Electromagnetic radiation is present all around us and in increasingly larger amounts. So what exactly is it? Is it safe? Should you be concerned?
If you’re wondering about those questions, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’re going to take a look at exactly what electromagnetic radiation is, the different types, and their effect on the body. From ionizing to non-ionizing, we’re going to cover it all.
What is EMF radiation?
Electromagnetic radiation consists of two different types of radiation:
- Electric field radiation
- Magnetic field radiation
Electric and magnetic field radiation exist together whenever there is a moving electrical charge. Powerlines, for example, produce both an electric and magnetic field as electricity pulses through the wire. The two fields move perpendicular to each other, and because they are so often found together, they are usually referred to as electromagnetic radiation. These fields make up what’s called the electromagnetic spectrum.
Electric vs magnetic
Electric field radiation and magnetic field radiation are two different fields that have similar properties and often exist in conjunction with each other. Let’s take a look at how they’re the same, and how they differ.
Electric field radiation is created by any particle that carries an electric charge, positive or negative. In the case of a positive charge, the particles are drawn towards the electric field. If the charge is negative, the particles are repelled. Measured in volts per meter (v/m), the higher the voltage, the stronger the charge. Electric fields can be generated by manmade electrical objects or in nature — think static electricity.
As the name suggests, magnetic field radiation can be found in magnets. It’s also present whenever there is a moving electrical current. If you’ve ever held two magnets close enough that you felt them repel and eventually attract one another, you’ve felt a magnetic field. To visually see the field, you can take tiny iron particles and hold them over a magnet. They will be drawn to the magnet in lines, called flux lines. When the lines are close together, it means the magnetic field is strong. If they are farther apart, the field is weaker. This type of radiation is measured in milliGauss (mG).
Types of electromagnetic radiation
Electromagnetic radiation can be broken down into two main categories:
- Ionizing radiation
- Non-ionizing radiation
Let’s take a look at the difference between the two, as well as some common subtypes.
Ionizing vs non-ionizing radiation
Simply put, ionizing radiation has enough energy to split an atom while non-ionizing radiation does not. Ionizing radiation is considered harmful because it has the potential to cause cellular damage.
Ionizing radiation is created by X-ray machines, MRIs, and nuclear bombs. It also occurs naturally in certain elements, such as uranium. It’s even produced by the sun. Types of ionizing radiation include gamma rays, X-rays, and UV rays.
Non-ionizing radiation lacks the energy to cause damage at the cellular level and is therefore widely thought of as safe. This idea is somewhat problematic, however, as non-ionizing radiation has actually been linked to a number of health defects. For example, one study linked non-ionizing radiation to miscarriages in pregnant women. Another found ties between one form of non-ionizing radiation and glioma, a rare but deadly type of brain cancer.
Non-ionizing radiation is sometimes referred to as EMF radiation. It is created by electronic devices and even powerlines. Cell towers and WiFi signals, microwaves, and solar panels all produce different forms of non-ionizing radiation.
ELF-EMF vs RF-EMF vs microwave vs infrared
There are four different types of EMF radiation:
- Extra-Low Frequency (ELF) EMF radiation
- Radiofrequency (RF) EMF radiation
ELF-EMF radiation is generated by power lines and electronic devices. It’s also present in many homes in the form of dirty electricity. Frequencies ranging from 0 to 3,000 Hz constitute ELF-EMF radiation, with the most common ones being 50 and 60 Hz. This type of radiation is at the low end of the non-ionizing spectrum, and it’s designated as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
RF-EMF radiation is produced by WiFi signals, cell phones and towers, smart bulbs and appliances, smart meters, and even fitness trackers. If it has a WiFi or Bluetooth signal, it is producing RF-EMF radiation. This type of radiation can be found in the 20Khz to 300GHz range. RF-EMF radiation shares ELF’s designation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the WHO.
Microwave radiation is also non-ionizing. Microwave ovens aren’t the only thing that produces microwaves, either. The name actually refers to all frequencies between 1 and 100 GHz. These waves are also produced by radar, satellites, and vehicles with keyless entry. Exposure to microwaves can cause internal heating and severe burns.
Infrared waves are at the high end of the non-ionizing spectrum. These waves range from 300GHz to 430THz and are just shy of the visible spectrum (although in rare instances infrared from lasers can be seen by the human eye). Infrared is used in night-vision goggles, homing devices, and other military and law enforcement purposes. It’s also sometimes used in environmental inspections and weather forecasting. In large doses, infrared can cause severe eye damage.
Different types of non-ionizing radiation can have different effects on individuals. To those with Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity, for example, symptoms are generally caused by exposure to RF-EMF radiation. As you saw, though, microwave and RF frequencies do overlap, meaning devices producing microwaves could cause similar symptoms.
Solar radiation vs man-made
About eight percent of solar radiation falls in the ionizing UV range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The radiation produced here is within a range of 30PHz to 750THz. Ultraviolet radiation is at the very low end of the spectrum. Similar to infrared, UV is just shy of the visible range. UV waves from the sun can cause significant damage to the skin in high doses, although it does not actually penetrate this barrier. Exposure to UV radiation may even help with Vitamin D production, but it poses little threat beyond skin cancer and sunburn.
Also present in sunlight is infrared radiation. As you already know, this type of radiation can cause eye damage — hence why staring directly into the sun is ill-advised. Infrared radiation makes up about 49.4% of the radiation that reaches the Earth from the sun.
The remaining 42.3% of electromagnetic radiation from the sun falls in the visible spectrum. This is directly in between infrared and ultraviolet on the spectrum, and it’s sometimes referred to as the Photosynthetically Active Range (PAR). That is because this is the range where plants thrive and photosynthesis can occur.
