Topical issues: the electromagnetic environment

With our modern environment full of electromagnetic fields, fom power transmision through to all forms of communication, the issues of how this affects our well-being are urgent.

Powerline evidence finally elicits a precautionary response from WHO – and precautionary advice to the UK Government

The Draper report (published June 2005) and the UK SAGE stakeholder assessment (published April 2007) may have been influential in WHO finally recommending a more precautionary approach to high voltage overhead transmission lines (HVOTL) for their extreme low frequency fields (ELF) [see also Power lines for these and other references]. The association between HVOTL and childhood leukaemia is unequivocal, though mechanisms and proof of causal relation are still subject of disagreement.

Effects on adults and the issues of chronic exposure are subject of greater disagreement, but the association between electrification and certain diseases is there. Without in any way being a wholesale recognition that there is a serious problem, a UK cross-party working group on childhood leukaemia and power lines has at the same time published guidelines to government advising not just more research, but a moratorium on building within 60 metres of high voltage lines.

Sam Milham MD notes from the US:

‘An inescapable fact is that the incidence of childhood leukemia varies by at least a factor of 10 around the world, from about 5/100,000 to about 0.4/100,000. The highest rates are in electrified places and the lowest are in places in the third world with no or low levels of electrification. Historically, the age 2-4 peak of the major leukemia of childhood, cALL, didn’t appear until the 1920s, and in the US tracks the spread of residential electrification from urban to rural areas. The TEL/AML1 chromosomal translocation which is associated with cALL has very low levels in third world places compared to industrialised places.’

Questions raised

One of the perspectives taken on the issue is, quite frankly, how many children will die, and does this warrant the economic impact of change? The issue raises several questions:

  • Should the limit be based on distance, or on field strength: ie is active monitoring with adequate measuring equipment an essential part of the precaution?
  • What are the essential co-factors of harm from powerlines (eg, other pollutants, other vulnerabilities)?
  • Are buried cables better, or bad in a different way?
  • Is there a price to life?
  • Can we afford to bury cables?
  • Are people sufficiently well-informed of risks from living with strong power-frequency fields?
  • What is the impact on house prices of establishing that there is a certain risk?
  • If the risk is confirmed, does this sacrifice house prices (and should owners be compensated), or do properties become unsaleable?
  • Do we owe a duty of care to vulnerable or disadvantaged people who cannot avoid the proximity of power lines?
  • What are the wider issues of ELF fields from wiring and from appliances?

Further references and sources

Mobile phones and driving

This is clearly a significant safety issue. From one point of view it can be treated alongside other distracting technology in cars such as satellite navigation, music and radio, which when used passively present few problems, but when fiddled with can be dangerously distracting. But there is more to it than this, so needs to be also compared with conversations with passengers, or children fighting and arguing in the back seat! But it is even more than that too, because the conversation is held with someone unseen and unseeing, out of empathy with the changing driving situation. More importantly, the electromagnetic fields could also be a contributory factor if they alter brain function and attention in any way. Certainly mobiles should never be used in cars without an external antenna. This is important if vehicle tracking devices (for reasons such as road tolls or taxing) enter the realm of pasive GPS receiving (for position location) but GSM transmitting (for location reporting), from more or less continuous dashboard devices. It is also important if roadside RFID tag reading is used requiring high reading fields.

Whichever aspect of risk is/are true, driving is affected, and legislation has been enacted so that hand-held use of mobiles whilst driving is illegal.

Does the simple law match the research? No, not entirely; hands-free does not get a clean bill of health either.

The research

So far, studies fall into several types:

  • accident prevention: do modes (hands-free, hand-held) of mobile phone differentially use cause accidents?
  • accident analysis: is mobile use correlated with accident incidence, or particular types of accident?
  • attention studies: is there anything about talking to a remote caller that is different from talking to passengers or attending to other in-car systems?

These studies are undertaken in several ways:

  • desk research of available information
  • simulated driving conditions
  • observation of real driving situations.

Rather less has been done on field strengths in vehicles during a phone call session, or internal air ion balance etc. (probably because the distraction element is assumed to be the obvious primary effect) or in correlating these aspects alone (without the conversation) with attention, perceived significance, and error perception.

Into this mix it is therefore essential that we add research on attention and concentration during and following mobile phone calls, not just when driving. This requires examination of the electromagnetic effects on brain function, blood circulation, oxygenation etc., as well as just the aspects of divided attention, and aspects of attention required uniquely by remote calls rather than holding a phone (and driving with one hand!) or holding a conversation.

