Dangers of Electromagnetic Radiation…and Autism?

The possible dangers of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) has been the subject of many recent headlines. Indeed, there have been reports linking EMR to colony collapse disorder, sick building syndrome, chronic fatigue, cancer and, more recently, autism.  What accounts for this upsurge of interest in recent years? For most of our evolutionary history humans have been exposed to electromagnetic radiation. Sunlight is part of the electromagnetic radiation and our lives depend on it. Electrostatic discharges, in the form of lightning, generate a wide range of electromagnetic radiation. Within this spectrum, the lowest frequency radiation (about 7.8 Hz or cycles per second) has the highest power. The latter frequency, generated by lightning and established by natural means, is called the Schumann resonance frequency. Some scientists believe that the Schuman resonance frequency helps establish our basal brainwave rhythm and facilitates our sleep awake cycles.  Environmental radiation is able to affect our brain’s physiology because the skull protects the brain from physical damage but is, for the most part, transparent to the effects of radiation.

Our bodies as antennas

Figure: Recording voltage running though my body with an oscilloscope. The caption in the scope indicates 59.7 Hz reflecting the influence of line (power or mains) frequency. Our bodies act as receiving antennas capturing EMR from our surroundings (e.g., fluorescent lights, wi-fi, routers). This radiation, from the environment, adds to several volts in our bodies. Touching certain devices, like a laptop or a plasma ball, markedly increases our body voltage.

In the last few decades the ambient electromagnetic radiation has increased exponentially due to man-made sources. Power lines transmit electricity to our homes at frequencies dictated by the cycling speed of generators (within the US it is about 60 Hz). Radio and TV transmission use carrier waves at high frequencies in order to modulate signals. Furthermore, since propagation of electromagnetic radiation varies with the inverse square of distance, the amount of power used to cover long distances is extremely high. Touching an antenna, even from an amateur transmitter, may cause a severe radiation burn. In direct exposure, the radio frequency energy is transformed in the body as heat causing cell death at high temperatures.

High frequencies are necessary in order to more effectively radiate the signal from a suitable size antenna. Throughout the history of our world the human body had never been exposed to these high frequency radiations. More recently, cell phones have carved a niche within the electromagnetic spectrum with very high frequencies of transmission necessitated by their very small antennas. We now find ourselves surrounded by artificially made EMR, the effects of which, as we will see in the next paragraph, are difficult to predict.

Electromagnetic radiation has the dual properties of waves and particles, meaning that they will either be reflected or absorbed from material depending on the nature of the material and their incidence angle. The varying accumulation and interference of these waves and their reflections may cause us to be exposed to hotspots within our environment. This phenomenon makes it difficult to study the effects of EMR as many studies are faced with a retrospective bias and difficulties in quantitating the exposure levels of EMR. It is therefore unsurprising that many of the effects of EMR remain invisible to us. Complicating matters, researchers use rather insensitive techniques, like thermal and mechanical indices, to assess risk of exposure. Ongoing discoveries about the mechanisms of action of EMR (e.g., gap junctions in neurons) only underline how inadequate these surveillance techniques are at estimating the potential for health risk.


Figure: Sources for EMR reflections are hard to predict. In this particular case one of my cats (George) readily reflects EMR but another cat (Sunny, RIP), with different fur type, does not. The counts were quite higher but difficult to capture as I was trying to take the picture and hold the measuring device simultaneously. George, on the other hand, cooperated fully.

At present, ambient EMR has become contaminated with very high frequencies coming from switching power supplies (i.e., wall outlet adapters that transform line voltage into something usable by an electrical equipment- also called “wall warts”), and other digital equipment. The government has imposed regulations on wall warts requiring the installation of filters to diminish the backwards propagation of these frequencies into our line voltage.  These measures are imperfect and high frequency pollution (also known as “dirty electricity”) is everywhere. There is strong evidence linking dirty electricity to cancer, especially in children.

dirty electricity

Figure: Capturing dirty electricity with my oscilloscope. In channel 1(above) is a reflection of line voltage from our environment picked up with an antenna.The same shows a waveform at roughly 60 HZ.  This is an imperfect sine wave that exhibits occasional high frequency spikes.  In channel 2 we have the filtered content of the wave riding on top of the line voltage. This “contaminating voltage” is of higher frequency (in the KHz range) and has been called dirty electricity. Graphs recorded at different scales (channel 1 at 200 mV per division and channel 2 at 5 mV per division)

More recently, EMR has been proposed as a causative factor for autism. This is a popular venue for discussion at Autism One, YouTube, and even at Facebook where it has its own page. The claims are based on the possible correlation between the rise in prevalence for autism and our own increasing exposure to EMR. A distinguished researcher wrote a two-part article on the subject with little in terms of raising public consciousness (at last count the articles were poorly cited after several years of being published). Unfortunately, correlation does not imply causation. Also, many of the analogies in-between symptoms of autism and EMR are misplaced.  Countless claims have been made regarding EMR as the causative agent for brain inflammation in autism, when even the existence of this inflammation is disputed (see previous blogs on this subject: https://corticalchauvinism.com/2013/02/04/inflammation-and-autism/  and   https://corticalchauvinism.com/2014/08/27/the-so-called-inflammation-of-autism/ ).

EMR is a clear and present danger of which much more research is needed. There are radiations within the electromagnetic spectrum that affect us even during brain development (e.g., ultrasound) and we are learning more about them with each passing day regarding potential mechanisms of action. We need to keep on doing the necessary research, controlling the necessary variables, before drawing any conclusions. At least of present, any conclusions regarding EMR and autism are misplaced.

2 responses to “Dangers of Electromagnetic Radiation…and Autism?

  1. It would seem unlikely there is a linear relationship between EMR and autism prevalence as it could not really explain the CDC’s findings of an increase from about 1 in 150 to 1 in 68 in less than a few years’ time. Also, you said the skull protects from damage but is transparent about radiation, but what about the meninges? Would they possibly protect the cerebral cortex from damage. Also how deep into the brain would radiation go, as limbic structures such as the amygdala appear to be involved in autism as well as the hippocampus, so the radiation would have to go through the meninges and cerebral cortex and I guess find a way to influence cell migration during fetal development, but I’m not sure how that would work.


    • The meninges are the coverings of the brain. They would not offer any protection from electromagnetic radiation. These waves should be able to rapidly penetrate the whole brain, including basal ganglia, amygdala, etc. One of my conceptual problems is that the frequencies employed fall outside the normal physiology of the brain and that its effects should be nonlinerar. It would be difficult to predict then any side effects of the radiation.


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