- EMF stands for electric and magnetic fields.
- Radiation is the emission of energy through electromagnetic waves.
- Certain studies have come out that potentially show an increased risk for adverse health effects when consistently exposed to extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields.
Technology has become an entrenched part of the human experience, even if it’s sometimes invisible. Nobody can “see” Wi-Fi, but we all understand that it allows us to interact with the internet. Although we don’t normally think about it, there is ‘invisible’ technology around us all the time.
In recent years, distrust in some technology has caused people to be wary of even common household objects like microwaves and smartphones. More recently, that wariness has extended to electric vehicle (EV) usage and the potential health implications of these “invisible dangers.”
Today, we’re going to take a look at these health claims and determine if EMFs are something we should worry about. We’ll also explore if that danger extends to the growing number of EVs that drive on our roads.
What Is an EMF?
EMF stands for electric and magnetic fields or, simply put, areas affected by the presence of electricity and magnetism. Colloquially, people refer to EMF as ‘radiation’ or EMF radiation.
An electric field is an area of invisible energy (radiation) caused by voltage – the “pressure” that pushes electrons down a wire. A magnetic field is an area of invisible energy caused by the movement of electric charges.
Let’s go over the important terms so far:
- Radiation: the emission of energy through electromagnetic waves.
- EMF: electromagnetic field, a field created by electricity or magnetism.
- EMR: electromagnetic radiation, a type of radiation created by an electromagnetic field.
Radiation itself isn’t harmful, it’s the amount of radiation that can be harmful. The energy radiating from a warm sidewalk, for example, isn’t as dangerous as the radiating energy from an open flame.
The Electromagnetic Spectrum
Knowing that all radiation isn’t inherently harmful leads us to our next step: not all EMRs and EMFs are harmful! In fact, EMR can be put on a spectrum that scientists call the “electromagnetic spectrum.” This spectrum spans from high-frequency to low-frequency energy waves.
The high-frequency radiation waves include things like gamma radiation (gamma rays), X-Rays, and UV rays. Low-frequency radiation waves include things like radio waves, just like the ones you play in your car. Right in the middle of the spectrum is light!
Visible light (the rainbow and the colors that we see) are simply a type of radiation that our eyes and brain have evolved to see. Deciding to “remove electromagnetic radiation” from your life is technically impossible.
Let’s recap this section:
- Electromagnetic radiation is classified along a spectrum known as the “electromagnetic spectrum.”
- The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from low-frequency EMR to high-frequency EMR.
- The types of EMR include radio waves, visible light, and X-rays.
What Types of EMR and EMFs are Harmful?
Now that we understand the electromagnetic spectrum, it’s important to understand which ones are harmful. Generally speaking, the most dangerous form of radiation to humans is known as “ionizing radiation.”
Ionizing radiation is radiation that has enough energy to knock electrons out of their orbit within atoms, essentially changing the chemical makeup of something. In humans, ionizing radiation can damage DNA and cause genetic problems, especially in large or extended dosages.
The most common form of ionizing radiation is UV light, which comes from the sun. This high-energy radiation can damage DNA, causing a type of cancer known as melanoma, or skin cancer. Other forms of ionizing radiation include X-Rays and gamma rays. The power of this radiation is why you wear a lead vest when getting X-rays at the doctor in order to limit your exposure.
Recent Studies on Low-Frequency Radiation and its Health Effects
Certain studies have come out that potentially show an increased risk for adverse health effects when consistently exposed to extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields. The types of low-level radiation that have been studied can be found in power lines, televisions, TVs, mobile phones, and more.
Ultimately, however, these studies proved inconclusive. In fact, over 25,000 papers and scientific articles have been published on the topic over the past 30 years. The resulting analysis is as follows:
“Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.”—WHO International
To break down this segment:
- The most harmful radiation is ionizing radiation like X-rays and UV light from the sun.
- Over 25,000 research papers have been published, researching low-frequency electromagnetic radiation and its health effects.
- There are some gaps in knowledge around certain biological effects, but nothing that would warrant any amount of fear we know of now.
Do Electric Vehicles Emit EMFs?
It’s important to understand that all electric devices emit radiation and have a magnetic field. This applies to electric cars, the battery on a gas car, and even the smartphone in your hand.
The type of EMR in an electric vehicle is known as extremely low-frequency (ELF) radiation. This is the result of the magnetic field that is emitted from the powerful electric motors that power the car. The real question isn’t “do EVs emit ELF magnetic fields?,” but, instead, “are the ELF magnetic fields emitted by EVs dangerous?”
As the research stands, probably not. There have been a lot of studies on this non-ionizing type of radiation with little conclusive evidence. When there is a paper that claims to have found something linking adverse health effects and ELFs, the papers are often highly criticized.
On the other hand, a lot of papers NOT finding a link also exist. The most conclusive study to date, performed by the EU-funded research project, EM Saftey, showed just that.
As a result, the WHO decided to list ELFs as “possibly cancer-causing,” although no definitive evidence has been provided. Should car makers take steps to limit ELF exposure for humans? Potentially. Is it that big of a deal? It doesn’t look like it for now.
What does this mean? Let’s recap:
- All electric cars (and all vehicles for that matter) emit ELFs.
- ELFs have been studied, and no conclusive trends have emerged so far.
- It could be valuable to limit ELF exposure, but it doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue in any way right now.
Are EVs like Teslas Safe?
Since Tesla uses electric motors in their cars, they also emit ELFs as they operate.
As the EU-based research demonstrated with eleven cars, the ELFs and magnetic fields had the most intensity around the floor of the car, with it drastically dropping off the further up they measured. In fact, even at the floor level, the magnetic field directly on the floor of the car measured only 20% of the exposure recommendation as stated by the ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection).
The ICNIRP is committed to determining adverse health effects and safe exposure limits for all sorts of non-ionizing radiation. Further, measurements near head height only measured a mere 2% of the maximum recommended exposure limit by the ICNIRP.
Essentially, EVs and Teslas only hit fractions of the conservative limits placed by various organizations all over the world, 20% and 2% at the floor level and head level, respectively.
Wrapping it Up
With all this information, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed, especially if this is all new terminology.
Here are some important things to remember from the current research:
- Radiation is simply energy. Some can be harmful, but not all of it is.
- EMFs and EMR are everywhere in the world around us, from the light from the sun to the heat from our bodies, and the invisible radiowaves in the air around us.
- The most dangerous form of electromagnetic radiation is known as ionizing radiation since it has enough energy to cause damage to DNA and cause cancer.
- The vast majority of EMR is non-ionizing and doesn’t have the ability to harm humans
- Certain low-frequency waves, known as ELFs, have shown a potential ability to impact humans at high exposure limits, although we don’t fully know what those impacts are.
- Current EVs don’t have ELFs or magnetic fields that are powerful enough to harm humans.
The vast majority of the radiation we encounter in our life isn’t known to be harmful to us, although some can be, like the UV rays from the sun on a bright day. Low-frequency magnetic fields (like those emitted from electric motors) may impact humans, but current studies are too inconclusive to cause us any worry.
In the meantime, EV makers should probably do their best to ensure no excess exposure happens.
EMFs in Electric Vehicles in the News
In 2022, the University of California, Berkeley concluded that the EMF levels in Teslas are still well within the safety limits set in place by the World Health Organization (WHO). The location of the vehicles where EMF levels are the highest are near the battery of the car. However, these levels are still below the limit established by the WHO and are at a safe level of exposure to drivers.
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