by:  Michael A. Polkabla, CIH, REA.  Senior Certified Industrial Hygienist, Principal with BioMax Environmental, LLC

Are Electromagnetic Fields (or EMF) in and around our homes a cause for concern???

A look at a number of news headlines recently has given us a great deal to “worry about” regarding Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) and is a very hotly debated subject when it comes to the federal and state regulators, the public utility industries, and public concern.  In fact, there has been a wide range of focus pertaining to public health concerns over the past few decades from both recognized and perceived health effects from exposure to EMF from numerous sources and personal devices such as computers and TV screens, cellular phones (and their base stations), microwave ovens, power transmission lines, and even the “dreaded” SmartMeters.

So…  What Are Electromagnetic Fields Anyway?

Basically…  Electromagnetic fields (or EMF) are present everywhere in our environment but are completely invisible to us.  In fact, electromagnetic fields are really a combination of two different forms of non-ionizing radiation and are quite different, but are linked together in many ways.  Electric fields are created by a difference in electric voltage where the higher the voltage, the stronger the resultant electric field.  An electric field will exist even when there is no current flowing (such as in a disconnected battery).  However, magnetic fields are created when an electric current flows… and the magnetic field strength will depend on the strength of the electric field. The greater the electric current… the stronger the magnetic field.

How Are Electromagnetic Fields Produced?

Electromagnetic fields are produced by many natural sources such as through the build-up of electric charges in our atmosphere from wind friction and common weather conditions…  the most apparently observed when we witness lightning or a thunderstorm.  Scientists generally believe that the Earths own electric and magnetic fields are also used by many mammals such as birds and whales for navigation and migration.  We can also “see” this type of magnetic field by using a compass, which we all know indicates a North-South direction using a magnetic needle.

Besides these natural sources, the electromagnetic field spectrum also includes EMF fields generated by human-made sources such as produced by X-rays used to diagnose a broken bone, electrical appliances we use regularly in our homes like toasters, blow dryers, electric clocks, computers, and cell phones.  Recently there has been a great concern regarding the EMF emissions associated with SmartMeters used by power companies in conjunction with electrical power transmission.  In fact, the electricity that we use in and around our homes every day generates electromagnetic fields in a frequency range termed  “extremely low frequency” (or ELF) produced by Alternating Current (AC) electricity which shifts at 60 cycles per second (or 60 Hz).  Sources of higher frequency fields and electromagnetic waves are generated by TV signals, radio waves, cellular phone transmissions, and our wireless computers and IPads.  So the bottom line is…  pretty much anything that uses, generates, transmits, or receives electric power will generate Electromagnetic fields.

What do current studies show about health effects from exposures to EMF?

Can electromagnetic fields from power lines, SmartMeters, electrical home appliances/wiring, computers, laptops, and IPads cause health problems?  Many scientific studies have proposed that there may be a potential link between EMF exposures and significant illnesses and health conditions such as leukemia, brain tumors, headaches, chronic fatigue, forgetfulness, stress, nausea, cataracts, heart problems, chest pain, and other health problems including miscarriages and even cancer?  Many studies have produced conflicting and contradictory results, yet many experts are convinced that the potential threat for these types of health effects is real.

How Does the Human Body React to EMF?

It is commonly understood by the medical community that tiny electrical currents exist in the human body due to the chemical reactions that occur as part of normal cell function. Nerves relay signals through our body much like electrical wiring in our homes.  These processes occur by transmitting electric impulses through chemical ion transport from cell to cell and in fact, most biochemical reactions ranging from muscle movement to brain activities involve the movement and rearrangement of charged cellular particles.  We know that even the heart is an electrically sensitive organ that (when weak or damaged) can be treated or “adjusted” through the use of a pace maker which targets small electric charges to areas of the heart.  Thermal heating, however, is the main biological effect from exposure to high levels of electromagnetic fields over a discrete period of time.  In microwave ovens, this fact is commonly used in almost every home to warm up food.  However, there are recognized hazards to these kinds of exposures as we have seen restaurant postings with warnings to individuals with pacemakers when microwave ovens (which generate EMF) are used.  What is not clearly understood (and is under hot debate) are the health effects to routine exposures to low levels of EMF over a long duration such as those exposures experienced by home residents and workers in office buildings.

So it makes sense that electric and magnetic fields (such as EMF) can influence the human body just as they influence any other material made up of charged particles.  What we currently don’t know or understand completely is how much. Scientists are actively continuing to research this area.

What are the current regulatory guidelines and Standards?

