EMFs stand for electric and magnetic fields (electromagnetic fields) and they are often referred to as radiation. These are invisible areas of energy that are produced by electricity and can be harmful to humans.
But, is radiation the same as EMF? Yes, basically. While they are often referred to as the same thing, it’s more accurate to say that EMFs create radiation.
Of course, that’s the simple explanation. The complex answer is much longer and more fascinating. Read on to find out more, without having to learn vector calculus, about the physics of EMFs and radiation.
What is EMF?
Let’s start with EMFs. Electric and magnetic fields are related to each other. You need only one charged particle to create an electric field. However, if that field starts moving, it then creates a magnetic field. Let’s do some experiments.
Try this to detect an electric field:
- Take a balloon and blow it up
- Tie a string on the end
- Hold it by the string
- It should hang straight down, due to gravitational force
- Rub the balloon on your head
- You’ve created an electrical charge
- Hold the balloon by the string and move around the room
- When an electrical field is present, the balloon will move slightly towards that electrical field
In the above example, notice that the strength of the field alters, depending on where you are in the room and how strong the electrical field is. The direction the string points indicates the position of the electrical field. The amount the balloon moves indicates the strength of the electrical field.
If you could take that balloon and shake it very, very fast, you could actually create an electromagnetic field. The faster you could shake it, the more force of your electromagnetic fields. With a vigorous enough shake, you could use that balloon to light up a room.
For a very simple magnetic field detector, use a compass. It will point in the direction of the magnetic field. If you could twist your compass around into a circle, you could detect the force of the magnetic field by how fast the needle oscillates.
To get a visual for a magnetic field, try this:
- Get little slivers of iron by shaving off from a larger piece of iron
- Put the little slivers of iron around a magnet
When you do this, the slivers of iron will move and map out the outlines of the magnetic field lines.
Electric and Magnetic Fields Together
Once that electrical field starts moving, it creates that magnetic field, giving rise to the force of an electromagnetic field, or EMF.
In fact, electric fields and magnetic fields can create each other. If an electrical field changes, it automatically creates a magnetic field that attaches and curls around the electrical field.
By the same token, if a magnetic field changes, it creates an electrical field that attaches and almost envelops the magnetic field. This is a process called electromagnetic induction.
Physics rules theorize that electric and magnetic fields must work together because there are waves of electric and magnetic fields traveling together through space.
Basically, this changing electric field creates that changing magnetic field which creates that changing electric field, and so on, and so on, all of them moving forward at the speed of light. Those changing fields create waves, which we can measure with scientific equipment. Those waves create energy.
EMFs are measured in a unit called volts per meter (V/m). The higher the measurement, the stronger the EMF.
So, we can think of EMFs as invisible areas of energy. They are often categorized in two ways, depending on their frequency:
Non-ionizing EMFs emit low-level radiation but can cause harm to humans. These are on the lower end of those moving electromagnetic fields. Some examples of these EMFs would be:
- Power lines (RELATED ARTICLE)
- Microwave ovens
- Computers (RELATED ARTICLE)
- Cell phones
- Bluetooth devices
Non-ionizing EMFs have:
- Shorter wavelength
- Lower frequency
- Lower energy
Ionizing EMFs emit high-level radiation. This has the potential to harm humans on the cellular and DNA level. It sends out mid to high-level amounts of radiation that are not good for humans at high exposure. They cause heating and disruption of chemical bonds. Some examples of ionizing EMFs are:
- Some Gamma rays
Characteristics of ionizing EMFs are:
- Higher energy
- Longer wavelength
- Higher frequency
What is Radiation?
Radiation is highly energetic particles being emitted from those moving electromagnetic fields we discussed earlier. All radiation appears to be a means by which some particle wants to be at the lowest energy state possible.
It’s complicated, so think of it this way: radiation is the steam left over after the kettle boils. It’s the energy expended when one electron cranks down to a lower energy state. Check it out step by step:
- Electromagnetic field is formed and is moving
- An electron falls from one energy band to another
- Energy lost by falling electron emitted in form of photon
- Photon creates a wave, which is radiation
- Type of radiation depends on wavelength
Once upon a time, scientists knew something was being radiated from the electromagnetic fields, but they didn’t know what. But that “something” being radiated gave birth to the word and concept of radiation as we know it today.
