OK, I admit it: I am somewhat nervous about exposure to EMF (electromagnetic field) radiation. My interest predates the cell phone and cancer controversy.

It all started during the late 1960s because I was working in a neuropharmacology laboratory at the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute. We were studying brain physiology. Specifically, we were measuring the quantitative electrical activity (EEG) in the brains of rats and rabbits exposed to a variety of medications and experimental compounds.

One area of particular interest was free radicals. These highly reactive chemicals were known to cause all sorts of mischief in the body. We tested a variety of free-radical compounds in our animals and discovered “EEG arousal and behavioral changes indicative of brain excitation.” [Polis, Wyeth, Goldstein, and Graedon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A. 1969 Oct;64(2):755-62.]

Around that time it was discovered that the American embassy in Moscow was being bombarded by microwaves. No one knew why the Russians were beaming microwaves at the embassy. Some speculated that the EMF radiation was being used to activate electronic eavesdropping equipment (bugs) within the embassy. Others thought the waves were intended to affect the nervous systems of embassy staffers.

Our lab got involved with this research because the Navy wanted to know whether EMF radiation could affect the brain waves of our rats and rabbits. I left the lab to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan, but later heard that the experiments did indeed demonstrate that low levels of microwave radiation could produce measurable effects on brain waves.

I pretty much forgot about this research until 1979. That was when a report was published linking exposure to EMF generated by high-tension electric power lines to childhood leukemia. [Wertheimer and Leeper; American Journal of Epidemiology, 1979 March;109(3):273-284]

That study created a huge controversy that exists to this day. Not only have researchers looked at EMF generated by power lines, they have also investigated the effects of low-frequency magnetic fields generated by electric blankets, old-fashioned cathode-ray computer screens and electric appliances. Electrical workers and military personnel exposed to radar have also been tracked. Epidemiologists have also looked at cell phone use and its relationship to brain tumors and salivary gland cancers. (http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/167/4/457)

After nearly 30 years of research the scientists still do not know what, if any, risk exists from exposure to electromagnetic field radiation. Childhood leukemia has not disappeared as a concern. Analysis of all the various studies suggests that a relationship still holds. There are also whispers about a risk of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) linked to occupational EMF exposure. A comprehensive review published in 2001 concluded that the risks of “Breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and suicide and depression remain unresolved.” [Environmental Health Perspectives; 2001 Dec;109(6):911-933]

Another resource comes from the BioIniative Working Group in August 2007. If you are interested in this topic, check out this overview of electromagnetic radiation: http://www.bioinitiative.org/report/index.htm.

The bottom line is that we still do not truly understand the impact of electromagnetic radiation on the human body. Some studies suggest that there is a risk. Others do not. After all this time there is still a lot of uncertainty. That’s scary, since we are all exposed to varying levels of EMF every day. In a sense we are all part of a huge unplanned experiment.

What does all this have to do with hybrid automobiles? Several years ago a good friend proudly showed off his new Prius. He was an early adopter and he bragged about the great gas mileage this first-generation hybrid could achieve. On a whim I got out my EMF meter and discovered that the electrical wiring appeared to produce a substantial amount of electromagnetic field radiation, especially in the back seat behind the driver. He didn’t seem alarmed so I just forgot about it.

A few years later we ourselves were in the market for a new car. We wanted something with good gas mileage and took a look at the next-generation Prius, hoping that Toyota might have shielded the wiring to cut down on the EMF leakage. To our disappointment, the levels still seemed quite high. We passed on the Prius.

We are exposed to EMF radiation every time we turn on a small appliance. Your hair dryer, for example, almost assuredly puts out a lot of invisible waves. So do your toaster and your microwave oven. Your electric toothbrush probably does too. I don’t worry about those EMFs because the exposure is related to how close you are to the appliance and is relatively short. But if you commute 40 minutes to work or are constantly taking the kids to activities, the chances are pretty good that you and the family are being exposed for longer periods of time. That’s because the electrical energy from the batteries is transferred to the front of the car through cables that run under or along the seats.

A very interesting article on EMF in hybrids appears on the New York Times Web page (April 27, 2008). It is titled “Fear, but Few Facts, on Hybrid Risk,” by Jim Motavalli.

Based on our EMF readings and those of others, the amount of radiation detected in certain hybrids is disconcerting. Some experts believe that sustained exposure to levels over 3 mG (milliGaus) pose a potential problem. Whether there is a real danger remains to be determined. I certainly hope that people who are trying to be kind to the planet and save money on gasoline are not harming themselves or their children.

