Power lines and transformers: Health effects and safe distance

How much radiation do power lines, high voltage pylons and transformers emit? Which levels of electric and magnetic fields cause effects on human health and when are exceeded? Which source is the most common cause of elevated magnetic fields (not what you would imagine...)? What are the safe distances? 

power lines and substations (transformers)

How does the electricity grid work

Electricity is transferred from power plants via high voltage lines (100-500kV) to substations. There the high voltage is reduced using transformers and electricity is transferred to medium voltage power lines (20-40kV). Again the medium voltage is reduced by transformers and electricity is transferred to low voltage power lines (110-480V) which finally bring electricity to our building electricity meter and from there to our individual electrical panel and the cables in walls, lights, wall outlets and electrical equipment.

What kind of radiation do cables and transformers emit

All these conductive parts of the electrical network produce electric AC fields because they are under voltage and AC magnetic fields because current flows through produce. The alternating current (AC) is called that way because the electrons in the live conductors switch movement direction 50-60 times per second (frequency 50Hz in Europe, 60Hz in USA).

high voltage cables Electric fields

  • Electric fields are blocked by various grounded conductive objects such as trees, most building materials etc.
  • Elevated electric fields are usually recorded only outdoors near high or medium voltage lines.
  • Electric field sources are the cables of high voltage lines and not the pylons -  pillars (radiation values are actually lower near the pillars, were the cables have the higher distance from the ground).
  • Most common source of electric fields in interior areas are the power cables located inside the walls and the electrical appliances and not the outside power lines. Faults in cable insulation or wrong connections (eg not grounding a circuit) may yield elevated prices.

low voltage cables Magnetic Fields

  • Magnetic fields penetrate most building materials unaffected.
  • Elevated magnetic fields are usually recorded near high and medium voltage power lines. Also near low voltage power cables, especially in densely populated areas (eg in 1st and 2nd floor apartments that are near overhead power lines o in underground or ground floor apartments when the power lines are underground).
  • According to statistics, the most common cause of high values of magnetic fields are low voltage power lines that bring electricity to every house. Only 23% of high values are due to high voltage lines.
  • This is because the magnetic fields depend on the amount of electricity that flows through the cables (ampere) and not on the voltage (Watt = Volt * Ampere). The low voltage cables can be overloaded particularly in densely populated areas. Moreover, the low voltage cables are usually found in smaller distances from residencies (high voltage cables usually have a minimum distance of 20 meters).
  • power substation Transformers / substations create only locally elevated magnetic fields, which fall within a small distance (typically <5 m). However, the low or medium voltage cables starting from the transformers create typically elevated magnetic fields due to the large amount of current flowing. In houses away from the transformer the magnetic fields of low-voltage cables are lower, since most power has been distributed to the previous, closest to the transformer houses.
  • You can reduce your exposure to magnetic fields from cables and transformers by increasing your distance from them.
  • The magnetic shielding materials are metal alloys (not lead!) with very high magnetic permeability, but which have a very high cost (> 150 euros / m2) and other peculiarities. Their placement is certainly not recommended without prior measurement of magnetic fields.
  • Reduction of magnetic fields is possible, if the power lines are made underground or transferred to a more distant point (eg on the opposite side of the road). Although such solutions are not common you can contact your local power company and ask them if they can move the cables away. 

Are underground power lines safer compared to overhead power lines?

In underground cables the electric fields are minimal because they are grounded and the magnetic fields decrease more rapidly because the cables have smaller distance between them.

However, because the underground lines are not obvious and are often in very short distances of high-use areas can cause high enough magnetic fields without the suspect on the ground floor or basement apartments or shops, in yards, gardens, pavements etc.

Why has our electromagnetic burden from the electricity network increased?

1. Because of the major expansion of the electricity network which has multiplied the report points to electromagnetic radiation.

2. Because of higher power consumption, which means that the existing power lines emit greater magnetic fields. 

3. Because the radiation emitted by cables today has a more aggravating waveform. The extensive use of electronic non-linear load devices such as fluorescent lamps, AC adapters, dimmer electronic switches, inverter air conditioners, plasma TVs, photovoltaic systems etc. results in deformation of the plain sinusoidal signal of 50-60Hz mains with high frequency harmonics. This phenomenon is called "Dirty Electricity" because it causes overheating of the neutral conductor and premature aging of equipment. Some scientists believe that the new waveform of the power grid is particularly burdensome for humans [3] .

Does radiation from the power grid affect human health? 

