What is electromagnetic pollution and why does it affect health?

The proliferation in the installation of mobile telephone antennas has raised a certain social alarm due to the suspicion that the radiation emitted by these antennas could be harmful. This suspicion has spread to other elements that generate electromagnetic waves, causing numerous citizens to try to prevent the installation of telephone antennas, high voltage cables, transformers, etc.


The lack of conclusive epidemiological studies on the repercussions that may exist for health means that there is no regulation that regulates the installation of electromagnetic field emitters as they are not classified as dangerous. This is allowing total mismanagement to occur in the installation of the aforementioned contaminants. The "precautionary principle" that should prevail while waiting for decisive conclusions to be drawn in this regard, is being continually violated.

For all these reasons, the CAVE has launched an information and awareness campaign whose ultimate goal is to force the competent authorities to create a technical scientific committee that evaluates the true risks of electromagnetic pollution, to, based on their opinions, develop state regulations that regulate all problematic aspects.
As long as these studies do not exist, efforts will be made to avoid the installation of any element potentially dangerous to health.

Next, the nature of electromagnetic pollution will be briefly explained, analyzing how it is generated and its emission sources. The parameters and units used to characterize the different electromagnetic fields will also be discussed. This makes sense because when a polluting element is installed, it will be necessary to know the type and intensity of radiation emitted in order to channel legal actions against it.
Finally, the mechanisms by which electromagnetic emissions affect human beings are explained, citing some of the studies that warn of their possible harmful effects on health and the environment.

Electromagnetic waves. Definitions

Electric fields.

The presence of electric charges produces the appearance of an electric field. This electric field in turn induces the movement of other electric charges that are in its radius of action, attracting charges of opposite sign and repelling those of the same sign. The unit of measurement of an electric field is the Volt/m (V) or the KiloVolt/m (KV/m).
In this case the field is born in the positive charges and dies in the negative ones. Electric fields can be easily shielded.

The magnetic fields.

The existence of electric charges in motion (electric current) produces a magnetic field, which is delimited by the region of space in which magnetic phenomena manifest. The action of these phenomena follows imaginary lines called lines of force, which are the path followed by the magnetic force. To get an idea of ​​how these lines of force act, just place a magnet under a piece of paper that has been sprinkled with iron shavings; These will be arranged following the lines of force of the magnetic field generated by the magnet.

In magnetic fields there are no sources or sinks of charges, the field closing on itself. Any alternating current will generate a magnetic field around it that will have a potential proportional to the electric charge that causes it.
Magnetic fields cannot be shielded and pass through almost all known materials.

The units of magnetic field are Teslas or mTeslas (1 tesla = 1 million mTeslas).

Measurement units.

Next we will review some of the concepts and units that it is convenient to know in order to evaluate the repercussions that could arise from the installation or use of an element that emits electromagnetic radiation.

Frequency. It is the number of oscillations that pass through a point in a unit of time. It is measured in cycles (oscillations) per second. One hertz (Hz) is equivalent to one oscillation per second. Units derived from hertz are: Kilohertz (KHz=one thousand Hz), Megahertz (MHz=one million Hz) and Gigahertz (GHz=one billion Hz). As the frequency increases, there is an increase in the amount of energy in the electromagnetic field.

Wavelength. It gives an idea of ​​the amplitude of the wave. It is named with the letter l, and is measured in meters. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency.
Energy. Its unit is the electron volt (eV). The energy of one eV transformed into light is called a photon.

  • Field strength: It is measured in amperes per meter (A/m).
  • Magnetic flux: is the number of lines of force that pass through a given magnetic field. The unit is the Webber (Wb).
  • Magnetic induction: Indicates the number of lines of force that cross a square meter (Wb/m2 or Tesla). The intensity of a magnetic field is directly related to magnetic induction through a constant called magnetic permeability, which depends on the medium in which the waves propagate. Magnetic induction is the parameter that determines the conditions that a magnetic field can generate in living beings. Another unit of measurement used for magnetic induction is the Gauss (10.000 Gauss=1 Tesla).

When taking measurements to evaluate the possible health repercussions of electric and magnetic fields, frequency (Hertz) is usually used as a reference system, or Teslas in the case of magnetic fields, and V/ m for electric fields.

