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Electromagnetic radiation

The debate over the effects of continued exposure to electromagnetic radiation remains unresolved after 30 years. The reports cited below suggest possible emerging problems, but the evidence remains inconclusive due to the inability of epidemiological studies to detect small effects and a lack of consistency in results in different laboratories on the same experiment.

It has been suggested that exposure to weak electromagnetic fields (EMFs) can disturb the production of the hormone melatonin by the pineal gland in the brain, eventually leading to an increase in the risk of breast cancer and degenerative diseases such as coronary artery disease, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Likewise, epidemiological and laboratory reports suggest that children exposed to EMFs from power lines are at greater risk of developing leukaemia, and that adults exposed to EMFs at work run a higher risk of leukaemia and brain cancer (Edwards, 1995a). There are more recent concerns that cellphone users are more likely to suffer from brain tumours (Day & Kleiner, 1999). Nevertheless, such reports lack adequate foundation and have yet to be confirmed.

Many physicists argue that there is no plausible mechanism by which low levels of non-ionising radiation could affect living tissue, as magnetic fields are thought to be harmless, and electric fields are thought to flow around, rather than through the human body. Epidemiologists, however, point to the dozens of studies that have found anywhere from a twofold to a tenfold increase in the risk of cancer among people routinely exposed to EMFs (Knight, 1997). It has been suggested that, while radon gas and powerful electromagnetic fields have separately been linked to cancer, these two environmental hazards can combine with extremely dangerous effects, and this link with radon may provide an answer (O'Brien, 1996).

There is other evidence that electromagnetic fields may have biological effects, including an increase in the rate of cell division. In the case of plants, it has been found that trees growing close to a giant 90 kilometre communications antenna in a Michigan forest have grown unusually quickly since the Navy moved into the forest in 1986. Forestry researchers attribute the extra growth to the electromagnetic field around the antenna. The health of the trees did not appear to be damaged (Kiernan, 1995). Furthermore, larvae exposed to an overnight dose of microwaves wriggled less and grew 5% faster than larvae that were not exposed, suggesting that the microwaves were speeding up cell division (Concar, 1999).


Concar, David. 1999. "Get your head around this". New Scientist 10 April 1999, p 20.

Day, Michael, and Kurt Kleiner. 1999. "Mixed Messages". New Scientist, 29 May 1999, p5.

Edwards, Rob. 1995a. "Leak links power lines to cancer". New Scientist, 7 October 1995, p 4.

Kiernan, Vincent. 1995. "Forest grows tall on radio waves". New Scientist, 14 January 1995, p5.

Knight, Jonathan. 1997. "Power crazy". New Scientist, 9 August 1997, p16.

O'Brien, Claire. 1996. "Are pylons and radon a lethal cocktail?" New Scientist, 17 February 1996, p 4.


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