Electromagnetism and Environmental Illness

by Michael Riversong

Every six months or so, on average, some major media outlet puts out a story about how people are getting zapped by power lines. Some of these have concerned lawsuits, usually unsuccessful, against power companies. Some stories have been more general, focusing on what little research exists in this field. The general conclusions always depend on the bias of the reporter. Conservative commentators say there's no proof that anything is happening, while more liberal newscasters may send out an alarm warning people to stay away from any electrical source.

Unfortunately, our media outlets are not good at sorting through the evidence of research and practical experience to find the real truth. What's happening is much more complex than either dismissing the problem or sounding a general alarm. Yes, electromagnetic fields do have effects on living beings. That's been proven in the laboratory over and over. But the laboratory data cannot yet tell us directly how humans might be affected or if, indeed, we are affected at all. For that conclusion, we need comprehensive statistical and epidemiological studies, which are still few and far between.

None of this is much help to someone who is currently suffering from a variety of symptoms which a normal doctor can't address. The question is, "Am I personally being affected by electromagnetic fields, and if so, how much?"


First, the symptoms said to be associated with electromagnetic field exposure should be listed. They are: headaches, sleeping difficulties, irritability, mental instability, and, in extreme cases, tumors and cancers. These symptoms have been gathered from a number of authorities, but the list cannot be considered authoritative at this time, because of the many uncertainties still existing in this field.

The most important thing we need to know is that people have a wide variation in susceptibility to electromagnetic fields. There are plenty of cases where people have worked in power plants, exposed to field levels over 90 milligauss for 30 years, and never even caught a cold. Other people say they got brain tumors while living under a measured level of only 4 milligauss for a couple of years.

Generally, children are considered most susceptible to electromagnetic fields. Next most susceptible would be people with existing cases of Environmental Illness (EI). Sometimes this may be known medically as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Myalgic Encepalomylitis, or Fibromyalgia. There seems to be a negative synergy at work between chemical sensitivities and sensitivity to electricity. Some EI patients have personally reported that they were never sensitive to electromagnetic fields until after their chemical sensitivities had gotten bad.


Most people are aware of electromagnetic fields coming from major powerlines. As a general rule, you can expect high field levels from any line which has steel towers or multiple wood poles. Also, primary transmission lines, which may be on single wood poles, will tend to emanate high levels. These lines are generally thicker than most, silvery colored, and serve entire neighborhoods. They are often strung higher than regular residential lines. Power transformer stations are very bad places to live around, as they can affect buildings for over a block in any direction. Regular residential lines, which are the most common, do not normally have any significant emissions.

Some power pole transformers may emit high levels, especially if they are older or out of repair. Because of the way grounding is done in the USA, water pipes also can carry electromagnetic fields in many houses.

Normal household appliances emanate fields. High on the list would be anything with a motor. This includes old clocks, refrigerators, hair dryers, and power tools. Microwave ovens emit a variety of fields. Some digital clocks have been implicated in health problems. Electric resistance heaters, such as baseboard units, are usually bad, even when turned off. Worst of all are electric blankets and waterbed heaters, because they are close to the body during critical sleep times.


Three kinds of electromagnetic fields are acknowledged to be potentially harmful. They may exist separately or together.

AC MAGNETIC FIELDS: These are the most well-known in the United States, mainly because they are easiest to measure. They travel along wires and emanate from motors. They are measured in milliGauss (mG). In Europe, most governments and researchers agree that 2.5 mG is the maximum safe level, and when children are involved, less than 1.0 mG is best.

ELECTRIC FIELDS: European researchers have found that these can be worse than magnetic fields. They can emanate from any circuit, and are often found near lamps, electric typewriters, and badly wired outlets. Electric fields, also known as "space charge", are very difficult to measure, since the human body directly affects the field strength. Most measurements are given in millivolts per square meter (mV/m). Any quoted measurement must be considered relative within a building, and cannot be easily compared with other locations. That said, levels above 20 mV/m are definitely cause for concern, and should be reduced or avoided.

HIGH FREQUENCY: This includes radar, police and fire radio, cell phones, and microwaves. The very small amount of research on these frequencies is disturbing. They can act unpredictably. There have been cases where a high-frequency field was re-transmitted inside a house and converted into something else. They are mysterious, slippery, and most difficult to measure. Emanations from a leaky microwave oven can cook you too, so anyone doing a survey should definitely check that out. (Other data suggests that using microwave ovens is not a good idea anyway.) Most survey equipment for high frequencies is very expensive, but it is possible to find cheap meters that will give some idea of what is happening.