Joe Graedon 

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  1. Peter
    Reply

    I bought my new Prius 2012 around October 2012 for my long commute of 40 miles one way. But soon after, I began to have dry cough, headache, low stamina. 3 weeks got a pinched nerve on my foot and developed symptom of drop foot, having issues walking properly. Never thought it had anything to do with the car.
    I began to link the car with all these health issues after I realized I began to cough the moment I get into my car. I am only 42 and in good health before the car. After reading all the posting, I am more convinced it has to do with the car. I am going to drive a regular car and see whether anything would change.
    PEOPLE’S PHARMACY RESPONSE: It might indeed be sheer coincidence, but it is worth a try with a different car.

  2. thingstodo
    Reply

    Does anyone have information on the levels of EMF considered ‘low enough’? Please share.
    I am doing an electric vehicle conversion. If I need to shield the cables, I will. A faraday cage around the entire cabinet that holds the controller and batteries is possible but will cost more and weigh more.
    Has any research been published lately?

  3. Bernster
    Reply

    I bought a 2005 Civic Hybrid in 2004. I drive a lot in Southern California. To date I have over 230,000 miles on the car. I am a vegan (tests show that I all my mineral, protein, calcium, etc levels are very good). I have no health problems… except… around 2007, I started experiencing problems in my knees. At first I attributed it to light jogging, so I modified my exercise routine. I stopped jogging and used the stationary bikes in the gym.
    The problem got worse in 2008. I went to orthopedic specialists and chiropractors. An MRI showed degeneration in both knees and osteoarthritis and inflammation, of course. Knee replacement surgery has been recommended, but I’ve been treating the symptoms with herbs. In the back of my mind I suspected that my car had something to do with it, but recently, I have become more convinced.
    I have searched for answers as to why at 50 years old and otherwise in excellent health, I would develop such problems. I am very sensitive to chemicals and my friend jokingly calls me a canary, because if there is something toxic in my environment, I sense it in my body. My knees are not getting any better, and I’m still staving off the surgery. I intend to get rid of my hybrid very soon… and not buy another one. If there is a connection, I should see the difference, and I will certainly tell the world, if that is the case. I can come up with no other rational explanation.

  4. JC
    Reply

    A lot of research on EMF’s has been done.
    Cindy Sage (consultant on placement of cell towers, etc) at sagereports.com shows the dangers of, among others, our wireless saturation (13 Fatal Flaws of Smart Meter Technology).
    Radiation Rescue, the book, and radiationrescue.org discuss solutions to various dangers encountered in daily life.
    Wi-Fi in the schools and wi-fi baby monitors will look alot different after learning their information.

  5. m
    Reply

    Measurements done while driving a Prius, model 2010, executive:
    Measuring setup: 2cm diameter coil, Wideband preamp, 16-bit ADC, 44kHz multichannel Sampler, Flash Memory for storage
    Measurements therefore limited to the 0Hz – 22kHz range, unfortunately.
    Measured values are *relative Voltage values* in dB!!!!
    Measuring above the brake pedal:
    ————————————————-
    – pure harmonics at:
    10kHz (-30dB), 15 kHz (-50dB), 16.3kHz (-58dB),
    17.4kHz (-62dB), 19kHz (-35dB), 19.7kHz (-60dB),
    20.5kHz (-53 dB), 21.5 kHz (-58dB)
    – white noise present everywhere in the rest of the spectrum: – 70dB
    Measuring in the front, close to the mid console:
    —————————————————————-
    – one very strong harmonic component at 10kHz (-50dB).
    – 3 dominant harmonics at about 15kHz (-65dB) 16.3kHz (-68dB) and 19kHz (-63dB).
    – the whole 0Hz – 20kHz spectrum full of harmonics present at about every 230 Hz
    (all between -65 and -75 dB).
    – white noise present everywhere in the rest of the spectrum: – 85dB
    Measuring on top of the back seats:
    ————————————————-
    – pure 10kHz (-50dB) and 19 kHz (-70dB) harmonics
    – white noise present everywhere in the rest of the spectrum: – 85dB
    Remark:
    ————
    The 230 Hz is rpm-dependent, and is most probably the result of:
    the chopping (during acceleration AND normal drive) or rectification (deceleration).

