paper by Dr. Reba Goodman demonstrating some unusual effects of EMF on living cells. She had found that even relatively weak power fields from common sources (such as those found near power lines and electrical appliances) could alter the ability of living cells to make proteins. I had long understood the importance of electrical forces on the function of cells, but this paper indicated that magnetic forces (which are a key aspect of electromagnetic fields) also had significant impact on living cells.
Like most of my colleagues, I did not think this was possible. By way of background, there are some types of EMF that everyone had long acknowledged are harmful to humans. For example, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation are both recognized carcinogens. But these are ionizing forms of radiation. Dr. Goodman, however, had shown that even non-ionizing radiation, which has much less energy than X-rays, was affecting a very basic property of cells—the ability to stimulate protein synthesis.
Because non-ionizing forms of EMF have so much less energy than ionizing radiation, it had long been believed that non-ionizing electromagnetic fields were harmless to humans and other biological systems. And while it was acknowledged that a high enough exposure to non-ionizing EMF could cause a rise in body temperature—and that this temperature increase could cause cell damage and lead to health problems—it was thought that low levels of non-ionizing EMF that did not cause this rise in temperature were benign.
In over 20 years of experience at some of the world’s top academic institutions, this is what I’d been taught and this is what I’d been teaching. In fact, my department at Columbia University (like every other comparable department at other universities around the world) taught an entire course in human physiology without even mentioning magnetic fields, except when they were used diagnostically to detect the effects of the electric currents in the heart or brain. Sure magnets and magnetic fields can affect pieces of metal and other magnets, but magnetic fields were assumed to be inert, or essentially powerless, when it came to human physiology.
As you can imagine, I found the research in Dr. Goodman’s paper intriguing. When it turned out that she was a colleague of mine at Columbia, with an office just around the block, I decided to follow up with her, face-to-face. It didn’t take me long to realize that her data and arguments were very convincing. So convincing, in fact, that I not only changed my opinion on the potential health effects of magnetism, but I also began a long collaboration with her that has been highly productive and personally rewarding.
During our years of research collaboration, Dr. Goodman and I published many of our results in respected scientific journals. Our research was focused on the cellular level—how EMF permeate the surfaces of cells and affect cells and DNA—and we demonstrated several observable, repeatable health effects from EMF on living cells. As with all findings published in such journals, our data and conclusions were peer reviewed. In other words, our findings were reviewed prior to publication to ensure that our techniques and conclusions, which were based on our measurements, were appropriate. Our results were subsequently confirmed by other scientists, working in other laboratories around the world, independent from our own.
A change in tone
Over the roughly 25 years Dr. Goodman and I have been studying the EMF issue, our work has been referenced by numerous scientists, activists, and experts in support of public health initiatives including the BioInitiative Report, which was cited by the European Parliament when it called for stronger EMF regulations. Of course, our work was criticized in some circles, as well. This was to be expected, and we welcomed it—discussion and criticism is how science advances. But in the late 1990s, the criticism assumed a different character, both angrier and more derisive than past critiques.
On one occasion, I presented our findings at a US Department of Energy annual review of research on EMF. As soon as I finished my talk, a well-known Ivy League professor said (without any substantiation) that the data I presented were “impossible.” He was followed by another respected academic, who stated (again without any substantiation) that I had most likely made some “dreadful error.” Not only were these men wrong, but they delivered their comments with an intense and obvious hostility.
I later discovered that both men were paid consultants of the power industry—one of the largest generators of EMF. To me, this explained the source of their strong and unsubstantiated assertions about our research. I was witnessing firsthand the impact of private, profit-driven industrial efforts to confuse and obfuscate the science of EMF bioeffects.
Not the first time
I knew that this was not the first time industry opposed scientific research that threatened their business models. I’d seen it before many times with tobacco, asbestos, pesticides, hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), and other industries that paid scientists to generate “science” that would support their claims of product safety.
That, of course, is not the course of sound science. Science involves generating and testing hypotheses. One draws conclusions from the available, observable evidence that results from rigorous and reproducible experimentation. Science is not sculpting evidence to support your existing beliefs. That’s propaganda. As Dr. Henry Lai (who, along with Dr. Narendra Singh, performed the groundbreaking research demonstrating DNA damage from EMF exposure) explains, “a lot of the studies that are done right now are done purely as PR tools for the industry.”
An irreversible trend
Of course EMF exposure—including radiation from smart phones, the power lines that you use to recharge them, and the other wide variety of EMF-generating technologies—is not equivalent to cigarette smoking. Exposure to carcinogens and other harmful forces from tobacco results from the purely voluntary, recreational activity of smoking. If tobacco disappeared from the world tomorrow, a lot of people would be very annoyed, tobacco farmers would have to plant other crops, and a few firms might go out of business, but there would be no additional impact.
In stark contrast, modern technology (the source of the humanmade electromagnetic fields discussed here) has fueled a remarkable degree of innovation, productivity, and improvement in the quality of life. If tomorrow the power grid went down, all cell phone networks would cease operation, millions of computers around the world wouldn’t turn on, and the night would be illuminated only by candlelight and the moon—we’d have a lot less EMF exposure, but at the cost of the complete collapse of modern society.
EMF isn’t just a by-product of modern society. EMF, and our ability to harness it for technological purposes, is the cornerstone of modern society. Sanitation, food production and storage, health care—these are just some of the essential social systems that rely on power and wireless communication. We have evolved a society that is fundamentally reliant upon a set of technologies that generate forms and levels of electromagnetic radiation not seen on this planet prior to the 19th century.
As a result of the central role these devices play in modern life, individuals are understandably predisposed to resist information that may challenge the safety of activities that result in EMF exposures. People simply cannot bear the thought of restricting their time with— much less giving up—these beloved gadgets. This gives industry a huge advantage because there is a large segment of the public that would rather not know.
My message is not to abandon gadgets—like most people, I too love and utilize EMF-generating gadgets. Instead, I want you to realize that EMF poses a real risk to living creatures and that industrial and product safety standards must and can be reconsidered. The solutions I suggest are not prohibitive. I recommend that as individuals we adopt the notion of “prudent avoidance,” minimizing our personal EMF exposure and maximizing the distance between us and EMF sources when those devices are in use. Just as you use a car with seat belts and air bags to increase the safety of the inherently dangerous activity of driving your car at a relatively high speed, you should consider similar risk-mitigating techniques for your personal EMF exposure.
On a broader social level, adoption of the Precautionary Principle in establishing new, biologically based safety standards for EMF exposure for the general public would be, I believe, the best approach. Just as the United States became the first nation in the world to regulate the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) when science indicated the threat to earth’s ozone layer—long before there was definitive proof of such a link—our governments should respond to the significant public health threat of EMF exposure. If EMF levels were regulated just as automobile carbon emissions are regulated, this would force manufacturers to design, create, and sell devices that generate much lower levels of EMF.
No one wants to return to the dark ages, but there are smarter and safer ways to approach our relationship—as individuals and across society—with the technology that exposes us to electromagnetic radiation.
Excerpted from "Overpowered: What Science Tells Us About the Dangers of Cell Phones and Other Wifi-age Devices" by Martin Blank, PhD. Published by Seven Stories Press, March 2014. ISBN 978-1-60980-509-8. All rights reserved.