Few people in the United States and Canada are currently capable of doing a good electromagnetic field survey. It takes time and research to find the right equipment, and then a lot of practice is needed to get meaningful readings.

Most power companies will, on request, send someone out to do a free survey of a home. In most cases, only magnetic fields are measured. Sometimes it is informative to have a power company person in, and then an independent consultant, and make a comparison.

A few people sell devices which are supposed to "neutralize" electromagnetic fields. These are expensive, and few have yet been found to work reliably in controlled tests. Surveys connected with the attempted sale of a device should never be trusted. A few people claim to be able to find electromagnetic fields through dowsing. Extensive experiments on both sides of the Atlantic have so far found nobody who can consistently do that.

A few environmental home inspectors carry one or two basic pieces of equipment, and can give you a general idea of field levels. This may be sufficient in some cases, although there is always a danger of missing an important hot zone. The best surveys, then, are done by a specially trained independent consultant who sells no products. At a minimum, the surveyor should be able to measure accurately, with digital readouts, the three kinds of fields mentioned above. Also, some of the measurements are best taken with a separately grounded meter, so a surveyor should carry a ground rod and plenty of wire for that purpose. Most time and attention should be focused on the bedroom, because electromagnetic fields seem to do the most damage while people are sleeping. Many of the more advanced consultants are actually having clients lie down on the bed, and measuring the voltage levels in their bodies as circuits are turned on and off. If you're paying for an electromagnetic survey, you also deserve a written report.


Litigation is not the best way to deal with power companies. It is expensive, time-consuming, and rarely solves the original problem. Honest negotiations can work. In most powerline cases, more than one house is being affected. That's why, if a survey indicates that a powerline is causing problems in a house, the affected neighbors should band together. Appointing a representative to negotiate with the local power company is a good idea. Most companies tend to be receptive to such an approach.

Power companies usually have two alternatives when faced with a noxious powerline problem. One is to move the line, and the other is to bury it. Underground runs are terribly expensive, and it may take years for the company to get to them.

Therefore, rerouting is often the best alternative. Neighborhood groups involved in these cases should locate alternative routes and find out who owns the property. This will save a lot of time and money on both sides of the negotiations. There are also some new techniques available in powerline technology which could reduce electromagnetic fields. Companies should be encouraged to check these out. Most of these techniques involve twisted wire runs. It's a fairly technical subject, but worth pursuing if there must be a long wait for rerouting or burial of the problem lines.


There are a lot of things an individual homeowner can do to reduce electromagnetic field exposure. These could fill a whole book, so only a few will be summarized here. Two of the rules for reducing electromagnetic field exposure are the same as those for chemical and radiation exposure: time and distance. For most people, a short exposure time will not be harmful, and the farther away you can get from an electromagnetic field, the better.

Moving electrical appliances away from beds is a good first step. Be especially aware of instant-on TV sets, which are always putting out several forms of fields. Some people have converted to using only battery-operated devices in bedrooms.

Another way to reduce exposures is to simply turn off unneeded circuits at night, especially those serving bedrooms. Most people eventually get tired of walking over to the circuit breaker panel every night, so radio-controlled relays or demand switches are available. Demand switches are an especially good idea, as they automatically shut off electricity going through the house until some is needed, and they save a lot of energy. There are several technical compromises to be made when one is installed, but they can be a boon to families with EI patients. Any competent electrician can install one, although sources for the actual switch are limited at the moment.

Normally, there's no point in worrying about such things as hair dryers and power tools, since they are not used long enough at a time to be a problem. There are a few people who are so sensitive that they will feel a direct physical effect from these appliances, but then avoidance is easy enough to arrange.

Be very cautious of anyone who claims to be able to solve all your electromagnetic problems. Since these fields are invisible, there is plenty of opportunity for fraud. Over the past few years, companies have emerged which push expensive, unproven devices of dubious value. If you can afford it, and want to experiment, that's fine, but anyone who tries to intimidate you into buying an expensive gadget to clear electromagnetic fields must be classified as a suspicious character.

Sometimes, people will try to determine their electrical safety through phone discussions or personal conversations with experts. This is like having a doctor give a diagnosis over the phone. To find out what's going on, measurements have to be taken on site.

Remember, when dealing with electromagnetic fields, there is no substitute for experience combined with good, reliable instrumentation.


This article is (c) 2002 by Michael Riversong.
Permission will be granted to reproduce IF REQUESTED.
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