Health Effects of RF Energy and Microwaves

The health effects of RF energy have been a concern voiced by many in recent years.  Questions have been raised about the use of cell phones and the introduction of 5G.  Now the military has raised concerns about the cognitive effects of radio frequency energy on pilots.

U.S. Military Concerns About RF Noise Exposure

A recent article in Military & Aerospace Electronics reported that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking help to determine if RF emissions effect human cognitive processes.   They are also, if the study proves positive, looking for ways to mitigate those effects. 

This follows reports from pilots of minor cognitive performance issues during flight.  Because a cockpit flooded with RF noise, many experts believe this energy may cause spatial disorientation, memory lapses, misprioritization, and complacency.  This is a very real concern because spatial disorientation is a leading cause of accidents resulting in loss of life.

Findings from this study should have an impact on commercial applications, where RF environments are becoming increasingly active.  This would include commercial pilots and perhaps even motor vehicles.

Previous Concerns About the Health Effects of RF Energy

Ionizing Radiation

Most concerns about health and electromagnetic energy have focused on ionizing radiation.  Ionizing radiation has enough renergy to break bonds between molecules and ionize atoms.  This type of activity requires large amounts of radiant energy. 

Typical sources would include X-rays, cosmic rays, and radon.  Exposure to these sources of radiation can result in cancer risks.

Non-Ionizing Radiation

Non-Ionizing radiation sources of radiation include radar, microwave ovens, cell phones, and the electronic devices that we encounter in our daily lives.  While this type of radiation cannot directly damage DNA, there have been concerns about RF absorption causing heat in cells and tissues.  Studies conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) have not been conclusive.  While there have been some evidence of increased gliomas in heavy users, there was inadequate evidence to draw conclusion about other types of cancer.

Low Frequency Electromagnetic Fields (EMF)

Low frequency EMF is generated from source such as power lines.  There has been some evidence suggesting a link between exposure and childhood leukemia. While evidence suggests that exposure is possibly carcinogenic, again no conclusive evidence was found. 

Guidelines on the Health Effects of RF Energy

Exposure standards and guidelines have been developed by various countries around the world.  While the U.S. does not currently have a standard for exposure limits, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted and used safety guidelines for evaluating RF exposure.  the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) did release a standard but later deemed it to be advisory.  Perhaps the most substantial and used guidelines are those put forth by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Where are We Headed?

Devices that create radio frequency energy are proliferating at an ever accelerating rate.  Radar, lidar, and Internet of Things, are creating a very dense radio energy environment.  So much so that devices are having coexistence performance issues. 

We are truly treading into uncharted territory.  While extant focuses on health effects of RF have dealt with physical effects, the effects of RF on the electrical chemical activities of neurological processes have not been explored.

New findings may well lead to required changes in the way we interact with devices in our lives.  If electromagnetic emissions do indeed effect cognitive processes then new standards for safety will need to be created.  As a result, product design constraints and changes in required test and evaluation for product certifications will arise.  This could very well be a subject to monitor closely.

Jamie Hamilton

Jamie Hamilton

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