Polluting Sources

High-voltage network.

They are elements that generate low frequency magnetic fields (up to 50 hertz). The passage of electric current through the line produces the appearance of an electric field and a magnetic field. The greatest magnetic field intensity occurs under the cables. At one meter above the ground, values ​​of 3 to 5 kV/m are generated in the case of the electric field and 1 to 20 mTeslas for the magnetic field. The intensity of both decreases with distance from the line, reducing to 0,1 kV/m and 0,1 mTeslas at 100 meters. All this for a high voltage line that transports 400 kV.

Electricity generating stations and substations.

In its vicinity the values ​​of electric and magnetic fields can reach 16kV/m and 270 m Teslas.

Home appliances.

They work thanks to electric current. This would be the case of washing machines, toasters, fluorescent lights, etc. Some examples of the field frequencies emitted by these "devices" are:

  • Television and computer monitors: 3-30 kHz
  • Heat sealers, devices for surgical diathermy: 3-30 MHz
  • Industrial induction heaters: 0,3-3 MHz
  • Microwave: 0,3-3GHz

Magnetic fields generated by radio frequencies.

Produced by AM and FM stations, their frequency ranges between 100kHz and 300MHz.
Order of intensity:

  • AM: 30kHz-3MHz
  • FM: 30-300MHz

Radar, satellite link devices, microwave communication systems.

They generate magnetic fields of the order of 3-30GHz.

Microwave; mobile phones and antennas.

The radiation emitted by mobile phones is found
in a band between 850 and 950 MHz.


Recommendations from international organizations.

Next we will review the scarce legislation or recommendations in this regard. They delimit the minimum distances to population centers, roads, etc.
ICNIRP recommends not exceeding the following reference values:

Electric field5 kV/m10 kV/m
Magnetic field100 mT/500 mT

In July 1999, the Council of the European Union published a recommendation that exposures greater than 5kV/m and 100mT should not be exceeded for 50 Hz fields, in areas where considerable time is spent.
The National Institute of Safety and Hygiene at Work places the exposure limit at 0,45 mW/cm2.

Recommended distances.

  • Location of high voltage lines: the BOE of December 27, 1968 establishes the following minimum distances for their installation. (The U coefficient expresses the nominal voltage in kV)
  • Unelectrified roads and railways.
    The height of the drivers above the road grade or above the lane heads will be:
    6.3+U/100 meters, with a minimum of 3 meters.
  • Navigable or floatable rivers and canals.
    The minimum height of the conductors above the water surface for the maximum level that it can reach will be:
    G+2,3+U/100 meters
    G=gauge (in the event that there is a defined gauge, this will be considered equal to 4,7 meters).
    The horizontal distance must be greater than 25 meters and greater than one and a half times the height of its supports, with respect to the end of the grading or edge of the channel.
  • Ways of communication.
    The installation of supports for high-voltage power lines is prohibited in the areas of influence of roads, at distances less than those indicated below, measured horizontally from the axis of the road and perpendicular to it.
    State network roads (national, regional and local): 25 m.
    On local roads: 15m
    These distances are also defined in article 34.3 of the regulations of Law 10/1996 of March 18, approved by Decree 2619/1996 of October 20.
  • Buildings, constructions and urban areas.
    The minimum distances that must exist in the most unfavorable conditions between the conductors of the power line and the buildings or constructions that are under it will be the following:
    About the points accessible to people:
    3,3+U/100 meters, with a minimum of 5 meters.
    About points not accessible to people:
    3,3+U/150 meters, with a minimum of 4 meters.
    One of the possibilities that is proposed as a possible solution to high voltage overhead lines is the burying of these lines since this reduces the intensity of the electric field. The difficulties of these actions are economic, since burying a high voltage line costs at least three times more than installing it above ground and to do so you must have a depth of between 90 and 100cm. Besides. Burial mitigates the effects of the electric field, but not the magnetic field.
    In any case, in the twelfth Additional Provision, by modifying Royal Legislative Decree 1302/1986, of June 28, it is established that any 220 kV installation with a length equal to or greater than 15 km. must be subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment, proving that the following requirements are met:
    1. The technical and safety conditions of the facilities and associated equipment.
    2. Adequate compliance with environmental protection conditions.
    3. The location characteristics of the installation.
    4. Your technical, economic-financial capacity to carry out the project.
  • Mobile phone antennas. The Safety Rules in an uncontrolled exposure could be breached in areas located less than 6m from the antennas themselves. This would be the case of antennas installed on or near the roofs of buildings.

