Are EMFs Dangerous? The Real Risks of EMF to Your Health - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Are EMFs Dangerous? The Real Risks of EMF to Your Health

Key Takeaways:

  • Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emit from both natural sources (fire, the Earth itself) and man-made sources (radio waves, microwaves, cell phones, wifi, etc.). 
  • As our society has become more and more reliant on technology and telecommunications, we are being exposed to more EMFs from different sources. 
  • Some clinical research and observational studies have connected EMF exposure to negative health outcomes, including fertility issues, neurological impacts, and cancer. 
  • However, most research around EMFs is scientifically “low quality” and inconsistent with regards to health impacts. 
  • More research is needed on the impact of EMFs, but there are some small changes and precautions we can take to protect ourselves, such as physically distancing yourself from wifi routers at home and at work, not holding your cell phone close to your head or carrying it close to your body, and turning off wireless and bluetooth applications when possible. 
  • When it comes to EMF, use caution where you can, but don’t turn your life upside down trying to prevent exposures.

EMF exposure is a controversial topic. On one side, some people would have you believe that EMFs are the cause of all of our modern health problems and need to be avoided at all costs. On the other side, you have some people dismissing the risks altogether, possibly without looking into the research on the topic. In reality, the common sense perspective is probably somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. 

Are EMFs dangerous? Here’s the general consensus: the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has acknowledged since 1999 that, although the evidence is weak, there is some potential for EMFs to contribute to health problems, and limiting our exposure in practical ways is worthwhile [1]. 

However, the scientific evidence then and now suggesting that EMFs pose major health risks is relatively weak, with the strongest evidence coming from some observational research finding associations between EMFs and various conditions [1, 2]. 

Unfortunately, associative data, even if consistent, can’t determine cause and effect. Some lab studies can, but most of this type of evidence comes from in vitro and animal studies, and does not support a causal relationship between EMFs in the environment and changes in the human body [1].

Nonetheless, the NIEHS asserts that it cannot recognize EMF exposure as entirely safe. Though the organization does not support aggressive regulatory action, it recommends public health education on how to reduce exposures, and more research for conclusive evidence of human health concerns [1, 2].

That said, I want to dig into what EMFs are, their potential risks, and how to mitigate sources of EMF exposure in your everyday life in a practical way. 

What are EMFs?

EMF stands for electromagnetic field and is a general term for any electromagnetic radiation we may be exposed to. Most of us hear the term EMF and assume it’s a bad thing, but even the Earth itself emits EMFs that are either harmless or actually supportive to our health. Electromagnetic radiation also naturally emits from the sun, fire, and lightning strikes. 

As for man-made sources, EMFs can be found emitting from mobile phones, computers, wifi networks, bluetooth devices, microwaves, energy smart meters, MRI machines, and power lines, just to name a few common examples. 

Here’s a simple way to think about electromagnetic fields. Electrical fields come from voltage and get stronger as the voltage increases. Magnetic fields are produced when current flows through wires or electrical devices and get stronger as the current increases. 

Knowing this, imagine a lamp in your house. 

  • When it’s turned off but still plugged in, an electrical field is present. Objects, such as trees, buildings, and skin, easily weaken electric fields. 
  • The magnetic field doesn’t appear until you turn on the lamp. Magnetic fields pass through most materials and are harder to weaken or shield. 

Therefore, it’s the combination of these two fields that we are studying to see what health effects they may have [3].

Types of EMFs

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There are several different types of EMFs, including. 

  • Extremely low frequency (ELF)
  • Radio frequency (RF)
  • Microwave
  • Visible light
  • Ultraviolet rays (UV)
  • X-rays
  • Gamma rays

The first four — ELF, RF, microwave, and visible light — are what’s known as non-ionizing radiation. These are very low-level to moderate frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum that are generally considered weak and low risk to humans but that both science and popular opinion have begun to question over the last couple of decades. The last three — UV, x-rays, and gamma rays — are ionizing radiation, moderate to high frequencies that, with prolonged exposure in certain circumstances, can damage cells or DNA. 

Are EMFs Dangerous? What the Research Says

Before we dive into the potential risks of EMF exposure, it’s important to note that the studies on EMFs all looked at different levels of exposure ranging from long term exposure (at least 1,000 hours or 10 years of “cell phone use” or “residential exposure to EMFs”) to eight hours of occupational exposure per day to short term exposures. 

The most important thing to know is that we’re not talking about very low exposures from electronics like indoor lighting or most household appliances when evaluating the results of these studies. Many studies looked at sources like cell phones and wifi routers because they emit more EMF, however, your exposure rapidly decreases the farther away you are from these devices. 