The main conclusion from all studies is that even though the ability to handle a remote call is an individual thing, and can perhaps be learned as a skill to some degree, the distraction factor appears to narrow the range of vision as attention is given preferentially to a slightly fragmented call where the other party does not share awareness of the immediate driving situation.

To cite Parkes and Burns 2002, MTHR: (pp.87-99):

‘Driving performance clearly suffers when the driver is performing a simultaneous task. The results of most driving measures showed similar fall off in performance for each of the three driving conditions. However, there was an interesting and important difference in reaction time results that showed the worst performance scores in the hands-free condition. This result was complemented by the subjective workload scores that showed hands-free conversation rated higher than in-vehicle tasks or talking to a passenger. By looking at the conversation itself, we have shown a distinct difference between talking over the carphone and talking to a passenger. There is an important difference between communicating with a passenger who is directly involved in the concurrent drive, and with one that is remote and uninvolved.’

  • Association between Cellular-Telephone Calls and Motor Vehicle Collisions (1997)
    has this extraordinary conclusion:

    ‘The use of cellular telephones in motor vehicles is associated with a quadrupling of the risk of a collision during the brief period of a call. Decisions about regulation of such telephones, however, need to take into account the benefits of the technology and the role of individual responsibility.’

These reports compare the quality of driving with the influence of alcohol:

More than just distraction:

An age effect? Ar an ageing effect?

EM fields and brain activity

Phones and accidents

Mobile phone addiction?

As you will see below from the news around the world, early recognition of repetitive strain disorders from too much texting has been replaced with real concerns about addiction. This has three aspects to it that deserve our attention, perhaps especially amongst younger people:

  • psychological
    • self-esteem
    • pressure
    • bullying and harassment
    • enslavement
    • attachment
  • sociological
    • peer group membership
    • work-life balance
    • business efficiency
    • personal space and etiquette
    • situational security (tracking and rescue)
  • physiological
    • key chemical changes under EM fields

These notes are just an introduction to raise awareness and discussion, and hopefully sufficient research awareness to avoid a generation of dependency.


The psychological aspects to consider include personal self-esteem, pressure, bullying and harassment, enslavement and attachment. How would you feel if suddenly your mobile phone was absent for a month?

Self-esteem arises both in being called frequently (how many messages do you get a day?) and having people and reasons to call (how do you feel when you haven’t called anyone today?). The transaction is immediate; unlike emails, where a reply many days later for an ordinary messsage is acceptable: ‘You didn’t answer my text!!’, ‘Your phone was switched off!!’ Being available, always answering wherever you are, becomes more important than other social interactions, and conflicts with other tasks to be done. The call can’t wait; what will they think of me? I’ll be letting them down; They’ll ask someone else, then I won’t be asked first next time. What do you feel if suddenly no-one calls? Is the phone not working? What do you feel if the battery is flat and you haven’t got access to a charger? Aarrgh! What if someone calls: it will look like I’m not here/available! Ah! back to normal now; six people called me today; I’m worth something again.

Pressure arises when you can’t say no. The immediacy of the mobile, the directness, especially when it’s a work call or one of those social calls you can’t easily get out of, can make a mobile intervention hard to avoid or deprioritise. This is even more true when the call is playing on your self-esteem. Business pressures, the need always to seem willing and cheerful to play the game, do the extra task, the difficulty of saying no to your boss on the phone or by text... all these are a known pressure that is sometimes deliberately used. Deliberate bullying and harassment is a feature of that private one-to-one communication for too many children, but also represents misuse of the communication form, and people learning of losing their jobs by text message is another example. It is the privacy of the exchange that makes exposing it and resisting it difficult. The same privacy, incidentally that makes other private arrangements, including flirting and extra-marital affairs so easy (or potentially embarrassing).

The extreme case of perceived pressure is enslavement to the mobile, and a real psychological difficulty in being without it (whether of not it is used). Whether the expectation is by peers or work colleagues, or is a self-induced feeling of personal validation, for some people being separated any length of time from their phone is a genuine sense of loss. Maybe this is the flip-side of attachment, where the mobile has become almost a prosthetic extension, for what it represents in social contact, what it contains in memories, or the potential never to be separated from other people with mobiles.


The sociological aspects to consider are peer group membership, work-life balance, business efficiency, personal space and etiquette, and situational safety. What would it do to your social life if suddenly your mobile phone was absent for a month?

