Problems with Electro-Magnetic Fields (EMF) in houses.
(EMF fields are really not a problem, but many make money making you think they are.)
By William Decker, CPI, CMI
As an Illinois State Licensed Home Inspector, a Certified Master Inspector, and with my background in health physics, I get many requests to check out my client’s houses for the presence of “dangerous electro-magnetic fields”. People have their houses inspected, usually before they go through with the purchase but also for regular maintenance purposes, to determine if there are hidden, and expensive, problems. They are also concerned with any environmental problems that may exist in their house. Mold growth is an increasing problem, mostly caused by “tighter” construction and improper insulation / water management issues. Household chemicals present in building materials (so-called Chinese Drywall) is also a concern. Likewise, improper installation or operation of gas-fired furnaces and water heaters can cause dangerous carbon monoxide levels in your home. The environment in your house, if not properly inspected, can cause health problems and even death.
There has been increasing concern about the presence of dangerous levels of electromagnetic fields (EMF), especially in residential properties. With the increasing density of housing units (densely packed condominiums) in urban areas, the multiplication of EMF sources (electrical transformers, cell-phone towers, electrical transmission lines) and the plethora of household electrical devices (TVs, computers, wireless home networks) the levels of EMF that people regularly come into contact with has greatly increased. There is also concern that the explosion in the use of cell phones is adding to this growth.
Most disturbing of all is the thought that these fields cause increased levels of cancer. There have been many news reports about this issue, dove-tailing with a large number of governmental and international health studies (EPA, World Health Organization, UK Sage Study). Because of this, we get many requests to check the levels of EMF radiation that are present in the houses that we inspect. These concerns are very much overblown and there is NO reason for concern about EMF in houses. This article will attempt to explain why.
What Causes Cancer?
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. A cancer cell is created when there is a mutation in the cell’s DNA, a change in the molecular structure in the DNA and its sequencing that changes the cell’s structure and function. The abnormal DNA strands reproduce the mutation which causes the cell to grow abnormally. These mutations are caused when the chemical bonds of the DNA molecules combine in the wrong way. Certain molecules, called free radicals, interfere with the chemical bonds and they are broken, only to recombine improperly. Certain so-called health foods (tea, Vitamins C & E, green vegetables) are beneficial because they work to reduce the number of free radicals in the body. Likewise, there are some factors that will increase the amount of free radicals, and therefore increase the risk of cell mutation and cancer. Some chemicals increase free radical formation. Cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and some construction materials, such as asbestos, are also known to increase the number of free radicals and increase the risk of cancer.
Another cause of cancer causing free radicals is ionizing radiation. High energy EMF radiation photons (the sub-atomic particles that carry the electromagnetic force) can strike the atoms in the body and break the molecular bonds. This will cause the formation of free-radicals which travel through out the body and can cause DNA damage, or photons that strike the DNA, directly, damaging the structure of DNA in cells. When X-ray machines were first invented, Radiologists did not know of the dangers of over exposure and many physicians developed cancers from the X-ray radiation. There were also increases in the number of cancer cases in Japan following the atom bomb explosions at the end of WW II due to the higher levels of radiation.
Because of the danger of cancer from ionizing radiation, people have become suspicious of all radiation, and that is the largest source of the current witch-hunt concerning EMF radiation.
The Electro-Magnetic Spectrum
Electromagnetic Radiation, one of the four forces existing in nature (Electromagnetic, Gravity and the Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces), is the energy that is carried by the electron, and specifically from the movement of electrons. Whenever electrons move, whether through a wire (electricity) or through the air (visible light, heat, microwaves, radio, etc) they generate a magnetic field. Likewise, whenever a magnetic field moves, it causes electrons to move. Electricity and magnetism are just different forms of the same basic force, Electromagnetism.
There are many forms of electromagnetic energy, ranging from radio waves to visible light to ultraviolet light to x-rays to gamma rays. It must be understood that all these types of radiation are all the same “stuff”, i.e. waves carrying electromagnetic energy while at the same time being small particles of electromagnetic energy called photons. The only difference between these different forms of electromagnetic radiation is the frequency of the waves. The longer the distance between the peaks of the waves, the longer the wavelength and the lower the frequency. Likewise, the shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency and the greater the energy each photon carries. So, the higher the frequency, the more energy that each individual electromagnetic photon carries. So how do these photons cause cancer and other diseases?