That said, the main potential risks of EMF exposure include:

  • Decreased sperm/fertility issues in men and women (cell phone use, wifi routers)
  • Birth defects (diathermy devices at work)
  • Neurological issues (workers with high levels at work (8 hours a day); cell phone use)
  • Headaches (cell phone use; probably not related to EMFs)
  • Fatigue (cell towers; probably not related to EMFs)
  • Pain (cell phones; almost certainly not related to EMFs, other than using them as a therapeutic tool)
  • Increased cancer risk (cell phone use, including for at least 1,000 hours or 10 years)

Overall the research is quite mixed on how significantly EMF may contribute to these symptoms and conditions, if at all. The strongest (yet still mixed) research we have is around the following conditions.

Fertility

Largely, animal and in vitro studies have shown that cell phones and wifi routers can negatively impact sperm, but human studies have been far less conclusive [4, 5, 6, 7, 8].

Let’s take a look at the following three studies to illustrate this point.

  • A 2021 meta-analysis (MA) showed that cell phone use may be associated with reduced sperm motility, viability, and concentration in humans [4].
  • A 2019 MA of 18 animal studies and 5 human (4 in vitro and 1 observational) studies found that WIFI routers may negatively impact counts, motility, and DNA integrity of sperm [5].
  • A 2021 MA found that cell phones showed the potential to harm sperm motility, viability, and density in animals and in vitro studies. In contrast, human studies did NOT support an association between cell phone use and sperm quality overall, though in East Europe and West Asia, cell phone use was related to reduced sperm density and motility [6].

These studies tell us that cell phone use and wifi routers may impact sperm count in humans but the data is inconsistent from cells (in vitro studies) to animal studies to human studies. It seems that some aspect of location, ethnicity, or culture may also influence the fertility impacts of cell phones and wifi, since men in East Europe and West Asia experienced adverse outcomes. Taking all of these aspects into account, we can’t conclude that EMFs negatively impact all humans (males, specifically) at large.

There is almost no recent research on the effects of EMFs on women’s reproductive health other than breast cancer. So far, all we can say is breast cancer may be more prevalent in EMF-exposed premenopausal women and women with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer [9, 10].

One systematic review discovered that physiotherapists exposed to radiofrequency (RF) EMFs from diathermy devices at work were more likely to take longer to get pregnant, have miscarriages, and have pregnancies characterized by stillbirth, congenital deformities, and low birth weight. However, the evidence was inconsistent with earlier studies, and no cause or effect relationships could be determined [11].

Overall, these studies may give us some pause to consider the potential harmful effects of EMF on fertility, but they are far from definitive proof or a reason to panic. Let’s continue with a few other symptoms associated with EMF.

Neurological Impacts

Low-quality evidence suggests that people who are exposed to high levels of EMFs at work may be slightly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s [12, 13]. Low-quality evidence also supports the possibility that both residential and occupational exposure to EMFs may be linked to a higher risk of developing Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) [13, 14]. 

On a smaller scale, a 2022 meta-analysis found that older people and people who spent more time on calls had a higher likelihood of headaches. Unfortunately, this study can’t determine whether cell phones caused headaches in those people [15].

Again, this research shows us that we can be cautious about EMFs in regards to neurological impacts, but they likely aren’t the primary drivers behind neurological disease. 

Brain Cancer

Okay, here’s one of the big ones. But don’t jump to too many conclusions! The evidence is all observational– it can’t give us cause and effect. The data here comes in stages.

  • First, the good news: short-term wireless phone use is associated with a lower risk of meningioma (a type of brain tumor), regardless of the side of the head where the phone is used, and medium or long-term use poses no risk for this type of tumor [16]. 
  • Now for the moderate news: most people who have ever used wireless have no increased risk of glioma, but long-term (at least 10 years) wireless phone use is associated with a higher risk of glioma (another type of brain tumor), particularly in the temporal lobe [17].
  • And finally, the bad news: Using cell phones for more than 10 years, especially on one side of the head, is linked to a higher risk of brain tumors generally [18]. Exposure to extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF-EMFs) during pregnancy may increase the risk of central nervous system tumors in children [19]. And radio frequency radiation in wireless phones is a probable human carcinogen, which may cause glioma [20].

This research represents some of the most convincing data we have on the harmful effects of EMF and is nothing to sniff at. However, don’t forget the studies were all observational, showing us only correlations between EMFs and disease outcomes. All sorts of other confounding variables could be responsible for the outcomes, so we can’t say the EMFs were definitely causing them.

I also want to point out that most of these concerns are related to wireless phone use very close to your head, which can be easily mitigated by using speaker mode or using a wired phone (yes, they still make those!) in your home. In general, you want to feel prepared, not panicked, when it comes to EMF.

EMF Sensitivity and the Nocebo Effect

Interestingly, more immediate symptoms like pain, fatigue, and headache reportedly caused by EMF don’t seem to hold up in double-blind randomized controlled trials. 

For example, a group of researchers analyzed two studies to investigate the impact of EMFs from cell towers on the well-being of people who believe they are sensitive to EMFs versus a control group. In one study, 102 people with self-reported IEI-EMF (EMF sensitivity) and 237 controls went into the field to see how they felt when exposed to EMFs from cell towers versus a sham condition. 