Peer group membership is particularly important among young people, where daily (hourly) communication is expected to be instant (as with PC instant messaging services), and belonging to any of many intricate subgroups is sustained by always being there. It is an arena where mutual support can indeed flourish, but also where unseen bullying and harassment does take place. It is also a place from where it is difficult to withdraw and where unresolved conflicts disrupt the normal processes of maintaining friendships. Plans become much more short-term, as children walk out of their school or homes and spontaneously decide who is doing what and where. For many families this becomes a balance: not quite where their children are, for how long and with whom, is balanced by the ability to call them on their mobiles. Danger is created and (hopefully) danger is mitigated.

But the net result is that a generation now communicates totally independently from parents and guardians, forming complex relationships where the means of communication has become depersonalised. Children are taught (by advertising, lifestyle marketing, and use) that it is fun to love their phones. But the result is not always happiness, dissociation from same family relationships, and dependency. If you are not on your phone, if you haven’t got it with you, of if you have the wrong kind, or you haven’t got the latest ringtones, you can be heavily marginalised. Isolation is a real threat for some people if they are outside the mobile communications loop. Being in teh loop, but purposely excluded by the group can cause depression.

Work-life balance is a complex issue, usually set alongside business efficiency. Certainly for mobile workers of any kind, not having to go to a telephone or a desk means time is saved. (Safety and use of mobiles in vehicles is dealt with elsewhere.) For some situational safety is important, and as with children being getting into unwise situations on the guarantee that their mobile will save them, there is a supposition that the mobile protects. Employers feel they are better covered if employees in difficult social environments have this form of backup. (Some people venture out in boats and up mountains competely unprepared but with their mobile, should they get into difficulties.) The question of individual freedom, though, can be seen when people go on holiday, spend their weekends and family time, unable to leave their work-related communications behind. Being valued is not the same as being available 24/7 to your employer or colleagues! The business-ubiquitous Blackberry now has a colloquial name: the ‘crackberry’. Again, mobile communications are clearly immensely valuable, but they create social dependency.

Personal space and etiquette has been covered well elsewhere, and we all know how many people treat a call on their mobile as higher priority than anything (yes, anything!) they are engaged in, no matter where or with whom. The mobile validates the individual: they are needed, if not wanted, so they are valuable, so long as they are available. But the mobile often gets the priority attention, can call people away from anything anywhere, and apart from the way this speaks of the relative importance of face-to-face conversation or simply spending time with people, what used to be regarded as rude is now normal. It is also changing the nature of private space: the conversations, one half of which we are now privy to, are not always conversations we ever would have been otherwise invited to share. It has become rude, if unavoidable, to listen to a loud conversation in a public space (even in the next seat of a train) and we pretend not to have heard. And the reason the private/public, myspace/your space, significance/priority confusion arises at all, is because the mobile phone is a social validation of personal significance.

The reason so many people say ‘I can’t live without my mobile’ is that they have come to depend on it, not just for convenience, but for a sense of being in control, a sense of safety, a sense of being (hopefully) needed, and a sense of belonging to their mobile community. Here for many people, especially teenagers and younger people, is a growing dependency for psychological and sociological reasons.

This much we can say is dependency, that by and large is by choice. Teenagers are perhaps the most challenged group for finding normal social arrangements without mobiles, since individuals without are in the minority. But consider the money spent per month, and that gives some sense of value attached to the mobile that you simply cannot travel without. Read the news links below, and you can see that whether this is addiction or dependency, it is something serious to consider, and for some people this has gone a long way beyond convenience.

But is there anything more? Can we see if the constant absorption of digital microwave signals might be having a physiological effect on the addictive systems in our brains?


The issue of physiological addiction is not confined to the instrument, rather to what it represents: certain behaviours, relationships, capacities, enjoyments and freedoms. Certain people may be more predisposed with predisposed brains. The question here is whether there is an influence on addictive responses, and what cause and effect might exist. Evidence of this might first be seen in withdrawal symptoms in people who, for one reason or another, suddenly stop habitual, frequent mobile use. Are there certain chemicals that might be affected, among the research into the bio-effects of digital microwave signals to the head? These might include, for example, glutamate, dopamine, serotonin, all of which play a role in addiction and impulsive behaviour. All, incidentally, are part of the nitric oxide cycle.

Addictive behaviour or conditioning takes place via the dopamine system and neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain. Several factors make this relevant:

  • the dopamine opiate system is affected by EM fields at mobile phone frequencies at brief and low intensities
  • EM fields affect the activity of nitric oxide synthase (NOS) enzymes, and altered levels of nitric oxide (NO) affect the dopamine system
  • nitric oxide plays a vital role in addiction.

In other words, there is research evidence to suggest that applying mobile phone radiation to the head is likely to affect the dopamine system, quite possibly via NO. Visit our health pages on nitric oxide to discover more.

Supporting literature

News around the world: indications of growing dependency or addiction