When introduced to a magnetic field, radiation, – the particles being emitted from the EMFs – were shown to be three different types of emissions:
Positive emissions move away from electrons, while negative emissions do not.
Once they knew the different types of emissions, scientists classified radiation into three categories:
- Gamma radiation
- Beta radiation
- Alpha radiation
1. Gamma Radiation
Gamma radiation turned out to be a strange beast and no one could quite figure out what it was. Gamma rays are not deflected by a magnetic field. They were originally thought to be fast beta particles, since beta particles are very large and, thus, harder to be deflected by a magnetic field.
X-Rays were discovered and being used as far back as the late 1800s. However, no one knew what else could be produced by electromagnetic fields.
Along came Paul Millard in 1900, who learned that gamma rays had a much more penetrating depth and a much shorter wavelength than other forms of radiation, like x-rays. They were, essentially, high-energy photons, of the same type as x-rays.
2. Beta Radiation
It was shown early on that beta radiation was negatively charged particles. In the early 1900s, beta rays were found to be up to 95% of the speed of light.
3. Alpha Radiation
Interestingly, alpha radiation was harder to identify than the other particles emitting from an electromagnetic field. Alpha radiation was discovered to be helium atoms by Ernest Rutherford.
This alpha radiation was in particles so big scientists at first thought they were neutral since they didn’t move when confronted with an additional magnetic field. Rutherford discovered they did move, slightly, and in the opposite direction of electrons, which made them have a positive charge.
Rutherford finally discovered that the alpha radiation was helium atoms with two electrons missing and carrying a heavier mass.
EMFs and Health
Although they emit an extremely low frequency, non-ionizing radiation can be found all around us, especially in:
- Power lines
- Electrical substations
- Home appliances
Radiation from the sources above emit extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation. This means it’s much lower on the spectrum than ionizing radiation.
Some studies show a connection between EMF field strength and childhood leukemia. There have been a few studies that show that EMF signals are associated with cancer in adults.
According to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), EMFs could be carcinogenic to humans.
As noted previously, EMFs are measured by volts per meter (V/m). These include:
- Natural EMFs (like sunlight, for non-prolonged times)
- Microwave ovens
- TV and radio transmitters
- TV and computer screens
- Power mains
- Electric trains
If you do feel you suffer from EMF over-exposure, these are some of the symptoms:
- Skin burning
- Skin tingling
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of appetite
- Painful, itchy sensation
- Lack of concentration
- Memory changes
To protect yourself from EMF over-exposure, do this:
- Only receive x-rays that are medically necessary
- Put your phone down when you aren’t using it
- Use phone speaker function or ear buds
- Don’t carry your phone in a pocket or on your clothing
- Leave phone in another room when you sleep
- Unplug electronic devices when not in use
Keep an eye out for news of EMF hazards and what to avoid. The health effects of EMFs are only now being studied in depth, so future studies should tell us more about the hazards.
A normal EMF level inside a house is from 0.2 mG to 1.0 mG. Apartments and condominiums can be higher.
When most people think of radiation, they think of the type of radiation used to treat cancer. This type of radiation is ionizing radiation. It’s high-energy radiation that is used to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells.
Radiation therapy comes in three forms:
- Delivered by machine outside of body
- Radioactive Material Placed in the Body near Cancer Cells
- Systematic Radiation Therapy
Delivered by Machine Outside of Body
External-beam radiation therapy is delivered via photon beams (gamma rays), the leftover EMF particles with the highest energy.
During this therapy, a machine called a linear accelerator uses electricity to make a stream of fast-moving atomic particles. These particles are delivered to the body via very sophisticated treatment machines to precisely shaped target areas.
There are other machines being developed to send and control the gamma rays to the body. All are utilized to send bursts of gamma rays directly to the affected area while trying to minimize damage to healthy cells.
2. Radioactive Material Placed in the Body near Cancer Cells
Internal radiation therapy is also called brachytherapy and is delivered from radiation sources placed inside or near the body. In this therapy, radioactive isotopes are sealed inside tiny “seeds”. These seeds are placed in patients using delivery devices such as:
As the isotopes decay, they give off radiation which damages the nearby cancer cells. Studies have shown this type of radiation therapy can sometimes cause less damage to healthy cells than the radiation delivered by machines.