  6. Channey
    Reply

    Just purchased a 2007 Lexus GS450H on 8/16/2010. My feet, legs, upper torso, hands arms and face have been tingling ever since (like tiny pins or needles). As soon as I drive, my feet and ankles tingle first. I am very concerned after reading about EMF exposeure and hybrids.
    Is it true that a 33-Resonator can protect the human body against EMF? Any suggestions on how to handle this. My dealer informed me that in MD, VA and DC once you drive the car off the lot, its yours. HELP!

  7. arnold s
    Reply

    I also arrived at this site through a random search of the possible health effects of driving a hybrid vehicle. I purchased a new 2008 prius at the end of the model year and have driven approx. 25,000 miles. I have always been exceptionally healthy with no allergies, asthma, or other environmentally related afflictions.
    For the past 9 months I have been suffering with itchy skin mostly on my arms and upper torso. Several visits with a dermatologist suggested that it was just dry skin. I stopped using soap products, started using moisturizers and even installed a water filter system in the house to limit chlorine and other chemicals in our bath water.
    I am not suggesting here that there is a link between my prius ownership and the skin disorder – however – I am determined to uncover the cause of my health issue and will not rule out anything – especially those circumstantial lifestyle changes that have coincided with the onset of the health issues. The hybrid purchase is one of those changes.
    I will be following up in the next few months with further visits to doctors that will include food allergy testing, etc. I will also temporarily refrain from driving the prius to see if the symptoms subside.
    I love the prius with its innovative technology and promise to move us away from oil – as of this writing my health concerns are purely speculative.
    I will, however, keep this site posted on how my own little health mystery plays out.
    Thanks to all who contribute to our cumulative knowledge…

  8. Dru
    Reply

    To MD and A.S. – google gluten intolerance and neuropathy. More people are finding that their neuropathy “of unknown origin” is related to celiac disease and/or gluten intolerance.

  9. oren h.
    Reply

    Check the tyres, on any car. Sam Milham, MD, an epidemiologist, first published his findings in 1998, that steel belted radial tyres are magnetized, and when rotating in travel will create a magnetic field especially in the back seast of a car, to the value of tens of milligauss. I have measured an electric car for mag fields and the tyres dominate.
    So don’t necessarily blame the Prius, before you degauss the tyres and then measure the fields. You may be surprised by the low levels.

  10. Rye
    Reply

    I hate the fact that when enough is not known about the effects or some unknown there is always this side who thinks everyone is just paranoid. I hope people with more problems will post messages here. We need to know the long term effects. We have electrical impules that magically keep us alive, yet we do not truly understand our own electrical activity in the body and brain. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that these fields may possibly interfere with our own electrical fields and cells?
    I hope this new green era that we are going into will take these possible health concerns seriously, we really need more research and until then the car manufactures should just put the shielding in or find an alternative to the high EMF / Magnetic fields. We need to get off this Gas also and the environmental and lung damage it is causing.
    I am in the market for a Hybrid, but think I may wait to see. Blessings and a long healthy lives to you all.

  11. MN
    Reply

    I purchased a new Prius in 2007 and love the car. I don’t know about EMF’s. I have driven the car to Oregon twice and did not notice anything unusual that I did not experience with my older 1997 Volvo 850.
    I do plan to keep the car as long as I can. I am now 70 years old. It is fun to drive and can really scamper up hills plus excellent gas mileage.

  12. ls
    Reply

    I purchased a 2008 Camry Hybrid in November of 2007. I have a 45 minute commute to work each way. I usually work for a couple of days, then take a few off. After several months of driving the car, I noticed increased prostate discomfort after my commute days that would go away on my off days. I am in my mid 30’s, so it could have just been coincidental, but I worried about my children in the car as well. I ended up trading for a new Maxima in 8/08, and the problem has disappeared! I will NEVER own another hybrid again unless there is advertised shielding installed ($2-3K more is what I heard it would cost). I was lucky that gas was still close to $4 when I sold, so I didn’t lose much trading it in.

  13. MD
    Reply

    Yes. I developed a neuropathy of unknown origin after driving a hybrid vehicle as well. I am only 30 and have no other health issues.

  14. A.S.
    Reply

    I bought my Prius about a little over 2 years ago for my long commute. A year ago I started experiencing nerve damage in my hands, arms and feet. I have had every blood test known to man and do not have diabetes. I have been diagnosed with neuropathy and it seems to be getting worse. I am wondering now if it is not something to do with the car. Is anyone else experiencing something similar?

