From cellphones to EMF pollution -- so much to worry about, so little evidence to do so

As you read this blog, the device in front of you is bathing your body in an electromagnetic field. It’s just a fact of technology. And it’s a fact of life. You can move to a commune in Santa Fe, you can climb the nearest mountaintop or lock yourself in your basement — but you’ll never be able to escape the electromagnetic fields that run through our world.

As ubiquitous as they are, electromagnetic fields have gained a decidedly unhealthy reputation in some circles. (Just Google “EMF pollution.” To some, EMF is the new DDT.) And now that the World Health Organization has declared that cellphones could “possibly” cause cancer — a declaration based on vague concerns but no hard evidence — many people are having second thoughts about the other sources of radiation in their lives. Should they throw out their electric blankets? Will their hair dryer give them a tumor? Is their microwave oven really a death machine?

Scientists have looked into this issue many times over the years. The basic consensus: Relax. There’s no good evidence that the everyday EMFs in our homes or offices pose any health risk. A 2005 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found no association between brain tumors and frequent use of a “curling iron, heating pad, vibrating massager, electric blanket, heated water bed, sound system, computer, television, humidifier, microwave oven or electric stove.” One item certainly leaps from that list — why would anyone think that could cause brain tumors in the first place? — but let’s move on.

Of all household sources of EMFs, electric blankets and microwaves have probably caused the most concern. A new book— “The Healthy Home: Simple Truths to Protect Your Family from Hidden Household Dangers” (Vanguard Press, 2011) — warns against using the blankets or standing too close to a microwave when it’s on.


But this seems to be a case of overly abundant caution. The most recent study looking for a possible link between electric blankets and breast cancer came up with a big zero. Or as the researchers put it, the data “do not support the hypothesis” that electric blankets can cause breast cancer. A search of the medical literature also shows no sign of a connection between microwave ovens and any type of cancer, which isn’t surprising. The EMFs created by microwaves or any other appliance drop off dramatically with distance. If you’re a foot away from a microwave, you’ll be getting far more EMF radiation from the Earth’s natural magnetic field than from your rapidly heating burrito.

Likewise, overhead power lines release EMFs, but the fields are pretty feeble by the time they reach houses below. A much publicized study from the late 1970s suggested that living close to a power line increased the risk of childhood leukemia, but follow-up studies have cast serious doubt on that claim.

If EMFs are really polluting our lives and poisoning our bodies, they seem to be doing it very slowly and subtly — so subtly that they might as well not be doing anything at all.

Related: Study links cellphones to possible cancer risk

Related: If cellphones cause cancer, how do they do it? No one knows (i.e. don’t panic)