In this treatment, you can also have low-dose radiation or high-dose radiation, depending on what the tumor requires.
3. Systematic Radiation Therapy
In undergoing systematic radiation therapy, a cancer patient swallows or receives an injection of a radioactive substance, such as radioactive iodine. An antibody joined to the radioactive substance travels through the blood, locating and killing cancerous cells.
Many systematic radiation drugs are in clinical trials but are expected to become more frequently used after FDA approval.
How Radiation Helps Fight Cancer
Radiation therapy uses gamma rays, the ionized rays with a penetrating depth, to treat cancer. This therapy damages the DNA of the cells. Once these cancer cells are damaged, they stop dividing and they die, giving the healthy cells a chance to heal. Once the cells die, they are broken down and eliminated by the body’s natural processes.
When planning radiation therapy, doctors take into account potential damage to normal body cells. Since radiation can’t tell which cells are normal and which are cancerous, the radiation can destroy both the healthy and the diseased.
Note: Radiation can damage some cells more easily than others. Reproductive organs such as testicles and ovaries are more apt to be damaged by radiation therapy than bones.
The amount of radiation healthy cells can handle is known for all parts of the body, so doctors use that information to decide where to aim radiation during the cancer treatment.
Radiation therapy is given to 50% of all patients who suffer from cancer. It is normally used in combination with surgery or chemotherapy. It can also relieve symptoms or reduce suffering of the cancer patient. These are called palliative treatments and can include:
- Radiation given to shrink a tumor near the esophagus
- Radiation given to shrink a tumor pressing on the spine or growing within a bone
- Radiation given to shrink a tumor in the brain
Computer tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can locate a tumor within the human body. Once located, radiation therapy can be used to shrink that tumor. However, there is a maximum safe lifetime dose of radiation for every part of the body.
If the part of the body that has cancer has already received this maximum, lifetime dose, radiation therapy cannot be used again.
Problems with Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy can cause both early and late side effects. Most of these depend on the following factors:
- Area of the body being treated
- Dose given per day
- Total dose given
- Patient’s general medical condition
- Other treatments given concurrently
Early side effects can end when the treatment ends, but that’s not always the case. They’re caused by the damage to the normal cells in the area being treated. Some early side effects are:
- Skin irritation
- Hair loss
- Urinary problems
- Salivary gland damage
Late side effects of radiation therapy can include:
- Memory loss
- Damage to bowels, causing bleeding and diarrhea
- Second cancers
Along with radiation therapy, there are other factors that can put a patient at risk for late, long-term side effects, including:
- Genetic risk factors
- Lifestyle factors (like smoking)
It is known that radiation therapy can slightly raise the risk of getting another cancer. Researchers are currently studying how to make radiation therapy safer for the patient and how to eliminate the side effects related to radiation.
Uses of Radiation
Scientists have discovered many uses for the different types of radiation:
Alpha radiation can be used for the following:
- Smoke detectors
The air inside a smoke detector is ionized with alpha radiation. Smoke absorbs the alpha radiation, alerting the detector to trigger the smoke alarm.
Beta radiation can be used for:
- Tracers for medical imaging
- Monitoring the thickness of materials
For radiation tracers, certain chemicals can concentrate in different diseased parts of the body and radiation can tag along with those chemicals. Radiation detectors can build an image of the inside of the body through this.
For monitoring the thickness of materials, machines monitor how much radiation is absorbed through the material. The thicker the material, the more radiation that is absorbed.
Gamma radiation is used in the following ways:
- Treating cancer
- Testing equipment
- Sterilizing medical equipment
In addition to these, we now have a wide variety of uses for the radiation emitted from EMFs. These uses include:
- Nuclear Power Plants
- Industrial Uses
- Academic Applications
- Medical Uses
Nuclear Power Plants
Nuclear fission is caused by splitting the atom and producing electricity. It is one of the most popular uses of radiation and provides about 21% of the electricity in the United States. The method of producing electricity is simple:
- Boil water
- Produce steam
- Steam spins propeller-like blades of turbine
- Turbine turns shaft of generator
- Inside generator, coils of electric and magnetic fields interact to create electricity
The difference is, in a nuclear power plant, the energy used to boil water is created by splitting an atom, rather than burning coal or gas.
