What are electromagnetic fields?
Definitions and sources
Table of contents
1.Definitions and sources
2.Summary of health effects
3.Progress in research
4.Typical exposure levels at home and in the environment
7.What is EMF - German, Italian & Swedish
Electricfields are created by differences in voltage: the higher the voltage, the stronger will be the resultant field. Magnetic fields are created when electric current flows: the greater the current, the stronger the magnetic field. An electric field will exist even when there is no current flowing. If current does flow, the strength of the magnetic field will vary with power consumption but the electric field strength will be constant.
(Extract from Electromagnetic fields published by the WHO Regional Office for Europe in 1999 (Local authorities, health and environment briefing pamphlet series; 32).
Natural sources of electromagnetic fields
Electromagneticfields are present everywhere in our environment but are invisible to the human eye. Electric fields are produced by the local build-up of electric charges in the atmosphere associated with thunderstorms. The earth's magnetic field causes a compass needle to orient in a North-South direction and is used by birds and fish for navigation.
Human-made sources of electromagnetic fields
Besidesnatural sources the electromagnetic spectrum also includes fields generated by human-made sources: X-rays are employed to diagnose a broken limb after a sport accident. The electricity that comes out of every power socket has associated low frequency electromagnetic fields. And various kinds of higher frequency radiowaves are used to transmit information – whether via TV antennas, radio stations or mobile phone base stations.
The basics of wavelength and frequency
What makes the various forms of electromagnetic fields so different?
Oneof the main characteristics which defines an electromagnetic field (EMF) is its frequency or its corresponding wavelength. Fields of different frequencies interact with the body in different ways. One can imagine electromagnetic waves as series of very regular waves that travel at an enormous speed, the speed of light. The frequency simply describes the number of oscillations or cycles per second, while the term wavelength describes the distance between one wave and the next. Hence wavelength and frequency are inseparably intertwined: the higher the frequency the shorter the wavelength.
A simple analogy should help to illustrate the concept: Tie a long rope to a door handle and keep hold of the free end. Moving it up and then down slowly will generate a single big wave; more rapid motion will generate a whole series of small waves. The length of the rope remains constant, therefore, the more waves you generate (higher frequency) the smaller will be the distance between them (shorter wavelength).
What is the difference between non-ionizing electromagnetic fields and ionising radiation?
Wavelengthand frequency determine another important characteristic of electromagnetic fields: Electromagnetic waves are carried by particles called quanta. Quanta of higher frequency (shorter wavelength) waves carry more energy than lower frequency (longer wavelength) fields. Some electromagnetic waves carry so much energy per quantum that they have the ability to break bonds between molecules. In the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays given off by radioactive materials, cosmic rays andX-rays carry this property and are called 'ionizing radiation'. Fields whose quanta are insufficient to break molecular bonds are called 'non-ionizing radiation'. Man-made sources of electromagnetic fields that form a major part of industrialized life - electricity, microwaves and radiofrequency fields – are found at the relatively long wavelength and low frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum and their quanta are unable to break chemical bonds.
Electromagnetic fields at low frequencies
Electricfields exist whenever a positive or negative electrical charge is present. They exert forces on other charges within the field. The strength of the electric field is measured in volts per metre (V/m). Anyelectrical wire that is charged will produce an associated electric field. This field exists even when there is no current flowing. The higher the voltage, the stronger the electric field at a given distance from the wire.
Electric fields are strongest close to a charge or charged conductor, and their strength rapidly diminishes with distance from it. Conductors such as metal shield them very effectively. Other materials, such as building materials and trees, provide some shielding capability. Therefore, the electric fields from power lines outside the house are reduced by walls, buildings, and trees. When power lines are buried in the ground, the electric fields at the surface are hardly detectable.
Magnetic fields arise from the motion of electric charges. The strength of the magnetic field is measured in amperes per meter (A/m); more commonly in electromagnetic field research, scientistsspecify a related quantity, the flux density (in microtesla, µT) instead. In contrast to electric fields, a magnetic field is only produced once a device is switched on and current flows. The higher the current, the greater the strength of the magnetic field.
Like electric fields, magnetic fields are strongest close to their origin andrapidly decrease at greater distances from the source. Magnetic fields are not blocked by common materials such as the walls of buildings.