Molecular Bond Energy
Every substance consists of atoms and these atoms are held together by chemical bonds between the atoms, forming molecules. Different element atoms bond together and form different chemicals and these different atoms bond together with different bonding strengths. Some chemical molecules form very strong bonds and others are fairly weak. Whenever there is a chemical reaction, some of the molecular atomic bonds are broken and re-form in different ways. When these bonds break, they can release heat (exothermic reaction) because the energy of the molecular bonds is released, usually as heat, when the bond is broken. This is why burning natural gas is used to heat some houses. When a small amount of energy (a spark) is released in the presence of natural gas and oxygen, the carbon and hydrogen bonds of the methane break and heat is released. The various atoms in this mixture re-form into new molecules (water, carbon dioxide, etc) and if there are not enough free oxygen atoms available (and there never is) some molecules are only partly formed (carbon monoxide).
It is important to remember that every chemical bond in a molecule has a certain bonding energy and that the chemical bond cannot be broken unless an amount of energy greater than the atomic bonding energy is added. There is a certain amount of energy that is required to break the bond and the bond will stay intact unless enough energy is added to break it. This is called the “ionization energy” of the bond. So how much energy is needed to break these DNA molecule bonds and cause damage?
Electro-Magnetic Field (EMF) Energies
There are many forms of ionizing radiation that exist, naturally, in the environment. Sunlight contains almost the entire electromagnetic spectrum of energies, from gamma rays to ultraviolet light to visible light to infrared radiation (heat) and even radio waves. Some of these frequencies are filtered out by the Earth’s magnetic field but may get through the atmosphere and strike you everyday. Some sources of ionizing radiation come from naturally occurring radioisotopes in the soil and air.
Most of the electromagnetic radiation that people encounter in everyday life is of a very low energy. The frequency of these energies are too long and the photon energy is too little to overcome the atomic bonding energy of the body’s molecules. Certainly, no one is concerned with the electromagnetic radiation that is almost always striking their skin from light bulbs. Low energy electromagnetic fields are of little concern because they are simply too weak to cause any damage.
The energy levels of EMF that are needed to break chemical bonds in the body, either to cause the formation of free radicals or to cause direct DNA chemical bond breakage are somewhere in the range of 200 – 300 nm of wavelength or 3.14 – 6.20 eV of photon energy. This energy level lies in the middle of the ultraviolet light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is also the area of the spectrum that causes sunburns and has been reported to contribute to melanoma skin cancer. Any frequency of electromagnetic radiation lower than ultraviolet light simply does not have enough energy to break the molecular bonds in our cells and, therefore, cannot cause any damage.
Household EMF levels
Almost all of the EMF fields that occur in a house are well below the energy levels required to cause any type of cell damage. Common electrical house current oscillates at 60 cycles per second, a very low frequency. Even having an electrical transformer on the power line pole right outside your bedroom window will not produce enough EMF energy to cause harm. Remember, it is not the amount of EMF that caused cell damage, but the frequency of the EMF which determines its damage potential. Radio waves, including the radio waves generated by your cell phone, are also too weak to cause any cell damage. There is simply no way that EMF of these low energies can cause any health problems.
So why, you ask, does my microwave oven heat up my TV dinner so quickly, if it is not dangerous? Many people make this common mistake. Microwave ovens work on an entirely different principle than EMF cell damage. The specific frequency of microwave oven radiation, around 2.45 GHz, about 122 mm in wavelength, is the harmonic frequency of the water molecule. The microwave EMF does not break or damage the chemical bonds in the food, but only causes them to vibrate. This vibration produces heat in the water molecules which heats the food, cooking it. You should also remember that the old myth that microwaves cook from the inside out is just plain silly. You can test this for yourself by putting a large hunk of frozen hamburger in your microwave oven and cooking it, on high, for a couple of minutes. If you take out the hamburger and cut it in half, you will find that the outer inch or so of the meat will be hot, but the meat at the center will still be frozen stiff. It is this common misconception of how microwave ovens work that has caused so much of the EMF hysteria.
Likewise, cell phones generate small amounts of radio waves, but the both the frequency and the strength of these radio waves are well below that which is required to cause the breaking of chemical bonds or even slightly heat the “meat” of your brain. Cell phones simply cannot cause cancer.
Why all the panic?
So, if all this concern over EMF radiation and cell phones and electrical transformers and cancer is easily answered by principles that can be learned in any decent high school physics class? Why all the brew-ha-ha? Why all the panic? In my opinion, there are many reasons and none of them have anything to do with the actual science:
- General lack of science education: There was a big effort, following the scare when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, to increase the level of scientific and engineering education in the United States. The “red scare” lead people to believe that, somehow, America’s preeminence in science and engineering (which is, basically, just applied science) was falling behind. This was further reinforced by the perceived threat the Soviet Union developing the ability to rain down nuclear missiles and “bury” us, as Nikita Khrushchev predicted. Nothing like the threat of nuclear annihilation to get the attention of local school boards. But, after all the dust cleared away and history was written, it was found that the Soviets greatly lagged behind us in scientific advancement and people, once again, became complacent. People are simply not learning basic science.