  15. Clay N.
    Reply

    I love your radio show. So, I’m a bit surprised that this article is filled with such vague qualitative terms like “..amount of radiation detected in certain hybrids is disconcerting..”
    and “…discovered that the electrical wiring appeared to produce a substantial amount of electromagnetic field radiation…”
    When you say you measured EMF, how much did you measure? How many different measurements did you take?
    You are a highly respected (by me, or one!) radio journalist. That comes with the responsibility to include quantitative facts. When you say “substantial…amounts”, please report those measurements.

  16. Jahrun
    Reply

    Hello reader. Chances are that you are here reading this article and my entry because of a concern that you and I have in common. Did you arrive here by searching the Internet on terms like “Prius EMF Cancer” like I did? The following is a brief account of my own personal experience regarding these subjects.
    I’ve owned a Prius since 2002 and have driven it over 130,000 miles. It has been coast to coast and back 5 times and on many long trips, particularly over the last two years. Between April 2007 and April 2008 alone, I drove over 30,000 in trips, spending consecutive days in the car, and in some cases, even sleeping in the Prius with the climate control set to keep the car warm. Until about a year ago, I was a great advocate of the Prius, heralding its benefits to others. To me, the Prius was a hallmark token, representing a new choice that the general consumer could make to usher-in a new level of stewardship for the planet.
    However, beginning about a year and a half ago, I began to be conscious of feeling overcome with fatigue whenever I would sit down in the Prius. The effects of spending time in the Prius gradually worsened and began to change my perspective about the immediate environmental safety of this car and its real potential for surely and silently causing serious harm to myself, my children and other frequent occupants.
    It was not long after I had begun noticing this fatigue, that my 6 year-old daughter brought her magnetic directional compass into the car. You can imagine my surprise when her answer was always “south” upon asking her our heading. Almost with disbelief, I asked to observe the compass for myself, and indeed, it always pointed south. In fact, on exiting the car, the compass would continue pointing toward the back of the car within several feet distance from the car, showing me clearly that a formidable and seemingly fixed magnetic field emanated from the Prius. I had immediately drawn an eerie connection between the car and my feelings of fatigue.
    But it never really dawned on me that there was also a fluctuating field produced by the wires carrying big shifts in electrical current, leading to and from the batteries in the rear of the Prius and its generator/motor in the front. I also did not realize until recently that this current is carried by wires going under the driver’s side of the car.
    Later in 2007 I began to feel fatigue often, even when not driving the Prius. Then, around March 2008 (and seven thousand miles later), I began to suffer roaming pains in my rib cage. Around April I injured my lower back jumping off of a counter top in playing with a little boy. Months of yoga half-cured the injury to my spine and, for a while, the pains in my rib cage.
    By September of this year, however, the pain in my back returned upon moving household belongings into a new house. The pain in my ribs grew worse each day and I began to believe it was the symptom of kidney stones.
    Natural remedies were tried without success and, finally, both areas of pain grew to the point I could barely walk. Finally, on October 20th 2008, I went to see a doctor, who took x-rays of my spine.
    He admitted me into the hospital whereupon his initial diagnosis was confirmed: that I had Multiple Myeloma, a bone marrow cancer that is both bone and kidney degenerative in its effects. I was told that Multiple Myeloma is actually quite rare for someone who is only 42 years old.
    While in the hospital, it soon occurred to me to think of the Prius and its possible role in leading to this disorder. I found the article in the New York Times, and several smaller articles referring to that article, but nothing so conclusive, as the media often seems to ride the fence in such matters as could damage a new market of hybrid vehicles . . . I, for one, do not need convincing, I do not need a gauss meter, or other scientific evidence to know the intrinsic truth of my own conscious experience.

  17. Jon
    Reply

    I am very interested in hybrid vehicle emfs. Specifically, I would like to know about how high in frequency the spectrum goes from the “chopping” explained by Nelson Highley on the May 9, 2008 post. Also I would like to know the frequency range of the meter that Fairiss S. used to measure the AC magnetic field on her Civic hybrid. If it has a low frequency range the actual field could be considerably higher. Knowing these facts would help determine what type of meter is best for measuring hybrid emfs, which is what I want to do before purchasing one.

