Is electromagnetic “pollution” real, and do we need to protect ourselves?

When Ameer Rosic went to jail for the last time six years ago, the stars aligned. He’d been hustling since he dropped out of school as a teenager, was depressed, and had just met his soulmate before starting a six-month stint in maximum penitentiary for aggravated assault, so he spent his time behind bars searching for answers about the type of person he wanted to be and what he wanted to do with his life.

When he got out, Rosic was obsessed with health, and he began working with businesspeople and entrepreneurs on a holistic approach – concentrating on their diets, exercise, mindsets, the friends they surround themselves with, and so forth. But for some of his clients, optimal health still seemed just out of reach, and Rosic concluded that the reason was because of their ongoing exposure to electromagnetic radiation from their cell phones, laptops, nearby cell towers, and so forth. Some people, he concluded, are more sensitive to this exposure than others, and he decided to launch a clothing company to reduce a person’s exposure.

Riparo, which in November will launch an Indiegogo campaign for its EMF-blocking briefs to “protect your balls” from what some like to call EMF “pollution,” joins an already established market of apparel aimed at minimizing how much radiation penetrates our bodies. This includes every type of garment imaginable, from shirts and underwear to hats and pregnancy bellybands.

EMF maternity belt

The vast majority of scientists across many fields around the world say we don’t need to worry about what amounts to very small radiation exposure from our electronics. The World Health Organization, which launched an initiative to look into the topic in 1997 and has reviewed more than 25,000 studies, has concluded that “current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”

But considering long-term exposure is still being studied, is it better to invest in radiation-blocking clothing to “play it safe,” as Rosic says, or is this just a bunch of hocus pocus marketed to the most gullible among us?

The answer depends, of course, on whom you ask, but the key difference in views is whether exposure causes biological harm to our bodies even when the radiation is at levels too low to cause tissue heating.

Waves of mutilation?

First, a quick primer. People are exposed to varying levels of radiation every day, and have been since well before the invention of electricity. In fact the earth has a static electromagnetic field measured at 25-65 µT (this unit of measurement is called a microtesla; the tesla is used to measure the concentration of a magnetic field) from equator to poles, and none of us earthlings can avoid this exposure.

The type of exposure some worry about is two-fold: electric fields, which are created by differences in voltage, and magnetic fields, which are created when that electric current flows. So an electric field exists even in the absence of a current (i.e. a toaster that is plugged in but not on). A magnetic field will only be present when a current flows, and that amount can vary dramatically depending on power consumption (i.e. a lamp versus a mobile phone base station). One’s exposure depends on distance to that power source (i.e. a laptop on one’s nether regions versus a television set in a neighbor’s house.)

Once our bodies are exposed to radiation, it penetrates our tissue and scatters. At high enough levels, radiation heats our tissue. Many studies have investigated levels of exposure that are below those that cause tissue heating, and the research suggests that there is no discernible adverse health effects from this low level of exposure. There is also no evidence that exposure to electromagnetic fields causes “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” that some people report.

EMF in our bodies

In fact, the most common explanation for the symptoms some describe, such as headaches, anxiety, and insomnia, is that it is the stress people feel about EMF exposure that causes the ill effects. In one instance, a number of people claimed that a new cell tower in their neighborhood was adversely affecting their health — before it had even been turned on.

Nevertheless, because a person’s proximity to electromagnetic fields matters, there has been extensive investigation into the impact of cell phones, which many of us hold right against our skulls on a daily basis. (The ubiquity of cell phone use is certainly not in question; the number of mobile phone subscriptions is expected to exceed the world population this year.)

When powered on, the low-powered radiofrequency transmitters operate somewhere between 450 and 2700 MHz, with powers that peak between 0.1 and 2 watts. The radiofrequency exposure drops quickly with distance from the device, so someone holding it to their head has a higher exposure than someone texting with the phone a foot away.

In the short term, most of the energy from mobile phone exposure is absorbed by the skin, resulting in what WHO calls a “negligible” rise in temperature in organs such as the brain. In the long term, the jury is still out on whether cell phone use causes, say, tumors, because these effects won’t necessarily be seen for another decade or so. The first long-term studies are, however, starting to roll in. Interphone, the largest case-control study on the subject, found no increased risk of glioma or meningioma over the course of 10 years of cell phone use, and animal studies over multiple generations also find no increased risk of cancer due to long-term exposure.

“We ignore this at our peril”

That said, there are a few scientists, physicians and thinkers who remain skeptical about the so-called safety of EMF exposure, especially in the long term. Even the Interphone study concluded that “The possible effects of long?term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.”

Former New York Times journalist B. Blake Levitt, who wrote “Electromagnetic Fields, A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves,” has said:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]“It turns out that most living things are fantastically sensitive to vanishingly small EMF exposures. Living cells interpret such exposures as part of our normal cellular activities (think heartbeats, brainwaves, cell division itself, etc.). The problem is, man-made electromagnetic exposures aren’t ‘normal.’ They are artificial artifacts, with unusual intensities, signaling characteristics, pulsing patterns, and wave forms that don’t exist in nature. And they can misdirect cells in myriad ways. … We ignore this at our own peril.”[/blockquote]

Whichever way you lean, the folks behind products like Belly Armor and Riparo certainly hope that you play it safe and invest in their products to block or reduce EMF radiation where you can. (For a sense of the full spectrum of apparel on the market today, check out LessEMF.com. Electromagnetic “shielding,” as it is called, is typically achieved using metals like silver and copper.) For those who remain concerned about what exposure is doing to their health, these products could reduce not only one’s exposure but also one’s stress levels while results from long-term studies continue to trickle in.

Not everyone is happy with this approach, however, saying it amounts to putting on the proverbial tin hat. “All this strategy accomplishes is to reinforce faulty assumptions, and leave you equally vulnerable to a recurrence in the future,” writes Brian Dunning in his analysis of EMF hypersensitivity on Skeptoid.com. “A better strategy is to understand the true cause of your stress, possibly through psychotherapy or possibly on your own, and either solve it or simply find a way to relax and blow off some steam.”