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Electric shock

Before electrical gadgets became commonplace, the human body had only natural electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) to deal with.

india Updated: May 29, 2006 00:35 IST

Caution: e-smog ahead! An invisible ‘smog’ of electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) envelops us all the time-- whether we’re driving, walking through a computer-clustered office, watching TV or just cooking up a meal in the kitchen. Electricity pylons, mobile phones, microwave ovens, hairdryers, toasters … all bathe us in e-smog. It affects everyone living in electrified parts of the world and, like ‘conventional’ smog, can hit you like a sudden illness. A recent WHO report calls e-smog “one of the most common and fastest growing environmental influences”, responsible for “giving children cancer, causing miscarriages and suicides, and making many people allergic to modern life”.

Before electrical gadgets became commonplace, the human body had only natural EMFs to deal with. Electric currents flowing deep within Earth’s molten core generate magnetic fields, while thunderstorm activity in the atmosphere produces electric fields. And in the body there are the tiny electrical impulses like nerve signals and the electrical activity of the heart (evidenced by EEGs and ECGs). But today electrical appliances trigger imperceptible EMFs that interact with the body.

Two forms of e-smog cause the most concern: the non-ionising electromagnetic radiation emitted by broadcast towers, radar installations and microwave appliances, and the magnetic fields surrounding electrical devices and power lines. Although the fields rapidly decrease with distance, gadgets like shavers, used close to the head, give high exposures. Electric blankets and clock radios near beds produce even higher doses, as people are exposed to them for many hours while sleeping. But e-smog being invisible, silent, and odourless, there’s no reliable method to monitor it and scientists can’t decide on whether to back studies suggesting a link between exposure to EMFs and certain types of cancer, primarily leukemia and brain cancer.

Some epidemiologists believe that currents from EMFs-- even those beneath transmission lines that cause hair on your head or arms to vibrate-- are too small (millionths of an ampere) to penetrate cell membranes. They are weaker than natural currents in the body. Other researchers, however, argue that just as a trained ear picks up a familiar voice in a crowd, so a cell may respond to induced current as a signal discernible through the ‘background noise’ of the body’s natural currents. Although there is no scientific consensus on the issue, it’s being taken seriously by national and international bodies. The US Health Protection Agency is even considering developing advice to the public on the threat.

As another ‘pollution’ sign clutters our technology-driven world, only a global research effort can give more definitive answers. The bigger question is: how many of us can rewind to a lifestyle without today’s ‘bare necessities’?

First Published: May 29, 2006 00:35 IST