Wading Through The Research: Electromagnetism and the Human Body

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Jan 24th, 2013)

On January 15th, we posted a link to an article about Headaches and “Electro-smog”. It was not well referenced but it was a good introduction to the topic of electromagnetic fields (EMF) interacting with our bodies. It is a topic that has interested me for some time and it has never seemed like there was much support for it. Also, it was always one of those things that happened to “someone a friend of mine knows” but never happened around me. Someone’s friend got headaches at work because of the new wireless router beside their desk. Someone’s friend was having insomnia because they moved into a house near power lines. I never came across someone who had first-hand experience with this phenomenon.

Despite this it still intrigued me. This is why, this week, we are going to explore the research out there around EMFs and their effects on our bodies. First of all, let’s remind ourselves what an EMF is. A magnet has two poles (North and South) and magnetic energy loops from one end to the other to create this apple-like field with the magnet at the centre.

Electrical wires act like magnets while current is running through them and create fields like this. The stronger the current the greater the strength of the field and the more wires there are creating similar fields in close proximity the stronger the field will be. That is EMFs in a very brief nutshell. If you want to learn more about them or don’t understand something check out the Wikipedia page.

Next, let’s look at the human side of this topic. The complaints that you most often here associated with EMF exposure are headaches, problems sleeping, fibromyalgia, and behaviour disorders. Some websites even claim that it may be responsible for diseases of the central nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and conditions like stokes and chronic fatigue syndrome. Of course, we all remember the scare of cell phones causing cancer too.

Most of the clinical trials in the literature that exposed subjects to EMFs could not find a difference between the control and experimental groups but these studies usually looked at subjective findings which are more difficult to measure and easy to mistake. Some clinical trials have looked at more objective measures and have found some association such as one that looked at neurocognitive testing (mental ability) in the presence of medical MRI machine1. Another study looked at measurable markers in bodily fluids in response to EMF exposure and found that urinary levels of essential hormones were low before and returned to normal after EMF radiation was removed from the environment the subjects were staying in2.

Some other researchers took a similar approach and looked at the blood of rats exposed to a controlled EMF and found that markers for oxidative stress (level of free radicals) were increased3,4. The stress was also noted in the brain tissue of these rats3,4. Two important heat shock proteins (proteins responsible for protecting tissues and specifically DNA against the damaging effects of extreme temperatures were found to be significantly decreased in the hypocampus5 and the thyroid6 of rats in similar experiments.

Down at the cellular level some fascinating results were found when researchers exposed stem cells that were derived from fat cells (this is through a process called “dedifferentiation” where the DNA is unpackaged to be completely accessible like an original stem cell) to an EMF they differentiated into osteogenic cells (bone producing cells)7. Personally, that blew my mind. It also brings up a lot of questions about EMF exposure during pregnancy.

Researchers also found that both chondrocytes (cartilage cells)8 and myofybroblasts (connective tissue cells, specifically in the colon in this one study)9, when exposed to a controlled EMF increased in their rate of healthy proliferation suggesting potential treatment options for both osteoarthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. They also found that a hormone called interleukin 6 (an inflammatory hormone related to irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut) decreased significantly during this same stimulus9. When similar procedures were performed on lymphocytes (a special type of white blood cell) nothing happened10 but when someone took lymphocytes and exposed them to a MRI strength EMF the cells were damaged at the genetic level11.

With all this research pointing towards EMFs being used as treatments to help with cell proliferation and bony cell differentiation some researchers tested controlled EMF exposure on acute fractures of the wrist to no avail12.

In relation to the scare of cancer and cell phones, the governments of many countries and the World Health Organization (WHO) have reviewed the research and continue to do so regularly. WHO even has a team whose specific mission is to create guidelines and recommended limits on human exposure to EMF. This task force has concluded that EMF is “possibly carcinogenic”13,14 and that regular cell phone use increases the risk of developing gliomas (brain tumor), meningiomas (tumor of the lining of the brain), and acoustic neuromas (tumor of the nerve transmitting sound from the ear drum)13.

One amazing study looked at the physical structure of our DNA to try to figure out why our cells have any reaction to EMF at all be it positive or negative. The researchers determined that the three-dimensional structure of our DNA is very similar to a fractal antenna and so can pick up these EMF signals like a radio15. They suggested that perhaps this EMF reception may be causing breaks in our DNA (potentially causing cancer, hormone disruption, etc). One review of the literature covering this specific area said that the results were split almost 50/50 but that the collected data suggested that EMF was not solely responsible for breaks in the DNA stands but instead a co-factor in these breaks16. Another study suggested that the reason for the conflict in the results is that the key to our cellular and genetic response to EMFs is in the repetitive nature of the exposure17. They demonstrated that repetitive exposure of cells to low frequency EMF (approximately that of an electrical wire) caused a break in both strands of the DNA and caused the cells to self destruct.