Manmade radiation can certainly fall in the UV or infrared range, similar to sunlight. However, when we talk about the dangers of EMF radiation, we are usually referring to ELF-EMF, RF-EMF, and microwave radiation. These types of radiation are lower on the spectrum. Lower frequencies may have different effects on the body than higher frequencies. Comparing solar radiation to manmade can be tempting, but they are ultimately very different.
What does radiation do to our bodies?
Remember that ionizing radiation contains enough energy to cause an atom to split, while non-ionizing does not. For that reason, the two have a different effect on the body.
To understand the effect ionizing radiation has, it’s helpful to first familiarize yourself with the parts of an atom. Every atom is made up of a proton, a neutron, and an electron. The protons and neutrons form the nucleus, which electrons orbit around. Each atom has a set number of electrons. Ionizing radiation repels an atom’s electrons, thus splitting the atom.
When this happens to a DNA molecule — or to a nearby atom that then strikes a DNA molecule, it’s referred to as direct action. That type of damage actually only accounts for a small percentage of the damage done by ionizing radiation. Most of the damage is indirect damage, where the split atom strikes a water molecule (H2O). Oxygen, the “O” part of the equation, splits from the water molecule.
Free radicals are considered unstable, which is to say that they are constantly seeking to correct their electron deficit. When this occurs in an oxygen atom, it is called oxidative stress. Oxidating stress has been tied to a number of health issues, most commonly cancer and many of the symptoms that we associate with aging.
In small doses, the damage done by radiation occurs gradually over time. The more you are exposed, the greater at risk you are of experiencing negative side effects. In large doses, however, radiation can cause radiation poisoning, a dangerous and sometimes fatal condition.
Symptoms of radiation poisoning
At first, an individual with radiation poisoning may display symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. The time it takes for symptoms to appear after exposure depends on how much an individual was exposed. Extremely high exposure can lead to almost immediate symptoms, but they can take days to fully appear.
Signs of radiation include confusion and disorientation, fainting, hair loss, weakness, internal bleeding, low blood pressure, and infection. It’s important to note that you can’t get radiation poisoning from a standard test or procedure — most cases occur after nuclear power plant meltdowns, atomic bomb detonations, and other high-radiation events.
Long term effects of ionizing radiation exposure
Much of what we know about the long-term effects of ionizing radiation exposure is owed to survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in World War II. A longitudinal study, which is a study performed over a large period of time, was done on a group of survivors.
The study found that those who were young during the bombings experienced a significant and likely radiation-related risk of developing cancer. Individuals who were older at the time of exposure also experienced a higher risk of cancer, but not to the degree that young ones did. This may be because children have thinner skulls and are therefore more susceptible to radiation.
There are some serious health issues associated with non-ionizing radiation. In large doses, exposure has been tied to heat-related tissue damage. At these high levels, non-ionizing radiation can cause thermal heating of living tissue, leading to burns. Most often, however, our exposure is in much smaller doses.
These smaller doses can still be problematic. In addition to glioma and an increased risk of miscarriages, smaller doses of non-ionizing radiation may cause male fertility problems, heart tumors, and Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS). These health issues are primarily associated with RF, ELF, and microwave radiation specifically.
Cancer and radiation
If ionizing and non-ionizing radiation have both been shown to cause cancer, how is it possible to use radiation to treat cancer?
Radiation therapy is a targeted approach to cancer treatment. When a person receives radiation treatment, the radiation is narrowly focused on the part of the body with cancer. Radiation given orally or intravenously collects near the site of the tumor, so the rest of the body’s exposure is minimal.
By localizing the radiation, damage occurs primarily in cancer cells. The radiation stops them from dividing, killing cancer cells while leaving healthy cells largely untouched.
How much radiation are we exposed to compared to our grandparents?
To answer this question, let’s compare modern life to life 50 years ago.
In 2020, many of us have cell phones. We have personal laptops and computers, tablets, smart TVs, smart appliances, Bluetooth-enabled cars, fitness trackers, and any other number of EMF-emitting devices. Some areas have city-wide WiFi connections, meaning everywhere you go, you are surrounded by WiFi signals — a great thing for connectivity, but less than ideal when you’re worried about radiation exposure.
On the ionizing side of things, many of us receive regular dental X-rays in addition to occasional medical procedures such as MRIs. It’s safe to say that in modern times, we are exposed to quite a bit of radiation on a daily basis.
In 1970, on the other hand, cell phones were not yet a thing. People used incandescent lightbulbs and watched television sets with no internet connection. In fact, the internet wasn’t even a thing yet. For that reason alone, it’s apparent that our exposure to non-ionizing radiation, at least, has dramatically increased in the last 50 years.
How to measure radiation
Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation are measured differently. You generally only need to test for ionizing radiation under a specific set of circumstances, such as if you suspect the presence of radon in your home. A radon test is usually performed by the homeowner and then mailed to a laboratory for results.
Before using your EMF meter, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the units of measurement you’ll be using. First, recall that there are two components to EMF radiation — electric and magnetic fields. These two fields are measured differently. The electric field is measured in volts per meter (V/m). The magnetic field is measured in milliGauss (mG).
On the TriField TF2, another unit of measurement is used, as well. Milliwatts per square meter is expressed as mW/m2. This unit is used to measure RF frequencies. If you do go with the TriField, the following video from the manufacturer provides a great deal of helpful information.
To measure radiation around your home, simply take readings in multiple positions in each room. Take care to focus on high-traffic areas, especially in the bedroom as creating an EMF-free environment while you sleep is critically important.
Electromagnetic radiation poses a real threat to human health. By educating yourself on what exactly it is, you can better take steps to reduce your exposure in daily life. To learn more about what you can do to protect yourself and your family from EMF radiation, check out our guide to safeguarding your home.