The other study was a double-blind trial with 88 of the IEI-EMF reporters and 231 of the controls from the first study. This time, no one, including the researchers, knew whether they were being exposed to cell towers or a sham condition.

IEI-EMF participants reported feeling worse during real exposure compared to sham exposure when they knew what they were being exposed to, but not during double-blind trials. This suggests the nocebo effect, whereby people experience negative effects because they believe they’re being exposed to something unhealthy [21]. Other studies have also found similar results [22, 23, 24].

This is not to dismiss anyone’s experience of EMF sensitivity or make blanket claims about EMF. However, what we can say is that the human mind is very powerful in terms of dictating our experience and even creating physical sensations in the body. Outside of EMFs, we know this to be true. Therefore, if you are concerned about EMFs, it may make good sense to reduce your exposure to them, particularly during pregnancy.

A Nuanced Perspective on EMFs

I don’t want to diminish anyone’s concern about EMF sensitivity and the impact it could be having on their health. That is not the point of this article or my intention at all. 

Rather, my goal is to provide a balanced look at the potential effects of EMF and show that, on the scale of potential risks to your health, EMF is relatively low. It may even be nonexistent, especially if you minimize screen time and electronic use on a regular basis. However, I don’t want to dismiss all potential risk entirely. The scientific research on EMFs is still developing, and we can’t make blanket claims about its safety or non-safety. 

I would love to see more research on the long-term exposure to EMFs, their effect on female physiology vs. male, their impact on brain and mood-related conditions like ADHD and chronic anxiety/depression, and their impact on chronic infections like Lyme or Epstein Barr Virus. But for now, we have to base our health decisions on the research we have, an individual’s clinical presentation, and the clinician and patient’s best judgment on what is right for their health. 

You know your body the best, and if you notice symptoms of EMF sensitivity then you can certainly take steps to protect yourself and your health. Let’s take a closer look at some ways to reduce your EMF exposure. 

How to Mitigate EMF Exposure

One of the things I appreciated most about my conversation with Daniel DeBaun on EMF exposure and safety was his emphasis on simple changes and practical ways to reduce your exposure to EMFs. Here is a list of recommendations you can implement easily and at zero or low cost:

  • Use an EMF protector/shield on your phone or laptop if you have it in close proximity to your body.
  • When you are using a computer or other electronic device, distance yourself from that device as much as possible. Dan recommends connecting your laptop to a larger monitor on your desk so that you can sit at least 1–2 feet away from the device and still comfortably use it. 
  • Use wired headphones, keyboard, mouse, etc., instead of a bluetooth enabled version.
  • Turn off bluetooth and wifi on your devices when not using them.
  • If you use health tracking devices, turn bluetooth off when possible or only use them for short periods, such as during workouts.
  • Connect your wireless devices to the internet with an ethernet cable instead of using wifi. 
  • If you do use wifi, unplug it before bed or when you’re not using it. 
  • Use 3-prong grounded power cables whenever possible.
  • Keep all electrical wires, chargers, and electric equipment away from you as much as possible.
  • When you are talking on a cell phone, use speaker mode as much as possible (don’t hold the phone directly to your head).
  • Don’t carry your phone in your pants pocket or bra (especially without a protector case).
  • Don’t let infants/kids use cell phones unless it’s an emergency.
  • Don’t charge your phone or any other device next to you while sleeping, especially close to your head. 
  • Use an alarm clock with a battery, not one plugged in.
  • Do not sleep along a wall that has an appliance plugged in or an electrical panel/meter on the other side.

If you’re curious about measuring your EMF exposure more precisely, you can purchase an EMF meter at relatively low cost. However, this will require a bit more research to understand what you’re measuring and what levels you should be concerned about, since there are different types of meters. 

Personally, I got an EMF meter out of curiosity, but it’s not something I refer to regularly. In terms of protection, I do keep my phone in an EMF-blocking case and use a laptop protector shield if I’m ever sitting with my laptop on my lap or otherwise very close to my body. I keep my wifi router in a location where I’m not physically close to it either during the day or at night when I’m sleeping. I do not charge my phone near my bed at night. 

It’s simple changes like these that keep my peace of mind and are very simple to implement. And as a bonus, some of these practices can also help you put healthier habits in place around technology and screen time in general, which most of us (myself included!) could benefit from. 

Use Caution But Not Extreme Measures To Reduce EMF Exposure 

Most of us are not going to be able to carry on our day-to-day lives without any use of technology or exposure to EMF. It’s simply no longer the world we live in. However, there are many practical measures we can take to reduce our risk of adverse health effects due to EMF and, in the meantime, not jump to conclusions about EMFs when there is still much research to be done. 

If you want to hear more science-backed discussion and practical steps you can take to improve your health and wel-being, head over to my YouTube channel, where I break down topics like gut health, diet, exercise, thyroid health, and more. 

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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