  18. ck
    Reply

    I purchased a 2007 honda civic hybrid put 33k miles on it in less than a year, I am in sales, after about 6 months of daily driving 9am until 7pm in my car 80% of the time during those hours, my eyes started burning, itching, i was getting styes 2 and 3 per week, the skin under my eyes were scaley. I went to 3 doctors and got different diagnoses, this went of for about 7 months.
    I was never in the car on the weekends and my eyes would clear up on the weekends immediately, until monday evening it would start all over again. friend of mine told me about someone who had a civic hybird and their kids were throwing up in car and missing a lot of school, so i decided to check out the web for hybird health issues, i read enough information to make me sell my car! since my car is gone now i have not had any more problem with my eyes, they are back to normal, i do worry though if there is any other effects or problems i might have that i do not know about caused from my hybrid.

  19. Fariss S.
    Reply

    Hi there,
    I just bought a Civic Hybrid and am starting to regret it. I bought an AC Gaussmeter to measure the EMFs in the car and they are in the range of 6 to 11 milli-Gauss in the passenger side of the car (front and rear seats). Too high to put my kids there. Even the driver’s seatis in the 3 to 5 mG range. Am I correct to use an AC Gaussmeter instead of a DC meter?

  20. Brian B.
    Reply

    Today I just measured my 2007 Ford Escape and found an alarming 18-20+ milligauss fields on the driver’s side head to toes from the center console to the midline of the driver’s body. Industry has greatly reduced EMF levels in computers, why is the auto industry so far behind? Are the effects of DC fields less toxic than AC magnetic fields ?

  21. JZ
    Reply

    Did you do any research sampling of other cars? You know that all cars have a power generator, right?

  22. Nelson Highley
    Reply

    I am a retired industrial control engineer with experience in motor drives. The problem with hybrid cars is that the DC from the batteries must be converted to AC to control the car’s electric motors. This process of “chopping” the DC produces a large amount of high-frequency AC. These high frequencies cover a wide frequency spectrum and radiate easily and efficently.
    It’s my understanding that any ill effects from electrical fields should be worse for higher frequencies. Therefore with the combination of a field rich in a variety of high frequencies and the high currents involved, I would expect that this could be a problem for sensitive individuals.
    On the other hand, the FCC requires shielding of suppression for anything that might effect radio transmissions. This means that even a hybrid should have some shielding.

  23. Terry F.
    Reply

    I used to work in a building above a TV station. One of my coworkers, concerned over microwaves from one of the station’s transmitter things, got one of those cards that changes colors when your microwave is leaking. One day, her card indicated a danger zone. She called down to the station and they informed her they did not have any of their microwave equipment on at that time. (The card turned back to normal the next day.) Anyway, my point is that who knows what kind of dangerous waves we may be exposed to, even if you avoid all the “known” sources?

  24. K Frost
    Reply

    I’m surprised that neither Honda nor Toyota have been very responsive to dealing with this. After the news about cell phone use in Israel being linked to salivary gland cancers, I wondered if blue tooth devises or plug in ear pieces are any better than the cell phones. Any thoughts or sampling info?

  25. DD
    Reply

    Everything in our world is electrified. How can we possibly escape being in contact with EMF? Do we know if EMF that we contact is cumulative like xrays? Also, what do we know of individual susceptibility? All of these are potential factors. My advice: Until we know more, forget your paranoia and live life to the fullest. There’s too much we don’t know enough about and it’s not worth worrying about it.
    PEOPLE’S PHARMACY ANSWER:
    On one level we certainly agree with you about living life to the fullest. But people probably said that about smoking cigarettes, eating bacon for breakfast every day and not wearing seat belts. Although we still do not know what, if any, hazards may exist from EMF exposure, it would certainly be nice if funding for research would expand so that we could know the full story within several years.

  26. map
    Reply

    I have had a Prius since 2001. I recently bought my second one. I’m 66 years old and have to die of something. I’ll keep driving my hybrid, thank you.

  27. KC
    Reply

    Ok, again on planet earth to every action there is a reaction…lol.

  28. cl
    Reply

    We just bought a new highlander hybrid last month. We’re really scared after reading about the EMF’s emitted. We had no idea, we did do a lot of research but EMF data was not stated. Just suddenly after reading the article in the New York times, I am alarmed. I certainly do not want to expose my children to that kind of electromagnetic fields. Should I trade my car in?
    PEOPLE’S PHARMACY ANSWER:
    We wouldn’t panic just yet. So far, any danger is hypothetical.
    You might want to see if you can find someone to test the car for EMF under various driving conditions. But even if there is some EMF we don’t know whether it poses a risk to you or your family. So, please don’t trade your vehicle in until there is more data! Even the NYT article says this is an iffy issue.

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