What Are Safe Levels of Electromagnetic Radiation?

Electromagnetic Radiation Spectrum

Figure 1. Radiation from Cell Phones and Other Electronic Devices (Source: Scientific American)

In modern civilization, everywhere you go there are electronic devices, emitting Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR). Radiation emitting devices include electronic products, such as medical and non-medical equipment, lasers, x-ray systems, ultrasound equipment, microwave ovens, color TVs, laptops, tablets and PDAs. According to the FDA, a radiation-emitting devices is any product that uses electricity to power an electronic circuit.

Significantly, EMR comes in two types: ionizing and non-ionizing, which basically refers to the ability of the energy to break chemical bonds into ions. Obviously, EMR of the ionizing radiation type is bad for you as it can rip your molecules apart and cause DNA damage. But, what about EMR that is non-ionizing? If it doesn’t break your chemical bonds, does that mean it is safe? Well, the answer is a bit more complicated than that. Although no research to-date has definitively linked specific diseases, such as cancer, to non-ionizing EMR, there has been a lot of recent studies suggesting exposure to non-ionizing radiation emitted from laptops is harmful, too.

US Standards

Types of Radiation in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Figure 2. Ionizing vs Non-Ionizing Radiation (Source: EPA.gov)

Laptops, tablets and cell phones emit two types of Electromagnetic Radiation: Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) and Radio Frequency (RF). Given the prevalence of these electronic gadgets in our daily lives, you may be surprised to learn that in the United States, there is currently no government-funded organization that actively studies and regulates non-ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation safety of common consumer electronic devices. There are only limit guidelines created by the FCC which is 1.6 W/Kg in 1g of tissue. The FDA largely focuses on medical devices, which exclude laptops, tablets and cell phones. Trusted authorities, such as the American Cancer Society, even go so far as to suggest that non-ionizing radiation is safe due to lack of evidence conclusively linking it to cancer. However, this is a mistake. A lack of information should never be considered a confirmation of safety, especially considering the fact that there has been a resurgence of independent laboratories and academic research institutions conducting studies on such topics as Laptop-induced erythema ab igne and Evaluation and characterization of fetal exposures to magnetic fields generated by laptop computers. Recent research is very suggestive, indicating long-term non-ionizing EMR may, in fact, be harmful. Experts all seem to agree more research needs to be done on the long-term effects of exposure to modern day devices’ non-ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation in order to have proof one way or another.

International Standards

In Europe, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), is a publicly funded body of independent scientific experts which helps set guidelines and disseminate information on the potential health hazards of exposure to non-ionizing radiation. To help set the guidelines, the Environmental Health Division of the World Health Organization (WHO) developed a number of criteria drawn from data collected in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1998 and 2009, the ICNIRP established and confirmed guidelines for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic, and Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs) of up to 300 GHz. The current safety limits put in place are 2.0 W/Kg in 10g of tissue.

Cited in the ICNIRP 2009 guidance document were more recent research articles. It is speculated that adverse events may be caused by prolonged exposure to low levels of radiation, including genotoxicity, carcinogenicity (increased risk for cancer). According to the guidance document, epidemiological data on possible health effects of chronic, low-level, whole-body exposure in the far-field of Radio Frequency (RF) transmitters is poor because of the lack of satisfactory individual exposure assessments. Significant uncertainties exist regarding possible health effects of chronic radiation exposure

Conclusion

In short, there is no real “safe” levels of radiation exposure. When it comes to Electromagnetic Radiation from electronic devices like laptops and tablets, exposure is just an inevitable part of life. As we continue to learn more about health dangers from non-ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation contact, we should do everything we can to limit our personal exposure with EMF protection. While the specific chronic radiation exposure limits need more definition, the best course of action and the one recommended by experts is to avoid extra doses of Electromagnetic Radiation whenever you can.


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