Just search the internet and you will see that there have been many hundreds of studies conducted worldwide to evaluate the hazards associated with EMF where there is also a wide debate as to what electromagnetic field (EMF) level is considered “safe” in our living and working environments.   Many epidemiological studies on humans have indicated a potential link between EMF and serious health problems.  In fact, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepared a draft report issued in March 1990, wherein the EPA recommended that EMF be classified as a Class B carcinogen as a probable human carcinogen”.  However, after the EPA draft report was released, a number of “industry” lobbyists were at odds to this position and petitioned the EPA to revise their report.  Hence, the subsequent EPA final revision did NOT classify EMF as a Class B carcinogen, but rather, the following explanation was added:  “At this time such a characterization regarding the link between cancer and exposure to EMFs is not appropriate because the basic nature of the interaction between EMFs and biological processes leading to cancer is not understood.  However, the final EPA report also stated…  In conclusion, several studies showing leukemia, lymphoma and cancer of the nervous system in children exposed to EMF supported by similar findings in adults in several/ occupational studies also involving electrical power frequency exposures, show a consistent pattern of response that suggest a causal link.

As an environmental consulting firm, BioMax has researched many government agency and public utility documents regarding typical ambient and residential levels of EMF associated with 60-Hz electrical power transmission lines (such as those used in our communities by PG&E).  We have seen that a number of regulatory agencies have made significant efforts to offer public protection “guidance” regarding EMF exposure levels and some have proposed a limit of 3 milli Gauss (mG) as a maximum recommended level for long-term duration exposures.  The USEPA has previously proposed a safety standard limit for long-term exposures to EMF at 1 mG.  Many countries, such as Sweden, have similarly set maximum safety limits for long-term exposure to EMF at 1 mG.

Typical EMF Level Measurements …

As a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), I have consulted with many clients on a number of residential and commercial projects where I have personally measured EMF levels within residences and businesses alike.  Our findings from these assessments have routinely indicated electromagnetic fields present within “typical” residences and workplaces at field strengths at or near 0.5 mG within general living and working spaces.  However, these levels will depend on the numbers and types of electrical equipment/systems present as well as the distance from those sources.  The closer one is positioned to an electrical source, the higher the resultant EMF strength …  this is a fundamental property of virtually all forms of radiation

Should I be concerned?

…THAT certainly depends on whom you ask and who/what you believe!

We all recognize that electricity is an integral part of our lives, culture, and society and as a result, electromagnetic fields will continue to be around us wherever we live.  Most experts also tend to agree that limited, (low level and short duration) exposures to EMF is not a significant health threat.  For example, most believe it is acceptable for a person use (and be near) most electrical kitchen appliances (like a toaster) while cooking.  However, is it advisable for a person to work right next to a computer tower for long periods of time or to sleep under an electric blanket?  What about a person who lives near (or under) a power transmission line or near an electrical substation?  And what about those SmartMeters anyway?  Such persons, under these circumstances, are subject to long term (or chronic) exposures to low levels of electromagnetic fields and applies to many of us.  As I have discussed, the short and long term effects of these kinds of exposures are not well understood and are hotly debated.  My advice is to follow the “precautionary principle” as well as the Environmental Protection Agency’s advice to practice and follow “prudent avoidance” when it comes to exposures to EMF.

EMF levels at a “typical” kitchen toaster during use


How do I limit EMF in and around my current home or workplace?  Answer:  Time, Distance, and Shielding

As I stated earlier, the most fundamental way to limit exposure to EMF in and around your home is to create (or manage) an environment, which has fewer sources of EMF to begin with…  However, if your environment is fixed, or if the elimination of EMF sources through moving your location or selecting different equipment/appliances is impractical, then following these three basic control principles will help and applies to all forms of radiation (including EMF)…  That is, Time, Distance, and Shielding.

Effective ways to reduce exposure to radiation (such as EMF) can be achieved through limiting time of exposure, through increased distance to the EMF source, and/or to establish/create an effective barrier.

Time:  Most experts agree that spending time near a toaster in the morning making “toast” does not likely represent a significant health concern…  But, closely watching (and running) your toaster for hours on end would result in a longer-term exposure to levels of EMF in the 100+ mG range and is far greater than most recognized guidance levels!  So limiting time of exposure is a good thing.

Distance:  As noted before, as the distance increases from an EMF source, the field strength decreases exponentially (significantly).  In fact, changes to radiation (such as EMF) field strength-to-distance are not linear but actually follows the “inverse square” rule.  This means that for every distance (from source) doubled, the resultant exposure is reduced by the square of the distance.  For example, if the EMF strength at a measured distance from a source is 10 mG, then if the measurement distance is doubled, the resultant field new strength is only 2.5 mG (or ¼ the previous field strength) at the doubled distance.  This is a VERY good fundamental characteristic with respect to radiation since the exposure level drops off very significantly with an increase in distance from the source.