Nuclear power plants use uranium, which emits radioactive substances. To split an atom, the nucleus is shot by a lot of neutrons, traveling at just the right speed. The nucleus splits into two pieces releasing energy, and this is called nuclear fission. Uranium is used because those atoms have a higher percentage of the atoms that can be split.
2. Industrial Uses
Gamma rays can sterilize food and industrial equipment, making this type of radiation a valuable tool for many industries. Some of the industrial uses for radiation include:
- Sterilization of food
- Sterilization of medical equipment
- Removing toxic pollutants
- Making plants stronger
- Controlling insect population
- Ionizing smoke detectors
These are just some of the uses radiation has in industry. Using gamma rays, like x-rays, that are low enough on the spectrum that they don’t harm humans is a way to get rid of all germs on many of our products.
Using these gamma rays is called the irradiation process and it kills germs without harming the substance, such as food or materials. With this process, foods take much longer to spoil, and medical equipment can be sterilized without resorting to high heat or chemicals.
This method could one day be used to kill the germs in our drinking water or our sewage. Currently, chlorine, which is a toxic chemical, is used for these tasks.
3. Academic Applications
Radiation is used in our universities and high schools for all types of applications, including:
- Carbon dating of fossils and other artifacts
- Using radiation to determine soil properties
- Using radiation to see the different paths pollutants take through the air and water
- Learning the tracks of ocean currents
Learning institutions use both ionized and non-ionized radiation in their courses, depending on which is needed.
4. Medical Uses
As noted above, hospitals and doctors use radiation for:
- Treatment of cancer
The most common of these is x-rays. When x-rays are used, the bones and other structures in our bodies create shadows that can be detected on photographic film. Physicians and dentists can then see broken bones or dental problems.
X-ray machines can be connected to special computers to create computed tomography (CT) scanners. These scanners can provide doctors with color images that show the details and shape of internal organs. This allows physicians to identify tumors or other physiological organ problems.
Naturally Occurring Electromagnetic Fields
Much of what we’ve discussed has been radiation brought about by humans, such as x-rays or nuclear fission. However, electromagnetic fields occur organically in nature, normally generated by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Basically everywhere you find an electrical field, you will find a magnetic field and vice versa. These are normally invisible to the human eye.
Other naturally occurring electromagnetic fields include:
- Human body
- Ultraviolet rays
- Solar storms
- Static electricity
- Cosmic microwaves
- Infrared light
Here’s the difference between man-made EMFs and naturally occurring EMFs: polarization. Man-made EMFs are made to oscillate on a certain plane, called the “polarization plane”. This means the EMF wave is linearly polarized.
Natural EMFs have random orientation and random phase difference. Each photon oscillates on a different random plane and so have a different polarization. Man-made EMFs that produce radiation are more stabilized.
Polarization can be a big deal. Present theories conclude that man-made EMFs can trigger biological effects, while naturally occurring EMFs, even if they are much stronger and of higher energy cannot.
Radiation from EMFs is Here to Stay
As we move forward into a more technological age, EMFs, and radiation from EMFs, will continue to be a large part of our lives.
There continue to be studies done on man-made EMFs and how they can affect our health. The radiation that emits from these EMFs is often referred to as “electrosmog”.
There’s no doubt that man-made EMFs emitting radiation has saved many lives over the course of history. However, as we have more and more radiation circling around us, surrounding our body’s own natural electromagnetic field, it’s a good idea to be aware of how electrical pollution can affect us.
Continue to look for studies on EMFs and the problems it can cause. Be aware of the electromagnetic fields in your home and limit your usage and your exposure.
Many good things can come from EMFs and the different types of radiation they shoot out. Future uses of these types of radiation can be beneficial to the entire human race.
But when you hear about a new technology or new machine using radiation, keep an eye out on the radiation that affects you on a daily basis and limit yourself accordingly. Be informed. Stay healthy.