So it definitely seems that we react to EMF exposure but the exact nature of this response still needs to be defined. We are complex organisms and the answer to a question like this is never simple. I personally use a pair of ear phones with my cell phone but then again I’m exposing my hip to that EMF now. Maybe it will protect that joint from ever getting osteoarthritis. Or then again, maybe it will cause an overgrowth of the cartilage. It is too early to tell for sure either way. Much more research needs to be done. Until then I suggest we don`t worry about it too much as that will just increase our cortisol levels which we know is bad. You never know, EMFs may actually be beneficial7,8,9. So until then let’s limit our exposure in any way you see fit and keep living life as healthily as we can.

Thanks for reading,
Dr. Ben

Reference List
1. van Nierop LE, Slottje P, van Zandvoort MJ, de Vocht F, and Kromhout H. Effects of magnetic stray fields from a 7 Tesla MRI scanner on neurocognition: a double-blind randomised crossover study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2012;69(10):759-766

2. Milham S and Stetzer D. Dirty electricity, chronic stress, neurotransmitters and disease. Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine 2013, e-pub ahead of print

3. Bilgici B, Akar A, Avci B, and Tuncel OK. Effect of 900 MHz radıofrequency radıatıon on oxıdatıve stress In rat braın and serum. Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine 2013, e-pub ahead of print

4. Avci B, Akar A, Bilgici B, and Tunçel ÖK. Oxidative stress induced by 1.8 GHz radio frequency electromagnetic radiation and effects of garlic extract in rats. International Journal of Radiation Biology 2012;88(11):799-805

5. Yang XS, He GL, Hao YT, Xiao Y, Chen CH, Zhang GB, and Yu ZP. Exposure to 2.45 GHz electromagnetic fields elicits an HSP-related stress response in rat hippocampus. Brain Research Bulletin 2012;88(4):371-378

6. Misa Agustiño MJ, Leiro JM, Jorge Mora MT, Rodríguez-González JA, Jorge Barreiro FJ, Ares-Pena FJ, and López-Martín E. Electromagnetic fields at 2.45 GHz trigger changes in heat shock proteins 90 and 70 without altering apoptotic activity in rat thyroid gland. Biology Open 2012;1(9):831-838

7. Kang KS, Hong JM, Kang JA, Rhie JW, Jeong YH, and Cho DW. Regulation of osteogenic differentiation of human adipose-derived stem cells by controlling electromagnetic field conditions. Experimental and Molecular Medicine 2013;45:e7

8. Corallo C, Volpi N, Franci D, Vannoni D, Leoncini R, Landi G, Guarna M, Montella A, Albanese A, Battisti E, Fioravanti A, Nuti R, and Giordano N. Human osteoarthritic chondrocytes exposed to extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF) and therapeutic application of musically modulated electromagnetic fields (TAMMEF) systems: a comparative study. Rheumatology International 2012, e-pub ahead of print

9. Gruchlik A, Wilczok A, Chodurek E, Polechoński W, Wolny D, and Dzierzewicz Z. Effects of 300 mT static magnetic field on IL-6 secretion in normal human colon myofibroblasts. Acta Poloniae Pharmaceutica 2012;69(6):1320-1324

10. Waldmann P, Bohnenberger S, Greinert R, Hermann-Then B, Heselich A, Klug SJ, Koenig J, Kuhr K, Kuster N, Merker M, Murbach M, Pollet D, Schadenboeck W, Scheidemann-Wesp U, Schwab B, Volkmer B, Weyer V, and Blettner M. Influence of GSM Signals on Human Peripheral Lymphocytes: Study of Genotoxicity. Radiation Research 2013, e-pub ahead of print

11. Lee JW, Kim MS, Kim YJ, Choi YJ, Lee Y, and Chung HW. Genotoxic effects of 3 T magnetic resonance imaging in cultured human lymphocytes. Bioelectromgnets 2011;32(7):535-542

12. Hannemann PF, Göttgens KW, van Wely BJ, Kolkman KA, Werre AJ, Poeze M, and Brink PR. The clinical and radiological outcome of pulsed electromagnetic field treatment for acute scaphoid fractures: a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled multicentre trial. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery 2012;94(10):1403-1408

13. Hardell L, Carlberg M, and Hansson Mild K. Use of mobile phones and cordless phones is associated with increased risk for glioma and acoustic neuroma. Pathophysiology 2012, e-pub ahead of print

14. Health Canada. It`s Your Health. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/environ/magnet-eng.php (Accessed 01/23/13)

15. Blank M and Goodman R. DNA is a fractal antenna in electromagnetic fields. International Journal of Radiation Biology 2011; 87(4):409-415

16. Ruiz-Gómez MJ and Martínez-Morillo M. Electromagnetic fields and the induction of DNA strand breaks. Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine 2009;28(2):201-214

17. Kim J, Ha CS, Lee HJ, and Song K. Repetitive exposure to a 60-Hz time-varying magnetic field induces DNA double-strand breaks and apoptosis in human cells. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 2010;400(4):739-744

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