Does Electromagnetic Radiation Pose Any Health Hazards?

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Constant exposure to technology and electromagnetic fields pose invisible hazards to our health. Read how to make small changes in your life to make a big difference in your level of exposure to daily doses of radiation.   

The following is an excerpt from Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1,268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollutionby Ann Louise Gittleman (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010). The book explores emerging evidence that electromagnetic fields from a host of everyday devices are creating energy disturbances within the body, leading to increased free radicals and disruptions in cellular DNA. This excerpt is from Chapter 2, “The Body Interrupted,” and Chapter 5, “Zap-Proof Your Home.”

The widespread use of the light bulb — one of the most life-changing events in the past 10,000 years — was how it all began. In October 1882, Thomas Edison built the first electrical plant that lit just 1,300 street lamps and homes in New York City. What followed was an unprecedented avalanche of inventions that harnessed electric power to make Americans more productive and prosperous, as well as safer and healthier, than ever before. In just the first half of the 20th century, Americans were introduced to everything from conveyor belts, printing presses, electrocardiograms and X-ray machines to radio, radar, television and computers.

In the last 15 years alone, the latest modern electronic wonder — wireless technology — has expanded like a sponge in water. Today, 84 percent of Americans own cell phones, and by 2012, the wireless industry is expected to become a larger sector of the U.S. economy than agriculture and automobiles. About 89 million of us watch TV shows beamed to us by satellite — sports, music, comedy and drama captured by a metal dish on the roof or outside a high-rise window. And you can’t have a cup of coffee at Starbucks without being subject to Wi-Fi, the wireless network that allows you to surf the Internet as you sip your latte.

Yet we may not understand the potential consequences of our latest discoveries any better than our earliest ancestors understood the perils of fire.

Unraveling the Mystery

In the past decade, I have experienced some baffling symptoms for which I could find no relief. In 2005, I was diagnosed with a (thankfully) benign tumor of the parotid, one of the salivary glands located just below the earlobe. Why I got it was a mystery that puzzled even my doctor. It’s a rare tumor, most often caused by radiation exposure. I didn’t live near a nuclear plant, I hadn’t been exposed to an inordinate number of medical X-rays or other screening tests and, except for a brief time I spent working as a nutritionist in a hospital, I hadn’t even been near a CAT scanner or MRI machine. But, on a hunch, I began my investigations with a theory: What if I was suffering from was an environmental condition, one caused by something I’m exposed to every day but consider harmless?

There are several historical connections that supported my suspicions. Many well-respected historians believe the Romans were the first society to be destroyed by environmental toxicity. Wealthy Romans painted their walls with lead-based paint. They used the heavy metal for everything, from water pipes to toys, statues, cosmetics, coffins and roofs. But in an article written for The New England Journal of Medicine, lead poisoning researcher and environmental chemist at the University of Michigan, Jerome Nriagu, Ph.D., D.Sc., says it was their consumption of copious amounts of wine that may have given them their heaviest dose.

The Romans flavored their wine by simmering the grape juice in lead pots or lead-lined copper kettles, which not only affected taste but made the wine last longer. Lead has a sweet taste, so it enhanced the sweetness of the wine — which earned the metal the reputation as the “sweet poison.” The acidic nature of the grapes extracted large amounts of lead from the utensils, and then the Romans quaffed the drink out of lead cups. They may have been taking in as much as 20 milligrams of lead a day just from wine alone — enough to cause chronic lead poisoning, diminish fertility, and cause mental and emotional impairments.

After more than a year of research, I’ve come to the conclusion that we, such as the ancient Romans, are being exposed to an invisible type of “new” pollution that is making our life “sweeter” — certainly more convenient — but that comes with formidable and unforeseen side effects.

It’s called “electropollution.” It’s odorless, colorless and invisible, and it’s probably enveloping you right now. As writer Sara Shannon writes in her 1993 book, Technology’s Curse: Diet for the Atomic Age, about low-level radiation: “It cannot be seen, felt or heard. It is tasteless and odorless. It is in our food and in the air; it is in our blood and in our bones and can remain in our ashes to go on to contaminate someone else.”

Our “sweet poison” is the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) produced by our cell phones, PDAs, wireless networks, cell and broadcast towers, power lines, fluorescent lights, and even the electrical systems that power our appliances, TVs, computers and bedside alarm clocks — all those technological devices that make our lives easier. We are affected 24/7 by an unprecedented number of frequencies and wavelengths. By some estimates, we’re exposed daily to as much as 100 million times more electromagnetic radiation than our grandparents were. It flows around us, in us, and interferes with the body’s fundamental electric forces of life, including the communication between our cells that tells them how to grow, develop, divide, and even when to die.

