Being constantly wired to the cell phone, laptop and Wi-Fi not only clutters the mind and affects one’s inter-personal relations but can also harm one’s health. The phenomenon of dirty electricity or electrosmog — currents in a wire generating frequencies above 2 kHz (those below 2 kHz are characterised as clean currents) — shot to limelight in 2010 when an epidemiologist investigating a California school where 16 staff members were diagnosed with 18 different types of cancers by 2005 found high levels of electrical pollution that exceeded his meter’s ability to measure them. The phenomenon has since sparked a global wave of concern with its potential health hazards, including cancer, asthma, diabetes, headaches, joint pain, sleep disorders and neurological problems.
Dirty electricity, however, is not a recent discovery. In the 1950s special clinics were set up in Moscow, Leningrad and other cities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to study an occupational disease termed as the radio wave sickness. The patients included those who were in constant contact with electrical equipment and exposed to harmful electromagnetic fields. Many reported symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, weakness, sleep disturbance, heart palpitations, irritability, dizziness, sexual dysfunction and occasional sensitivity to sunlight which were documented in a report produced by the study. As a consequence, the first programme called the US/USSR scientific exchange was launched to further study the phenomenon.
Since then, numerous studies have been carried out on the subject of radio wave sickness. Based on a report by Dr Ollie Johnson in the Electromagnetic Biology Medicine journal, electromagnetic hypersensitivity is on the rise and by 2017, 50% of the total world population will be sensitive to electric current. The World Health Organization has already classified electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones as possibly carcinogenic to humans. One of the first scientists to conduct studies on dirty electricity, Sam Milham, who also authored the book Dirty electricity: Electrification and the Diseases of Civilization, writes, “All the diseases of the 20th century, which we may consider to be the so-called ‘diseases of civilisation’, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and suicide, are caused by electromagnetic radiation.”
While today’s ubiquitous technology affects almost all of us, the risks are reduced for those with the genetic or epigenetic makeup to withstand the harmful effects. Certain environmental factors can also make one less vulnerable to dirty electricity. Magda Havas, an associate professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University and a PhD graduate from the University of Toronto, has conducted a series of experiments which show that consumption of dirty electricity can lead to a rise in the blood sugar levels. One of those sampled was a 57-year-old female diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes whose blood sugar became normal whenever she went for a walk outdoors as opposed to running on a treadmill indoors. Similarly, a 27-year-old male diagnosed with multiple sclerosis did not need a cane just a week after reducing the electrical pollution in his home. The neurological effects, however, are not limited to multiple sclerosis. Other researchers have shown that dirty electricity is also the primary cause for brain cancer and neurodegenerative diseases which include Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. Havas even went to the extent of testing her own blood after exposing herself to dirty electricity. After using a laptop for 70 minutes she observed her blood under a microscope and noted that the red blood cells had aggregated together in a way that deprived them of their ability to effectively oxygenate the body, leading to fatigue.
Even though there are no safety standards set on an institutional level worldwide, a number of steps can be taken on an individual level to reduce the negative effects of exposure to dirty electricity. Once the source has been identified, which could range from compact fluorescent bulbs, plasma TVs, cordless phones or wireless routers, the first instinctive reaction should be to maintain a distance from it when it is plugged in or switched on. One can further replace a cordless phone with a corded phone, use an ethernet cable for computers instead of Wi-Fi and maintain a minimum two centimetre distance from the mobile phone whilst receiving a call. Further, installing the Graham-Stetzer filter, which removes or reduces high-frequency pollutants from electrical wiring, can be highly effective in minimising the health risks. According to Dr Havas, “It is important to help people who have developed this electrical sensitivity. We need to have wireless free zones. We need to protect children in schools who are at an increased risk from electromagnetic hypersensitivity and antennas need to be kept away from communities.” The power to contain electrical pollution therefore lies in our own hands.
Zohaib Amjad is a scientist with a major in Biology. He tweets @infecuni
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 14th, 2014.