Shielding:  When “time and distance” controls to EMF are not practical, all we have left is shielding.  Depending on the characteristics of the specific EMF radiation such as frequency, amplitude (intensity) and wavelength, there are a number of shielding barriers that are available.  Such materials, though, are very specific to the type of radiation and add to the cost for protection but none the less are appropriate in some instances…  such as the limited protective barrier/shielding screen on the window doors of microwaves.  EMF passes right through many materials though, such as standard residential walls and furniture.

Can I measure EMF in and around my home?

First, I would say to follow the EPS’s advice and to practice “prudent avoidance” when it comes to EMF sources in and around your home and to minimize the EMF exposures to there lowest practical levels.  If you are concerned, you may wish to measure (or to have your home measured) professionally to see what levels of EMF are present in your current living or working environment.  This can be done by hiring an experienced environmental consultant or using a commercially available EMF detection meter yourself.  Such instruments are called EMF or Gauss meters and may vary in the strength and intensity of magnetic fields in your home.  These instruments vary widely with respect to price and accuracy.  However, it is important that doing these measurements yourself, you select a device which measures a frequency of 60 Hz as this is the EMF frequency associated with electrical power lines in and around our homes.EMF levels at a “typical” set of residential light switches

What are some of the practical things can I do now in and around my home?

After measuring the EMF levels in and around your home, you may want to locate the significant sources and to eliminate or control them.  Never let your children play near electrical power lines, transformers, or radar transmitter or receiver dishes.  Avoid occupying locations for long durations where the EMF field strength exceeds 1 mG.  Measurements should be made in areas when equipment and sources are turned on and turned “off” as field strengths may still be present when systems and appliances are “off”.

I don’t recommend using an electric blanket or water bed (although who uses water beds these days huh?) as these produce significant EMF levels and are at close proximity (distance) for extended durations (time) which are two aspects of radiation that are “not-so-good”, as we discussed previously.  Don’t orient yourself too close to your TV or computer system.  Place your office and home equipment, appliances at a distance from your work/sitting areas and use an EMF meter to determine a distance, which you are comfortable with.  Try to limit use of personal appliances such as blow dryers, electric razors, electric toothbrushes, and YES… even cell phones as these emit some pretty significant EMF levels during use and intermittently when receiving data.  Personally, I prefer not to keep my IPhone in my pocket all day exactly because of the EMF levels that

I have measured and which are emitted.  Another common source of elevated EMF levels are dimmer switches in our rooms and nighttime clock radios that most of us keep too close to our heads while we sleep.

So… back to that question on everybody’s mind regarding the “dreaded” SmartMeter located outside your residence?  Is it “Safe”? 

Well, Those SmartMeters do emit EMF at levels over 1 mG, and I am under the opinion that less is better with respect to EMF, but unless you spend a lot of right next to, or in close proximity that device, I think it is about as much of a health risk as spending a long time right next to your toaster in the morning…  But that is just my professional opinion and as we learn more about EMF in general, I may change my mind!

Remember…  reducing and managing health risks associated with environmental contaminants and potential hazards (like EMF) requires good planning, common sense, as well as taking prudent precautionary steps like those I’ve given.  If you have significant concerns or if health symptoms are present, a qualified environmental professional (such as a Certified Industrial Hygienist) may be helpful to assess your situation and to provide the necessary testing and expertise to help resolve the problem.

Additional Resources:

BioMax Environmental, LLC

(831) 264-3414

World Health Organization Standards and Guidelines

International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention


US Environmental Protection Agency



Mr. Michael A. Polkabla, CIH, REA is the Senior Certified industrial Hygienist (CIH) and President of BioMax Environmental, LLC providing environmental consulting and industrial hygiene related services throughout Northern California with offices in the SF Bay area as well as here on the Monterey Peninsula.  Mr. Polkabla is certified in the Comprehensive Practice of Industrial Hygiene by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene and holds the right to the designation Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) under certification number CP 7104.  Mr. Polkabla is also certified by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) as a Class I Registered Environmental Assessor (REA) under Cal/EPA certification number 05011.  BioMax Environmental was established in 1996 and provides a wide range of environmental services designed to protect workers, the community, and the environment from physical, chemical and biological hazards.

Contact us at:  email:  Phone:  (831) 264-3414