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An electromagnetic field (EMF) is an area of moving electrical charges. Some EMFs, especially those involving ionizing radiation, can be harmful.
For most people, exposure to EMFs occurs on a daily basis, as the fields are virtually everywhere.
These fields can come from natural sources, such as thunderstorms, or they may be manufactured, as are radio waves, microwaves, and X-rays, for example.
EMFs exist on a spectrum, and a field’s location on the spectrum depends on its wavelength and frequency.
There are two types of EMF. One has the capacity to break chemical bonds and the other does not.
The types are:
Fields of ionizing radiation have higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths.
The energy from this type of radiation can remove electrons from atoms, including those comprising water and living tissue.
This breaks chemical bonds.
In the human body, high doses of ionizing radiation can prompt unstable atoms called free radicals to cause oxidative damage.
Some more common sources of ionizing radiation are gamma rays, which can help treat cancer, and X-rays.
Visible light exists toward the middle of the spectrum, marking the dividing line between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
Non-ionizing EMFs have a longer wavelength and a lower frequency. They cannot break chemical bonds.
Non-ionizing fields are present in many natural and manufactured forms.
Some sources of non-ionizing EMFs include:
- radiofrequency radiation, as in many communication devices
- ultraviolet radiation, as in tanning beds
- infrared radiation, as in heat lamps
Ionizing radiation can be harmful because it can break chemical bonds and change the molecular and chemical structures of various substances, including human tissue.
Overall, a person is more likely to experience damage if they are exposed to high levels of radiation over a longer period. This could occur, for example, if a person undergoes numerous X-rays without protection.
High doses of ionizing radiation can cause immediate damage, such as:
- hair loss
- skin damage
- organ and tissue damage
- damage to a developing fetus
- damage to bone marrow
This form of radiation can also cause long-term health problems, even when a person has had no immediate symptoms.
Problems that can develop over a longer period can include:
- oxidative damage
- fertility complications
- effects on a developing fetus
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), medical applications, such as X-rays and radiation therapy, account for 98% of the population dose contribution from all manufactured sources of radiation, representing 20% of the population’s total exposure.
Doctors and other healthcare providers can minimize the risk of exposure by using lead shields to protect areas of the body that are not targets for the radiation.
Typical levels of exposure to non-ionizing radiation should not affect human health. In ordinary circumstances, non-ionizing radiation simply passes through the body without causing harm.
Specific concerns have involved possible interference with devices such as pacemakers.
However, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), pacemakers are not typically affected by radiation from household appliances, such as microwaves, computers, and Bluetooth wireless technology.
Yet the AHA do recommend keeping antennae and motors roughly 6 inches away from a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
Other concerns have involved cell phones as a possible cause of cancer. As the authors of a 2016 article in the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine have noted, evidence of a connection between cell phone radiation and cancer has, so far, been weak and insubstantial.
Non-ionizing radiation can create heat, as in a microwave. While this heat is not typically dangerous, in certain circumstances, it can harm human body tissue.
For example, people who work in industrial or scientific settings and who are exposed to very high doses of non-ionizing radiation may be at risk of tissue damage.
Certain organs are more vulnerable — the eyes and testes, for example, are more susceptible to this damage because they have a low blood supply and less capacity to regulate temperature.
Overall, the risk of damage from non-ionizing radiation is low, and it only occurs after a person has been exposed to high levels of the radiation for a long time.
Acute radiation syndrome (ARS), or radiation sickness, can be severe. It usually develops after exposure to very high levels of radiation in a short period, possibly minutes.
ARS is most likely to occur if radiation penetrates a person’s internal organs and a majority of their body has received some exposure.
A person with ARS may experience symptoms within minutes of exposure, and the symptoms may come and go for several days.
Symptoms of ARS include:
- a headache
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person may recover for a period, then feel ill again, experiencing the same symptoms or others. These can be severe, and may include:
- a loss of appetite
- a fever
- a coma
A person should seek emergency medical aid if they think that they have been exposed to high levels of radiation.
This can happen due to:
- extensive exposure to ultraviolet light, during an unusually long period in a tanning bed, for example
- extensive exposure to X-rays
- an accident at or near a nuclear power plant
- contact with radioactive waste
- the effects of a nuclear bomb
In most cases, damage occurs after long-term exposure, such as when skin cancer develops after many years of frequent, unprotected sun exposure.
People should seek medical attention if they have any symptoms of tissue damage or chronic radiation exposure, such as:
- Problems with fertility: See a doctor about multiple pregnancy losses or any difficulty conceiving.
- Unexplained pain: Consult a doctor about pain with no clear cause, especially if any internal organs seem to be involved.
- Symptoms of cancer: These include skin changes, a tumor, or changes in the way that the body functions.
The best approach will depend on the nature and extent of the exposure.
In most cases, doctors focus on managing symptoms by keeping their patients hydrated and treating any burns.
Some people require treatment involving the bone marrow, such as a transplant.
The lower the radiation dose, the more likely it is that the person will recover. The speed of recovery can range from several weeks to about 2 years.
Some companies perform field surveys to assess the levels and safety of radiation in a building, area, or geographic region.
By testing the blood, a doctor may be able to identify harmful exposure to ionizing radiation.
Typically, doctors conduct these tests in response to an event such as an accident at a nuclear power plant or the detonation of a nuclear bomb.
Exposure to non-ionizing radiation at typical levels is not harmful. However, exposure to ionizing radiation can be a serious threat to health, if the right precautions are not in place.
People should take steps to limit their exposure to ionizing EMFs, by wearing sunscreen, for example.
It is important to also note that ionizing radiation, in X-rays or cancer therapy, for example, can play a crucial role in medical care.