Health Repercussions

The relative novelty of some of the polluting sources means that there has not yet been enough time to carry out the corresponding epidemiological studies and their adequate statistical treatment. For this reason, there are no conclusive results about the safety or danger of these emissions for human beings (mainly in the case of mobile telephony). But more and more studies point to a possible relationship between electromagnetic pollution and various diseases. In the case of laboratory animals, the incidence of electromagnetic waves in the growth of tumors seems to have been demonstrated.
It cannot be forgotten that the main argument of the companies benefiting from the installation of this type of devices is to affirm that their danger has not been demonstrated. This argument is not valid for two simple reasons:

  1. If serious and independent studies are not carried out to evaluate the risks, it is evident that nothing can be concluded about them.
  2. This lack of studies means that the lack of risk has not been demonstrated.

For this reason, it is essential to adhere to the "precautionary principle" as long as the total absence of risks to human health is not sufficiently demonstrated, avoiding in any case the proximity of this type of contaminating elements to population centers. It should be noted that there is growing suspicion among the scientific community that there is a serious risk of increased cancer, behavioral alterations, etc.
The mechanism of action of this type of contamination is briefly explained below and some of the possible problems caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields are listed.

Basic concepts.

The presence of electric charges produces the appearance of an electric field by inducing the movement of other charges due to the effect of repulsion or attraction. In turn, these moving charges cause a magnetic field to be generated around them. This magnetic field has the ability to make the electrically charged particles that are in its radius of action acquire movement, generating an electric field. As can be seen, there is an intimate relationship between electric field and magnetic field, which is why we speak of electromagnetic phenomena.
All living beings are made up of electrically charged particles. Processes such as the transmission of nervous impulses are based on the transport of electrical charges through neurons. Charged particles also make it possible to regulate the flow of substances through our body. Thus a particle will or will not pass through the cell membrane depending on whether it is positively or negatively charged.
This transport of elements regulated by electrical charge fulfills important functions such as allowing metabolic reactions to occur to obtain energy, stabilizing the structure of proteins and genetic material, etc.
Having made this introduction, let's see what relationship these biological processes have with electromagnetic pollution.
There are two types of electromagnetic radiation:

  1. Ionizing radiation: They have the ability to make uncharged particles become charged. They are extremely harmful (there is no doubt about it), and are used for scientific and medical purposes. This is the case of X-rays, ultraviolet radiation, gamma rays, etc.
  2. Non-ionizing radiation: Generated by high voltage towers, electrical substations, mobile phone antennas, etc. They affect living beings in two fundamental ways:
  • The magnetic fields generated by different emitting elements have the capacity to induce electric currents in living beings. If these currents are more intense than the currents that naturally exist in organisms (previously seen), they will cause alterations. Once the so-called "reversibility limit" of animal tissues has been exceeded, the damage will be irreparable.
  • Electromagnetic radiation produces the movement and vibration of the molecules that are in its field of influence. This vibration causes collision between adjacent particles, causing them to heat up (this is the mechanism of action of microwaves). The increase in temperature can cause serious disorders.

Below we will look at some of the possible risks that appear to arise from exposure to non-ionizing radiation. It is not our objective to present a detailed list of all the risks, only studies or opinions of institutions, organizations or people who warn of the more than probable dangers are cited.

Risks of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation.

Relationship with leukemia.

  • It is admitted that "in 80% of cases the electricity present in the homes themselves would cause the disease." The same service "suggested that high-voltage pylons doubled the risk of leukemia." Source: British Radiation Protection Service. (El País, 6-3-2001).
  • "In many studies, a greater relative risk of leukemias, brain tumors and other cancers has been determined in subjects residing in the vicinity of high voltage lines and among different populations exposed professionally. The strongest suspicion of an association has been established with the childhood leukemias." Source: PulsoMed-Sanitas. October 2000.

Cancer risk in general: mutagenic capacity.

