What to Know About ELF Radiation

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 20, 2022
5 min read

Electricity is a regular part of life these days. Most people who grew up in the U.S. don’t know what it’s like to live without a readily available energy source in their home. 

Our homes are filled with electric appliances like stoves, refrigerators, and coffee machines that we use every day. Most of us carry a mobile phone with us everywhere we go. 

You might wonder, though, if these things can affect your health long term. The short answer is: maybe. Most of these electronic objects release something called radiation. 

Radiation is the energy produced by any object. We often associate radiation with the sun’s rays, x-rays, or nuclear incidents that happen internationally, but energy particles can be released and radiate away from any source that produces energy. 

It’s possible that this radiation can affect your health. 

Electricity is commonly measured in volts per meter (V/m) or hertz (Hz). There are other units of measurement that are also used, often by electricians or people who work in scientific or automotive fields. 

These electromagnetic measurements can include: 

  • Amperes per meter (A/m)
  • Units of tesla (T)
  • Units of microtesla (μT)
  • Gauss (G)
  • Milligauss (mG)

You have probably heard the term electromagnetic. That’s because electric and magnetic fields (EMF) often go hand in hand. Electric fields create and generate motion called an electric current. This is caused by parts of the atom called protons and electrons becoming charged. A magnetic field is created when those charged protons and electrons begin to move. 

The amount of electricity emitted by a given source can vary from extremely low frequency (ELF) to extremely high frequency (EHF). This range is referred to as the electromagnetic spectrum. 

Electricity operates on a field of frequency. When an area is classified as high frequency, it’s because there are lots of microscopic energy particles floating around in the air. This can happen in an area that sees a lot of energy passing through it, such as a nuclear power plant or a place where there are lots of power lines. 

ELF stands for Extremely Low Frequency. ELF objects are those everyday objects you’re likely to find in your house like mobile phones, appliances, radio and TV waves, and even your wifi network. All of these things emit frequencies that are so low they aren’t thought to cause any harm to humans. That’s because all these frequencies come from non-ionizing sources. 

One of the main factors that determines whether radiation is harmful or not is whether it’s ionizing or non-ionizing. 

High-frequency radiation is very strong. It’s so strong that it can change the makeup of an atom. It does this by removing a critical component: the electron. This process is called ionization. 

When radiation is powerful enough to ionize an atom, it can cause damage to the DNA inside your cells and cause cancer. 

Household electric wiring and appliances are non-ionizing radiation and thus are considered safe for humans to regularly use.  

In contrast, some examples of ionizing radiation are: 

  • Ultraviolet radiation found in strong sunlight or tanning beds
  • Radioactive waste
  • X-ray machines
  • Some power lines

Exposure to ELF radiation is extremely common. You’ve likely been exposed to it since you were very young through household objects like radios, TVs, computers, and more. 

The amount of ELF radiation you are exposed to, though, depends on several different factors: 

  • The amount of radiation that the object generated
  • Your proximity to the object
  • How long you stay at that distance

For example, if you watch television at a close distance for a few hours, you will pick up more ELF radiation than you would by watching from a distance for a short period of time. 

You can also be exposed to ELF radiation through natural sources. Thunderstorms and lightning can produce ELF radiation. 

Since the discovery of radiation, there have been public questions and research done on whether or not radiation is safe for humans. As previously stated, we know that certain types of ionizing radiation can be harmful for you. Some can even cause cancer in people. 

But what about ELF radiation? Is it totally harmless? 

In 2002, The World Health Organization (WHO) tasked a group of scientists with finding out if there are any short-term side effects of ELF radiation on general health. 

The group found that prolonged exposure to ELF radiation can induce excitability in the nerve cells. It can also cause nerve and muscle stimulation at high strengths. 

Research has also been conducted to see if there is any connection between ELF exposure and certain illnesses, including:  

  • Neurodegenerative disease 
  • Reproductive issues
  • Developmental disorders
  • Cancer
  • Mental health issues such as depression
  • Neurobehavioural effects
  • Cardiovascular disorders
  • Immunological modifications 

The available evidence suggests that ELF radiation doesn’t directly cause these issues and illnesses in the short term. 

Other studies have looked at the long-term effects of ELF radiation in people. In 2002, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a monograph stating that ELF magnetic fields can possibly cause cancer in people. 

The research was based on analyzing a place where childhood leukemia had doubled in numbers along with increased exposure to magnetic fields measuring 0.3 to 0.4 µT. 

It’s important to note, though, that no solid connection has been established.

It’s safe to say ELF radiation is here to stay. The world has gone electronic, and we aren’t going back. So, how can we learn more about how this low-frequency radiation affects us? 

It can be difficult to complete studies about ELF radiation in people. This is partly because of the varying levels of exposure. Different people are exposed to different amounts of radiation at different times. If consistent evidence isn’t overwhelmingly present, it can be hard for researchers to accurately pinpoint radiation as the primary cause of a disease. 

Science is improving, though. Some researchers have their subjects wear a device that measures how much radiation they receive throughout the day. This is meant to give a clearer glimpse into how ELF radiation might affect us. 

Right now, though, any evidence that ELF radiation causes cancer or any other serious illness is considered to be inadequate.