How to Reduce Electromagnetic Fields in Your Bedroom

This is the room where you should be spending at least eight hours sleeping at night. If you’re tossing and turning instead, chances are you’re being kept awake by the unnatural, man-made voltage in your body caused by electrical fields coming from the wiring in your walls, the extension cords or power strip under your bed or desk, or the cords from your bedside lamps, clock and other appliances. Because your body restores itself overnight — that’s also when your body produces 80 to 90 percent of its melatonin — you need to be scrupulous about reducing the sources of EMF in this room even more than the others in your house.

Clean Up Your Bedroom. Not the clutter, the electronics. Because the greatest healing occurs during sleep and you spend nearly a third of your life in your bed, the bedroom is the most important room of the house to zap-proof. This includes TVs, radios, clock radios, alarm clocks (except the battery-operated kind), cordless phones, mobile phones, heating pads and older electric blankets. They need to be out of the bedroom or at least as far from you as possible. Some people even turn off the electric power to their bedrooms at night.

Move the Bed. If you can’t cut power to your bedroom at night (if your smoke or carbon monoxide detector is hardwired to the circuit, you don’t want to do that), make sure your bed is positioned so your head isn’t near a power outlet and be aware of any AC magnetic fields that might emanate from below or next to you, such as those from a fluorescent or halogen light fixture, power mains, refrigerator, computer or other appliances. If it’s possible and your room is large enough, move the bed away from the wall because that’s where the electrical wiring of your house lives. You want to keep your body as far away — a minimum of 3 feet — from the fields as possible while you’re sleeping. Because metal transmits electric fields, you may also want to consider replacing your metal spring mattress or headboard with something made of natural material, such as a futon. If your bedroom is on a second floor, there may be no escaping wiring — it’s in the floor. In that case, your best, least expensive option for protection is to cut power to any wiring above, below or around your bedroom during the hours you are asleep.

Use a Battery-Operated Alarm Clock. If you can’t keep up with the battery changing, make sure your electric clock or clock-radio is at least 6 feet from your head — meaning you’ll actually have to get up to turn it off, which may be good in many ways.

Move the Baby Monitor. Baby monitors also emit high magnetic fields, but if you’ve reduced your (and your baby’s) exposure in other ways, it may be worth keeping — if just for your peace of mind. Make sure to keep it at least 6 feet from crib and bed. Wired, of course, is preferable to wireless.

Get Earthed. The illustrious American-sponsored Tour de France Cycling Team used mattress pads woven with silver threads that are grounded to the Earth, much like your electrical system, with a steel rod plunged into the ground. The team chiropractor, Jeffrey Spencer, reports the team slept better and had more energy, less tension, more strength and stamina, and healed faster when they were earthed.

Turn Off the Electric Blanket. Early studies by Nancy Wertheimer and Ed Leeper found that electric blankets had an electrical field that penetrates 6 to 7 inches into the body. Your best bet is to use it to warm up your bed before you get in, then turn it off and unplug it (it still generates a field if it’s plugged in). Waterbeds, like electric blankets, are in close proximity to the body, which can also negatively impact it with electrical fields.

Check Your Lighting. Energy-efficient fluorescent lighting, the in-the-ceiling long tube type or the compact fluorescent (CFL) variety (with the corkscrew tube), produce elevated magnetic and electric fields as well as dirty electricity when they are on. If you happen to break one bulb, you could have a Hazmat crisis: The mercury in one bulb is enough to contaminate the entire room, says Larry Gust, an electrical engineer and certified building biologist whose company, Gust Environmental in California, does indoor environmental inspections and mitigation. “And what about the environmental effect of sending millions of spent bulbs to landfill?” he notes. Avoid these bulbs and use old-fashioned incandescent bulbs until a wider variety of LED lights are available.

Reduce exposure to fluorescents, halogen torch lights and even CFLs — they all generate significant EMFs. Most standard lamps give off a high electrical field regardless of how many light bulbs are used or their wattage, so position them as far away from your head as you can when you’re sleeping. Either unplug the lamp or install a timing device that turns the power off during sleep. A low-voltage DC halogen light that’s set into the ceiling is safe if you’re beneath it, but it can radiate high magnetic fields about 3 feet into the floor above, so don’t place them underneath rooms where children or adults sleep or play.

Rethink Those Fans. Ceiling fans operate with an electric motor that will generate high magnetic fields in the room above, so they’re not appropriate in rooms beneath a child’s bedroom or playroom. Free-standing electric fans are fine as long as you keep them at least 3 feet from your body. So are fan, convection and oil-filled radiators as long as you keep them at the same distance. Remember the rule of thumb: location, location, location. Exposure is reduced by 85 percent every time you double the distance from the source of the magnetic field.

Invest in Room-Darkening Drapes. They won’t reduce your exposure to electrical and magnetic field radiation, but by keeping your room darker longer, they can help your body produce more melatonin, the antioxidant hormone that is diminished by exposure to light and to EMFs.

Reprinted with permission from Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1,268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution, published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.