  • "Radiofrequency fields similar to those used in mobile telecommunications increase the incidence of cancer in genetically modified mice that have been exposed in close proximity (0,65m) to a radiofrequency transmission antenna." Source: World Health Organization, Descriptive Note No. 183.
  • "In this work, the first results are presented on the biological effects of the magnetic field measured by the "in vivo" micronucleus test on mouse bone marrow. The results indicate a clear effect at 200mT fields of 50 Hz, as opposed to the existing bibliography, although scarce in this specific field." ("The micronucleus test on polychromatophilic erythrocytes from mouse bone marrow (...) is a widely used method for the detection of chromosomal damage produced by different chemical substances and physical agents.") Source: "On the mutagenic effects of the field magnetic". Department of Radiology and Physical Medicine. University of Murcia. November 2000.
  • "According to the so-called "Melatonin Hypothesis", a reduction in melatonin levels in the blood caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields would cause deregulation of steroid synthesis and an increase in the incidence of hormone-dependent cancers (breast, prostate )." Fountain; Contribution made for the V National Environmental Congress by: Dr. Alejandro Úbeda, Researcher at the BioElectromagnetic Laboratory. Research Department of the Ramón y Cajal Hospital and by Francisco Vargas, Deputy Director General of Environmental Health of the Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs.

Heating of tissues and associated alterations.

  • "Radiofrequency fields from 1Mhz to 10Ghz penetrate the exposed tissues and produce heating due to the energy absorption carried out. The depth of penetration depends on the frequency of the field, being greater in the case of low frequencies." "Induced heating in body tissues can cause various physiological and thermoregulatory responses, in particular reduced ability to perform mental or physical tasks...". "The induced warming can affect the development of the fetus (...) it can also affect male fertility and favor the appearance of cataracts." Source: World Health Organization, Descriptive Note No. 183.

Behavioral alterations.

  • "Exposure to low-intensity radiofrequency fields, insufficient to produce heating, has been reported to alter the electrical activity of the brain in cats and rabbits by modifying the mobility of calcium ions." Source: World Health Organization, Descriptive Note No. 183.
  • "Exposure to sufficiently intense non-thermal levels of pulsed electromagnetic fields can cause effects such as auditory phenomena or various behavioral responses. Years ago some studies reported observations of potential severe damage to the retina when exposed to pulsed electromagnetic fields." Fountain; Contribution made for the V National Environmental Congress by: Dr. Alejandro Úbeda, Researcher at the BioElectromagnetic Laboratory. Research Department of the Ramón y Cajal Hospital and by Francisco Vargas, Deputy Director General of Environmental Health of the Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs.

Physiological alterations.

  • "Other studies have suggested that the action of radiofrequency fields changes the rate of cell proliferation, alters the activity of enzymes or affects cellular DNA." Source: World Health Organization, Descriptive Note No. 183.


We have seen some of the consequences that exposure to electromagnetic radiation can have. The sources cited have sufficient credibility to make us raise more than a reasonable doubt about the safety of these emissions.

In any case, it is evident that the topic has not yet been sufficiently investigated. Therefore, prudence must prevail when addressing the problem. Any action that may pose a risk to human health must be ruled out until its lack of danger can be certified with absolute certainty.

For this reason, it is essential to request that public administrations finance the creation of completely independent scientific committees that are in charge of programming and evaluating research that determines the true risks of electromagnetic pollution.

Environmental Repercussions

As seen previously, electromagnetic pollution interferes with living beings by altering their natural electrical systems or by heating tissues.
Therefore, any organism that is in the area of ​​influence of an electromagnetic field may be affected by it.

In the specific case of high voltage lines, the repercussions on living beings are more direct; Every year thousands of birds die from electrocution when they collide or perch on high-voltage cables. This is especially problematic in the case of large birds of prey. Emblematic species of Mediterranean fauna and with great importance when it comes to regulating the functioning of ecosystems, such as the imperial eagle, have seen their populations severely diminished by the effect of these cables.

Indirectly, the installation of electrical lines can cause major environmental disorders due to the works necessary for their placement in sensitive areas.

*Confederation of Neighborhood Consumer Associations and Users from Spain - CAVE
Department of Environment.