Ventilation problems, toxic materials, and mold are known contributors to “sick building syndrome,” but many people are not fully aware that the Building Biology™ profession, formed over thirty years ago in Europe, also focuses on electro-magnetic field (EMF) exposure. Creating healthy living and work spaces by identifying, mitigating and preventing harmful human exposure to EMFs is one specialty of this profession.
Grassroots Natural Market in South Pasadena hosts monthly health awareness seminars. This July, its owners invited Oram Miller, a Certified Building Biology™ Environmental Inspector (BBEI) and EMF/Healthy New Building and Remodeling Consultant based in Los Angeles, to talk about “Cell Phones, Wi-Fi and the Wiring in Your Home.”
More than 35 people crowded into the front of the store to hear Miller’s two-hour educational talk, which touched on properties of electromagnetic frequencies, the growing body of research (mostly in Europe) on the adverse effects of constant exposure to frequencies associated with cell phones and wireless transmissions, and configuring sleeping spaces to reduce melatonin-inhibiting exposure to electric fields.
Miller’s PowerPoint lists the scientific studies pointing to long-term harm from EMF exposure. Also available on his website are links to research such as the Bioinitiative Report (2007), which says existing government standards for acceptable exposure to EMFs “are inadequate to protect public health.” The summary of that research is compelling reading; according to Miller, its findings are being corroborated and widely reported in Europe but are not broadly discussed in the U.S. People suffering from “electrical sensitivity syndrome,” a condition recognized by the Council of Europe, make up about seventy percent of Miller’s client base in Southern California. How do certified BBEIs help these people and others seeking to reduce EMF exposures in their living or working environments?
While LEED-quality standards for new residential construction are being developed, remodeling standards in this area are non-existent. Miller previously worked in the Midwest and was invited to be an EMF and healthy home consultant for the Minnesota Greenstar Program, a local LEED-type initiative for remodelers. “We had electricians and contractors coming to us because of requests from clients for EMF-reduced living environments. They didn’t know what to do, so we came up with guidelines that are now included in the Builder’s Association of Minnesota green building standards.” Miller reports that Michigan and other neighboring states are considering adopting those standards as is the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. The grassroots initiative is the first green building program to incorporate safe EMF exposure design as one of its options.
Now in Southern California, Miller evaluates building wiring and EMF environmental exposure using equipment including Gauss meters, digital multi-meters and radio frequency detectors. He looks for four sources of EMFs: Alternating Current Electric Fields, Alternating Current Magnetic Fields, Radio Frequency Fields, and “Electropollution” or “Dirty Electricity,” which are harmonics of 60 Hz AC current.
Electric fields extend outward from house wiring located in walls when that wiring is plastic-jacketed NM or Romex (commonly used since the 60s) and from electric cords within rooms; many older and some newer homes have metal-clad wiring, either flexible or rigid, which effectively reduces these electric fields inside walls (but the emanation of the field from unshielded electric cords powering lamps and other devices isn’t blocked).
Magnetic fields come from four main sources: outside overhead electric power lines; “point sources” such as transformers and electric motors; wiring errors, caused by inadvertent interties in branch circuitry between neutrals of different circuits or neutral connections to grounds; and from current running on parts of the grounding system, such as metal water service supply pipes and cable TV cables. In California, electric meters and breaker panels, both substantial point sources of magnetic field exposure, are often mounted on the back wall of the house, sometimes just opposite the head of the bed in a bedroom.
Radio frequency fields come from cell phones, wireless routers, cordless phones, smart meters and other household devices. Significant radio frequency bursts of 20,000+ microWatts per meter squared are transmitted regularly in digital pulses from wireless routers, cell phones, and tablet devices, as well as smart meters. While this amount is well below currently established safety limits in this country, Miller says many European countries are now reducing their acceptable levels in light of research showing harmful biological effects at levels as low as 10 microWatts and less per meter squared.
Dirty electricity is generated by power switching circuits and electronic ballasts that distort the 60 Hz sine wave form and are found in such sources as CFLs, dimmer switches, variable speed motors and smart meters. Miller says that harmonics from these devices cause agitation in electrically-sensitive people and can increase agitation in the general populace although the effect isn’t generally recognized.
Building biologists have solutions to each one of these problems and work closely with clients and their architects, builders and electrical contractors to create EMF-reduced living and work environments.
While most people can tolerate EMFs during the day, Miller says almost everyone can be adversely affected while they sleep because EMFs lower melatonin production. He works to reduce electric fields near sleeping areas to below 100 millivolts, and magnetic fields to below 1-2 milliGauss. Radio frequency levels should be below 10 microWatts/meter squared. These levels follow the building biology standards from Europe and follow the “precautionary principle.”
For those concerned primarily with the potentially harmful health effects from use of wireless devices, EMF consultants emphasize that there are hard-wired alternatives. The radio broadcast feature on a router can be disabled and hardwired connections can be established via Ethernet cabling, which may involve running cables through walls. Laptops can then be connected to RJ-45 jacks in the wall via long Ethernet cables.
For users of cell phones and tablets, the main points for lowering exposure include “reduce use” and “distance is your friend.” Practitioners encourage clients to keep landlines, abandon cordless telephones in favor of corded ones, choose corded landline telephones to make and receive calls at home and the office, and disable Wi-Fi signal on tablets when using them to view previously downloaded files.
The Grassroots Natural Market audience kept Miller talking for close to three hours. Questions ranged from proximity to power lines and cell towers, to the safety of smart meters, to EMF emissions from tie-ins with photovoltaic systems. Even those who aren’t electrically sensitive or concerned about EMFs should be aware of the growing body of research, particularly from Europe, that is identifying healthier building practices to protect occupants from poor air quality, toxic out-gassing materials, mold, and high electro-magnetic fields. For more information, log onto Miller’s website, www.createhealthyhomes.com and the website for the International Institute for Bau-biologie and Ecology in Florida, at www.hbelc.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An abbreviated version of this feature was just published in the American Institute of Architects Pasadena Foothill Chapter Quarterly Newsletter, August 2011.