- Political factors: Let’s face it, most politicians know nothing about anything except getting re-elected. This is, in part, because the American people let them get away with it, but it is also because, according to the old saw, “Politics is the art of the possible”. Politicians strive to get re-elected, and they do this by working to please the maximum amount of people with their value. Most politicians are good hearted people who work very hard to serve their constituents, but to do so, they have to create consensus and get enough people to agree and vote for their proposals. This leads to two situations:
- The “let’s create a crisis” syndrome. In order to get attention, and convince their voters that the laws are really necessary and that they are worthy of getting re-elected, they can tend to create a “crisis”. If there is a problem and it is perceived (and advertised, through the compliant news media, who are always looking for new stories to fill the void) to be a crisis, the politicians (as well as their various lobbyists) can direct the public’s attention, gaining campaign contributions in the process. But, because many of these so-called criseis are not real, the end result is to submit the problem to a “committee” or commission a “study”. People get concerned about things that are really no problems, but politicians have to “do something” to relieve the public’s fears.
- On the other hand, because politicians know so little about the real world (especially on technical subjects in science) they need experts to help them determine how to best proceed. This is the positive value of lobbyists. Scientists, corporations and experts actually look into the problem and fashion solutions, which are turned into laws and regulations by the politicians and everyone hopes the problem is solved. But not before others have their say, and get paid.
Special Interest Groups: There are many groups in society that don’t like change. With the current rate of increase in science and technological changes in the world, these people get overwhelmed. I had a friend who worked as a volunteer fireman, since high school, in his town. He joined the service and was overseas for about 2 years. When he returned, he was totally and completely overwhelmed by a simple and minor change that had taken place in his hometown. The town fathers had decided to change the color of the fire trucks from the traditional red to what was called “emergency yellow”. This so shook him up that he never again worked to the fire department. He just couldn’t accept that change.
People tend to feel comfortable with the same old thing and to be fearful of the new. I, myself, have trouble getting used to cell phones, having grown up with land lines. My daughters, on the other hand, have no problem practically living on thei cell phones, texting, talking and surfing the web (and running up large cell phone bills for good ol’ Dad to pay). Whenever something new is introduced, some people try their best to hold back the world’s “progress”. And, regardless of the facts of the matter, they hold onto these fears with a virtual death grip.
- Victimology: More and more, certain people get a feeling of “empowerment” by becoming professional victims. They may have a real problem (like a peanut food allergy) or just think they do and they try to get the whole society to change just to serve their concerns. Never underestimate the “placebo affect”. Some people are so fearful of the unknown, the new, that they develop new diseases and “sensitivities” to things and are completely convinced that these are the source of their problems. There are people who are totally convinced that all the EMF around them is causing all sorts of diseases in their bodies and want the whole world to cater to their fear. And, unfortunately, there are many people who are all too happy to do so, and make money in the process.
- Entrepreneurial Scam Artists: As in any business, there are good, honest and ethical business owners, but there are also those who just want to take advantage of the public. There are professional roofers, who do good work and conform to the current industry best practices but there are also the fly-by-night “shingle nailers” whose sole purpose is to separate the public from their hard earned money. There are professional, highly trained mold and environmental remediation contractors, and there are fly-by-night scam artists who spray the mold with a little bleach (which is actually contraindicated) and collect huge fees doing so. Likewise, there are people who will take advantage of the public’s ignorance. I am also a professional, certified mold inspector but I regularly turn away clients because the issue that they describe to me is clearly not a mold problems. They are just overly concerned about “flu like symptoms” during the spring (hay fever) and they want to believe that the problem is mold and not just seasonal allergies. I have found that whenever there is some sensational, “sweeps week” television “expose” about some new “sensational” house problem issue, I get many calls from people who have bought in to this new, media created, fear. It is sad that there are those who take advantage of the public’s fears, to make money.
Simply put, with new home construction technologies, most of which are really revolutionary, there will be new problems created. These problems should be calmly, rationally and scientifically studied and evaluated by professional, licensed and certified home inspectors and honest solutions developed and implemented. But professionals should not stoke the fires of fear simply to make a buck.
As always, hope this helps.
UPDATE: A good article addressing this issue from the new Smart Meter point of view: