Maxwell’s Demon

This is a story that keeps popping up: the potential health hazards of the electromagnetic fields our appliances and infrastructure bathe us in. A reader sent along a good example today, which you can read for yourself here; if the danger described in this article is real it is a worrisome matter indeed.

The problem for me in this case is that I just don’t know enough to determine whether stories like this are legitimate cause for concern, or sensationalist scare-mongering. The idea that rapidly fluctuating electrical fields might have unintended biological effects certainly seems plausible enough, and so essential are all our electronic devices to the modern world and its economy that there are obviously strong incentives to look the other way, and for interested parties to suppress such findings in various unscrupulous ways.

I suppose I should start reading up on all this. How I wish there were more hours in the day.

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  1. Eric says

    Rapidly fluctuating EM fields are known as ‘radio waves’. Aside from direct heating, nobody has been able to repeatedly demonstrate any biological harm from radio waves.

    Sensationalist hooey.

    Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Eric, the question of whether biological effects can in fact be demonstrated is exactly what is at issue here; the article refers to several researchers who say they can.

    This may indeed be sensationalist hooey, but we can’t say one way or the other without reviewing their claims, which I, for one, haven’t done. Have you?

    And by the way: “radio waves” are only one portion of the EM spectrum.

    Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Jeanie Oliver says

    As you know, I suffer from a failure in my autonomic nervous system. At every turn, in every research facility, I am grilled endlessly about the amount of EMFs that I am exposed to now or in the past. Research in the neuro-based fields are taking this very seriously.
    My husband, Eddy, has built powerlines for 35 years. We talk a lot about the high incidence of cancers and tumors among people in this line of work. I really believe that this issue bears watching and assessing as we learn more about the environments around us and the detrimental aspects of modern technology.

    Posted January 21, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says

    I’d just add that whenever we were to work on ship’s radar one got very, very tingly when it hadn’t been shut down.

    Posted January 21, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Eric says

    Actually, yes, I have; there have been literally dozens of studies that have found no effect. IEEE Spectrum published an article some years back on this very topic.

    Jeanie – the increased cancer rate amongst linemen is well known; it’s also the case that linemen also work around known carcinogens (other than powerlines). Transformer oil has quite a few; creosote-soaked telephone poles have small amounts of carcinogens as well.

    JK – that’s the direct heating that I’ve been talking about.

    And finally – the biological effects of EM radiation decrease as one moves down the EM spectrum. If HF radio waves don’t cause biological effects, it’s very unlikely that VLF radio waves (and yes, it’s a radio wave) are going to cause biological effects.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Well, Eric, this is just why I wrote this post: I felt that I had insufficient information to arrive at an informed opinion one way or the other. It’s not a topic I’ve ever paid a lot of attention to.

    I’d be grateful if you could provide us with some links: I’d like to look over the evidence on both sides, and I’m sure other readers would be interested as well.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  7. Eric says

    Sorry – don’t have any links; as I recall, the Spectrum articles were behind a paywall (and I let my IEEE membership lapse a couple of years ago).

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Thanks anyway, Eric. I’ll see what I can dig up on my own.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink