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The Thermal Effect of EMF & Its Role in Radiation Safety Standards

As you start to learn more about how EMF radiation from modern technology is regulated, there’s an important concept to understand: the thermal effect. So what is the thermal effect of EMF and what role does it play in regulations?

EMF Regulations & The Thermal Effect

EMF regulations are a messy hodgepodge of standards and enforcement agencies, and that’s a subject for another post.

But, at their core, virtually all of the safety standards that do exist, are based on recommendations from a division within the World Health Organization (WHO) known as the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (or ICNIRP).

And here are those standards.

 European power frequency Mobile phone base station frequency Microwave oven frequency
Frequency50 Hz50 Hz900 MHz1.8 GHz2.45 GHz
Electric field (V/m)Magnetic field (µT)Power density (W/m2)Power density (W/m2)Power density (W/m2)
Public exposure limits5 0001004.5910
Occupational exposure limits10 00050022.545


So, for example, when the FCC sets the maximum emissions levels of a cell phone, that’s based on these ICNIRP standards. 

These ICNIRP standards are all based around the thermal effect.

So what’s the thermal effect?

Great question.

The Thermal Effect, Cell Damage & Death

See, everyone knows and recognizes that getting burned is bad for you. Not only does it hurt, and take time to heal, but it actually kills your cells and your DNA.

And you don’t even need to get burned. This damage occurs when your body is heated, even if it doesn’t burn you.

Because when your body is heated, that triggers something called the heat shock response in your cells. This is a clear indicator that your body interprets the heat as a threat and it needs to defend itself.

Sometimes your body can muster sufficient defenses to fend off the threat. But sometimes it doesn’t. And this can lead to damage in your DNA. Which in turn can lead to mutations and death of your cells.

So, even if something doesn’t emit enough heat to burn you, it can still do a lot of damage to your cells– and that damage can turn into diseases, such as cancer. (And that’s why it’s so important to wear sunblock, for example.)

EMF Can Cause the Thermal Effect

Now, EMF can cause the thermal effect. In other words, EMF radiation can heat your body and your cells. 

And you already know that because that’s exactly how a microwave oven works. A microwave oven emits powerful enough microwave EMF radiation to cook your food.

So everyone knows and agrees that enough EMF radiation can trigger the thermal effect, heat your body, and thus cause DNA damage, mutations and cell death.

But a microwave oven emits a lot of power. Most EMF emitting technology– like your cell phone– doesn’t emit anything close to that.

But EMF doesn’t need to be as powerful as it is from a microwave oven in order to trigger thermal effects in our bodies.

And that’s what these EMF safety standards are based on. They are designed to ensure that your devices – like your cell phones and, yes, laptops – are not permitted to emit so much radiation that they heat your body.

So, when a device emits a low enough about of EMF radiation that it doesn’t heat your body, we call that a non-thermal exposure. And so regulations like the FCC’s cell phone emissions standards are based around ensuring that we all have non-thermal exposures from our phone.

The Thermal Effect is Insufficient

Now, in many other posts on this website, I explore why using the thermal standard for EMF emissions is dangerous and vastly insufficient to protect our health. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that there is no “safe” level of EMF exposure. Because a massive body of high quality science dating back decades demonstrates a wide range of negative health effects from non-thermal exposures to EMF– radiation that is not powerful enough to heat your tissue, but can still do a lot of damage.

But that’s not how standards-setting bodies like ICNIRP, or regulatory bodies like the FCC see it:

Indeed, according to the FCC:

At relatively low levels of exposure to RF radiation, i.e., levels lower than those that would produce significant heating; the evidence for production of harmful biological effects is ambiguous and unproven… A number of reports have appeared in the scientific literature describing the observation of a range of biological effects resulting from exposure to low-levels of RF energy.  However, in most cases, further experimental research has been unable to reproduce these effects.  Furthermore… there has been no determination that such effects constitute a human health hazard.

Now, don’t get me wrong.

It’s a good thing– a very good thing– that the thermal effects of EMF radiation are regulated. 

Thermal effects are real and dangerous. 

But these regulations protect you only from the short-term effects of excessive, thermal levels of EM exposure sufficient to create a heating effect in human tissue. 

But do they really do even that?

Examples of Laptops and the Thermal Effect

To help answer that question, let’s take the example of laptops. Because, if regulations are designed to protect our bodies from being heated, they are clearly not doing a good job with laptops. 

Because our laptops get HOT.

We’ve all felt it. 

And when your laptop gets so hot that you can feel it heating your body, it’s creating the precise type of damage that these EMF safety regulations are supposedly designed to protect us from.

And laptops are a particularly egregious example of this, because they’re designed to be used in your lap.

In fact, “laptop burn is a real condition and medical reports indicate that using a laptop across the legs can indeed cause it…the condition can cause damage leading to skin cancer” (emphasis added). Laptop heat emissions are such a concern, it’s even given rise to the incidence of ‘toasted skin syndrome.’ (These are just two of the dangers of using your laptop in your lap.)

Now, some manufacturers have changed the names of these products to remove the word ‘lap’. For example, the terms ‘notebooks’ or ‘macbooks’ do not mention the word ‘lap’.

So even though we all call them laptops, and many of us use our laptops in our laps, some of the manufacturers try to skirt that reality by changing the names of these products.

But not all of them. 

Take Dell for example. They have a ‘laptop store’ on their website. 

Dell has a ‘laptop store’ on the website, so they don’t try to pretend to call these portable computers anything else.

So Dell explicitly calls these portable computers ‘laptops’.

And Dell knows for a fact that you’re not supposed to use these devices in your laps.

How do I know that?

Because I read manuals.

To avoid the possibility of exceeding the FCC radio frequency exposure limits, you should keep a distance of at least 20 cm between you (or any other person in the vicinity) and the antenna that is built into the Laptop.

Tell me, how is it that I’m supposed to use a device in my lap, while maintaining 20 centimeters (almost 8 inches) of distance from that device?

You can’t.

This is how far Dell says to keep your “laptop” away from your body.

So Dell calls these portable computers laptops, but they then say in order to use them safely, you have to keep them almost a foot away from your body.

And this is a crystal clear example of how the regulations that are designed to protect us– these safety standards based on the thermal effect– don’t actually protect us.

The Thermal Effect Standard is Failing Us

Now, there are a lot of reasons why safety standards are inadequate. Reliance on the thermal effect is just one of many that I explore here on the SYB blog

But it’s a critical one– since the thermal effect is the basis of all EMF safety standards and regulations that govern the products we surround ourselves with and use all day, every day.

The thermal effect fails to account for the wide range of negative health effects we see resulting from non-thermal exposures– but even more egregiously, as we’ve just seen in the example of laptops, regulations based on the thermal effect, don’t even protect us against the thermal effect!

So, now you understand what the thermal effect is, and why it’s central to understanding EMF safety standards– and how these standards fail to provide adequate protection for all of us.

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I take pride in designing great, effective products, based on real, measurable science – AND taking the time to ensure that each and every one of you has the information you need to understand EMF and make informed decisions.

So if you have a question, just email me and ask.

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R Blank
CEO, SYB

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