ARE WE SAFE? - CAN WE BE SAFE?
A talk on electricity and electromagnetic fields.
In recent years our newspapers, journals, radio and television have carried reports of alleged injuries and illnesses (mainly cancer) said to be caused by the electromagnetic radiations emanating from various electrical appliances, but more specifically at present, from high-voltage transmission lines which carry electricity from the generating stations to consumers premises.
It has also been claimed that fluorescent lamps, infrared lamps, electric blankets, microwave ovens and powerful broadcasting stations can produce electromagnetic fields that may have deleterious effects on the health of human beings. What is the truth?
We must realize at the outset that, generally speaking, the electricity-supply authorities, broadcasting station proprietors and suppliers of electric blankets and microwave ovens will strongly deny that their appliances pose a threat to the health of the general public, and this is understandable. Some eminent scientists will be quoted as confirming this judgment that they are safe, while equally eminent scientists will have grave doubts as to the safety of some appliances.
There is a crude maxim well-known in electrical circles and it goes like this: IT’S THE VOLTS THAT JOLT, BUT THE MILS THAT KILLS, but more of that a little later.
Philosophers, Pythagoras and Galileo embraced the belief that Nature is written in mathematical language. All radiations may be calculated by mathematics and only by mathematics. For ages man has felt the need to measure things. When we discuss money we do not say to someone “I will give you some money for your home.” We are specific. We say, “I will give you fifty thousand dollars for your home.” If we describe the distance between one city and another we do not say that this city is a long way from that city. We are specific again. We say, “This city is one thousand kilometres from that city”.
When discussing electricity we must also be specific. So in speaking of electricity we use units of measurement. Electricity is not measured in feet, inches or kilometres. It is measured in volts and amperes. The pressure of electricity is called a volt. The amount of electricity is measured in amperes. Small amounts are called milliamps while small pressures are called millivolts.
What kinds and what amounts of electricity are useful and safe? What kinds are to be avoided because they are unsafe and potentially harmful? It must be conceded that, at present, it is not definitely known just how much electricity is needed by the human body, how much can be tolerated, and how much is potentially harmful.
We have rough guidelines for some kinds of electricity. These are well known. But other kinds of electricity are not so well understood and even among world-famous authorities there is disagreement.
It seems that the best we can do is to err on the side of safety. We can never be perfectly safe but we can be reasonably safe. May I suggest that my past students who wish to hear a simple exposition of this topic might like to listen to the lectures I gave some years ago on RADIATIONS, ELECTRICITY AND ELECTROLYSIS, and THE HAZARDS OF RADIATIONS. They have been recorded on cassettes.
It can be said without fear of successful contradiction that some kinds of electrical radiations are not only perfectly safe, but essential for human health. Without the cosmic, solar, terrestrial and human radiations that surround us in a vast ocean, life, as we know it could not exist on earth. These radiations in the optimal doses are safe and beneficial. In grossly excessive amounts these same radiations can be harmful and indeed lethal.
In recent years some medical doctors, physiotherapists, electrotherapists and even some misguided natural therapists, have employed electricity. Lately, Magnetic therapy has come into vogue with a few practitioners. It is being claimed that electromagnetism can accelerate healing and improve health. This theory is tenuous in the extreme. I do not believe it.
Human blood contains iron that is an essential element in human nutrition. There is not much iron in the average body but this small amount is essential for normal health. Iron is a magnetic material that is affected by a magnetic field. The iron is present in domains. This means that the tiny particles of iron tend to align themselves in certain directions. This is normal and should be retained. However, if subjected to a powerful magnetic field these tiny particles of iron may be pulled in a direction that may be harmful. There is also the possibility of another very deleterious effect if the body is placed in a magnetic field for a protracted period. The particles of iron in the bloodstream may be attracted thus slowing the flow of blood around the body. This can adversely affect nutrition to the tissues and also drainage of metabolic wastes from the tissues to the excretory organs such as the skin, the lungs and kidneys. This could explain why some people have suffered adverse effects after exposure to magnetic fields emanating from some electrical appliances, particularly the high-voltage overhead transmission lines.
It is quite possible that short infrequent exposures to the magnetic fields underneath high-voltage transmission lines, electric blankets and other appliances carrying large currents of electricity may not have any detectable harmful effects on the body. However, while the evidence is difficult to produce, it is quite feasible that long exposures could have very deleterious effects.
It is well known that direct contact with high-voltage electricity mains can cause serious injury and death, but this is not the kind of electricity we should be concerned about. Most electrical appliances are well insulated and protected against accidental contact. They are reasonably safe if correctly used
We should be more concerned about the presence of electromagnetic fields whose presence we are generally unaware of, and against which we may not be adequately shielded and protected.
It is erroneously believed that because the human body depends upon electricity for its existence, the use of external electricity is justified. Many electrical devices have been used in an effort to improve upon Nature and to supply electricity that it is alleged is so beneficial. It is true that the human body does need electricity. Without electricity our muscles and nerves could not perform their normal duties. The electricity present in the human body is very weak indeed. In fact, the muscles generate a pressure of approximately one twentieth of a volt, while the nerves generate only about one fortieth of a volt. A common torch battery consists of 12-volt cells that are quite safe even when applied directly to the human body. The electromagnetic fields produced by torch cells are infinitesimal and harmless.
