Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have been shown to cause biological damage and even cancer, but exactly how does this happen? In this interview, Paul Héroux, Ph.D., a researcher and professor of toxicology and health effects of electromagnetism at the faculty of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, helps answer that question.
Originally trained as a physicist, he eventually ended up studying electrical power transmission lines, the topic of his Ph.D., and in the course of working for a power utility, he started investigating the health effects associated with the fields emitted from power lines.
“I got involved in biology, followed courses in medicine and became, so to speak, a different person from what my supervisors initially would have expected me to be,” he says. In time, he became a specialist on the effects of magnetic fields on the human body, and joined the Faculty of Medicine to help protect health and the environment.
Types of EMFs
Broadly speaking, EMFs include electric, magnetic and radio frequency fields. While the literature tends to discriminate between low-frequency fields, high-frequency fields, microwaves, electric fields and magnetic fields, all of these have certain commonalities that allow you to lump them together, at least in terms of their biological action.
“It's true that frequency influences the effects,” Héroux says, “but basically … I could, using an electric field or a magnetic field, produce the same effect in a cell. Most higher frequency signals have enough low-frequency components to have a lot in common with low-frequency components.
The practical aspect of this is that usually the fields have an effect maybe in one application, but they are mirrored in other applications as well. There's a type of great unifying view that you can have about these fields.”
Nonthermal Effects Matter
It’s important to realize that the damage EMFs cause has nothing to do with thermal effects. At typical exposures, EMFs do not create heat, which has been the telecommunication industry’s main defense and argument for the safety of cellphone radiation. However, hundreds of researchers have in fact noted biological effects both at low and high frequencies.
“Covering the whole spectrum, there is no doubt that there are biological effects,” Héroux says, adding “There’s no doubt there are substantial health effects that we have been experiencing for a long time, and that have been increasing our health bills. Initially, I got into this field because a power utility asked me to design an instrument that would measure electromagnetic fields on the workers. I designed a dosimeter that was a very successful unit.
After that, I imagined maybe this would be followed up with basic work on the biology of the phenomenon, but obviously, the utility was not very interested in that. Essentially, about at that time, I went to McGill University … and started to do research. I had a student in the lab who was working on the toxicity of metals, who came to me one day and said, ‘Why don't you give me a subject that would be a little more spectacular than the toxicity of metals?’…
This student started to work on magnetic fields. The results that came out of these experiments were quite spectacular. The effects were very, very strong. From then on, I felt I could not ignore this and that I had to bring this to the attention of the world.”
What they discovered was that even small levels of magnetic fields, such as 60 Hertz (Hz), can have drastic effects on cancer cells in culture. Research published as early as 1985 showed quite clearly that these fields were also able to suppress metabolism. Some 15 years later, Héroux duplicated those results, and was able to determine the mechanism behind it.