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Death rays from outer space - or right in our homes?

Electricity has always been something of a mystery to many of us, but because it is something most of us cannot do without, we simply respect electricity and have learned to live with it by following such simple precautions as keeping appliances away from the bathtub or not standing under trees during thunderstorms. Now, however, some people are saying that we are being increasingly surrounded by electrically generated electromagnetic fields that can cause everything from cancer to miscarriages.

The culprit, it seems, is the alternating current (AC) that long ago replaced direct current (DC) in most electrical applications and made possible the transmission of electricity over vast distances from its generating source to the consumer. As the current surges back and forth at the standard 60hertz frequency (or 50 in most other countries), electromagnetic fields are produced. (Hertz is the official unit of frequency-the number of waves or "cycles" per second.) This electromagnetic radiation is classified as "extremely low frequency," compared to conventional radio and TV transmissions classified as very high frequency" (from half-a-million to a billion hertz) and such things as x-rays, microwaves, UV light, etc., that are in the "extremely high frequency" range of multi-billion hertz. Because more energy is contained within higher frequencies, we have in the past only been concerned with the extremely high frequency waves (e.g., x-rays) that are known to penetrate tissue and damage it.

Although there is no question that we are being increasingly exposed to these low-frequency electromagnetic fields, there is considerable question as to whether this exposure has any impact on our health. Studies of the problem have ranged from one that analyzed death certificates in relation to power distribution lines in residential areas to studies of the incidence of brain tumors and leukemia among power company workers in the field and in generating stations. Other studies have tried to analyze the effect of week-long use of computer terminals by pregnant office workers to determine whether miscarriages are more common in those who use the terminals than in those who do not. One recent study purported to show a correlation between the use of heated waterbeds and electric blankets and spontaneous abortion and birth defects. And so the studies go on.

Many of these studies have suggested that there is some correlation between exposure to electromagnetic waves and a variety of biological consequences, but unfortunately the data presented thus far are simply not conclusive enough for doctors to make any sweeping recommendations for reducing the exposure. Some of the studies, for example, have produced convincing data to show biological differences between exposed and nonexposed subjects, but the fact that researchers have not ruled out other possible factors makes it difficult at this stage to incriminate the 60-hertz fields as the culprits.

Nor is it known what doses of exposure are "safe" and what are not. The only sure way to eliminate exposure would be to abolish the use of AC, and although some us would like to return to the days of the kerosene lamp and to the newspaper and neighborhood gossip as our news sources, for most of us that is neither practical nor possible. On the other hand, getting rid of the television and dusting off some of those books we never seem to get around to reading, and then unplugging the electric blanket and throwing an extra log on the fire, might not be such bad ideas.
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Title Annotation:electromagnetic fields as a health risk
Publication:Medical Update
Date:May 1, 1990
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