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/table-of-contents/.

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. sonia

    I just recently bought a used prius 2013. I owned a 2010 prius for 3 years with no noticeable changes in my health. However, after the second day of driving my prius with Navigation and blue tooth, I noticed the car has a chemical smell. And overtime I drive the car for more than 20 minutes I feel yucky: nausea, slight stomach pain, and headaches. It is to the point where my husband also feels dizzy in the car, and my friend who rode with me developed a headache and it subsided once she got out of the car for 10 minutes. I need to return my car, but I can’t so now I will lose $ as I will have to trade it in. :( horrible.

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