The overhead power lines are a different matter altogether. They can carry electricity varying from 240 to 200000 volts or even more in some cases. It is not likely that the electromagnetic fields surrounding our domestic 240 volt supply lines would be harmful at the distance we are from them. However, if these supply lines are connected to appliances which have intimate contact with the human body a danger could exist. For instance, an electric blanket is usually very close to the body. The coils of wire in the blanket not only generate heat but they also generate electromagnetic fields. If the body was say ten inches above the blanket it is quite possible that, at this distance, the electromagnetic field would be too weak to cause any harm. But, that is not the case. The human body can be as close as half an inch from the blanket. The electromagnetic field at this distance could be very much greater and possibly harmful.
It is a fact that the effect of an electromagnetic field is not governed by an arithmetical factor but an exponential one. This means that as we approach a field the increase in pressure is not evenly constant. The pressure may increase exponentially. The reverse is true and as we move away from the field the pressure decreases exponentially. For instance, if the field has a power of 10 at a distance of ten inches it might have a power of 20 at 9 inches. It could have a power of 40 at 8 inches and so on. The danger increases greatly as we come closer to the field.
So, we can say with confidence that while an electric blanket could conceivably carry harmful radiations when we are say half an inch above it, the risk at a distance of ten inches above it would be negligible. The risk decreases sharply as we increase the distance between the blanket and us.
In taking precautions against any potentially harmful radiations it is important for us to be as far away from the source as possible. If it is not possible to achieve a safe distance it is possible to minimize the effect of an electromagnetic field by having a shield between ourselves and the appliance causing the electromagnetic fields.
This shield is very simple and effective. It is called a Faraday cage or screen. It consists of an earthed wire screen. This shield should be interposed between the appliance that is suspected of being the source of electromagnetic fields and the human being who is to be protected.
If your home is directly underneath high-voltage electricity supply wires may I suggest that you should install a metal gauze Faraday shield in the ceiling of your home. This shield must be connected with an earth. The same principle can be applied to any appliance that you suspect may be emitting potentially harmful radiations of an electromagnetic nature.
How can we detect the presence of electromagnetic radiations? There are several instruments available. One is the well-known Geiger-Muller Counter. Another is a Field Strength Meter while yet another is a Magnetometer. These instruments may be purchased from some electronics supply houses. Alternatively, an electronics handyman will find that electronics journals and textbooks contain full details of these devices and instructions how to build them.
Some years ago the exact nature of electricity was not as well understood as it is today and entertainment was largely provided by theatrical artists in local theatres. This was when radio and television were unheard of. Itinerant artists presented demonstrations of electrical magic. These entertainers called themselves electrical wizards and pretended to have some special power over these mysterious forces as they drew enormous sparks and flashes of lightning from their fingers. They could also transfer this display of pyrotechnics to any volunteers who dared to come on to the stage. “Doctor” Walford Bodie and “Doctor” Richard Rowe were household names in those days. They usually employed an induction coil and a Tesla high-frequency transformer to produce their extraordinary displays. Lecturers at universities also gave demonstrations of static electricity using a Wimshurst machine or a Van de Graaf generator. Friction by the moving parts produced static electricity that was safe but looked very dramatic. In these cases the voltages are very high but the amperage is very low. Remember the old maxim: It’s the volts that jolt while it’s the mils that kill. The sparks at a high voltage and low amperage could produce only a tingling sensation. Had the electricity been at a low voltage and high amperage it is likely that the people involved would have been incinerated. But, this was not generally known at the time so audiences were impressed by these seeming wonders.
At this period, electrotherapists also proliferated. At first, they had induction coils that produced a tingling sensation that was thought to regenerate tired and weak muscles. They were of course, useless and they soon went out of popularity. Ultra-violet rays, Infrared rays that also were believed to produce beneficial effects, followed them. A little later Diathermy and Short-Wave machines were used. They were really powerful radio sets that produced electromagnetic fields that heated the human tissues over which special damp cloth pads were applied. Electrical treatments had an aura of mystery about them and they enjoyed a measure of popularity that has now waned somewhat as a panacea.
The “magic bullet” has replaced electricity
These treatments were all medical in conception and while they usually produced effects of a kind, they were not truly curative. They merely suppressed the external symptoms of disease without removing the causes. In other words, they were useless.
A fair proportion of humanity is still apparently gullible enough to believe that exotic electrical machines have curative powers. Today the Radionics machine has supplanted the electrical machine.
The latest fad to be resurrected and offered to the public is Magnetic therapy. As the average person still largely misunderstands magnetism it is not difficult to convince them that this invisible intangible force has miraculous healing powers. In ancient times the horseshoe magnet and lodestone were used to stroke the skin of gullible sufferers. It apparently caused no detectable harm and the dupes often thought it might do them some good. Over the centuries the popularity of magnetism as a therapy has waxed and waned as expectations rose and fell. Magnetic therapy disappeared for some years due no doubt to the lack of observable benefits. Today, lodestones are out. Sophisticated looking machines capable of producing the elusive magic of magnetism are housed in impressive black boxes which are plugged into the 240 volt mains socket. This fad will pass as its antecedents have.
It is quite possible that these “nonsense therapies” may not do much detectable harm, but nevertheless we should be vigilant and cautious of the high-tension radiations that are being produced by modern technology. Some of the large electromagnetic fields now being generated may be doing more harm than we are aware of. Caveat emptor!
The prudent approach to these problems is to distance ourselves from these fields, or if that is not possible, we should see that all equipment which might be emitting these potentially harmful fields is effectively shielded to make them as safe as possible.
With the increasing use of sophisticated electronic devices it is inevitable that this topic will be discussed more fully in the future. I trust that the above rough outline of the problem will help my readers to better understand the nature of the potential dangers we face.
KENNETH S. JAFFREY
9 Mandalay Avenue
Nelly Bay, Old. 4819
See Appendix for illustrations of a Geiger-Muller counter, Magnetic field strength meter and magnetometer.