  • According to the guide of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation [4] , the interaction with the alternating electric field causes electric charges to flow in the human body and the reorientation of electric dipoles in the tissues, while magnetic fields cause electrical currents stimulating the nerve, muscle and sensory cells.
  • Previously there was the opinion that low frequency radiation at low intensities do not have enough energy (photons) and therefore our body could not distinguish them from the natural electromagnetic waves produced by the body (thermal noise).
  • But research since 1977 (Adey and Bawin) has shown that organisms can react to exogenous electromagnetic signals of very low intensity and experience an even greater reaction to them than from stronger signals.
  • The explanation of the phenomenon of cell amplification of an exogenous signal gave in 1994 at the Gilbert and Rodbell the Nobel Prize. The G proteins integrate multiple signals outside the cell and activate various cell amplification systems. Because of these, a single photon of electromagnetic energy is sufficient to start the massive calcium entry into the cells, activating several biological functions [5].

Recent research

Most studies that have taken place are addressing magnetic fields which are emitted from power lines, transformers and other sources.

Studies have linked the low-frequency radiation with miscarriages, leukemia, skin cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc.

Due to their connection with childhood leukemia, the magnetic fields are classified as "possible carcinogens" in 1998 by the National Environmental Health Institute, USA (NIEHS) [6] and in 2001 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization [7].

“Very recently, new research is suggesting that nearly all the human plagues which emerged in the twentieth century, like common acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children, female breast cancer, malignant melanoma and asthma, can be tied to some facet of our use of electricity. There is an urgent need for governments and individuals to take steps to minimize community and personal EMF exposures.” Samuel Milham MD, MPH, Medical epidemiologist in occupational epidemiology. [8]

Childhood leukemia

  • A study by Ahlbom [10] recorded a statistical doubling of childhood leukemia in children exposed to daily average magnetic field values greater than 400nT.
  • Other research (Greenland [11] ) recorded a doubling of leukemia with even lower average exposure> 300nT (values> 300nT are not at all unusual in densely populated areas because of overloaded low voltage cables!)
  • Study of 2005 (Draper [12] ) recorded a 70% increase in childhood leukemia in distance <200 meters from high voltage cables and 23% increase in distance <600 meters.
  • Since magnetic fields at distances> 200m from high voltage cables are unlikely to be elevated (at least because of the high voltage cables), it is likely that the increased leukemia is due to other phenomena, such as ionization of the micro particles in the atmosphere.
  • High electric fields around the high voltage lines, charge micro particles in the air (Corona Ions Effect) increasing the likelihood of adhesion to the skin and lungs [13] .The problem can be significant in areas with high atmospheric pollution (e.g. next to busy roads, in factories, were crops are sprayed). The charged particles can travel with the help of air up to 5 km away.
  • Research at the University of Bristol [14] showed that the presence of high levels of low-frequency electric fields, as near high voltage cables, increases up to 18 times the accumulation of radon particles. Elevated radon levels are associated with lung cancer (you can easily measure the radon levels in your area by buying a radon meter).

high voltage pwoer lines and radon

Melanoma

  • Study of 2003 (Tynes [15] ) concluded that there is evidence to link exposure to magnetic fields with malignant melanoma.

Neurodegenerative diseases

  • After analysis of 2008 (Garcia [16] ) showed a significant increased risk of Altzheimer depending on exposure to electric and magnetic fields.
  • Other research ( Feychting [17] ) concluded that exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields "increases the risk of early-onset Alzheimer's disease" and "may represent a late-acting influence in the disease process".
  • Increased risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or disease of Lou Gehrig) has been shown in studies by Håkansson [18] and Ahlbom [19]. This disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing muscular weakness, disability and eventually death.

Childhood obesity

  • Recent study [20] states that "Maternal exposure to high magnetic fields during pregnancy may be a new and previously unknown factor contributing to the world-wide epidemic of childhood obesity/overweight."

Childhood asthma

  • 15% increase in childhood asthma cases per 100nT increase in the exposure of the mother to magnetic fields was shown in a 2011 study [21].

Miscarriages

  • At least two studies have linked exposure of pregnant women to elevated magnetic fields with miscarriages during pregnancy [22] , [23].

What are the safe limits of exposure to low frequency magnetic fields?

In most countries the legislation issue safe limits based only on heating of tissues and many scientists consider this tactic outdated due to the recent surge of sources and new scientific data.

In recent years various scientific institutions have proposed new much lower exposure limits, which are based on non-thermal effects of radiation that appear to lead to health consequences. More about the safe levels of exposure to artificial radiation..

Most recommended exposure limits in recent years suggest that our daily average exposure should not exceed 10 Volt / m for electric fields and 200 nT for magnetic fields, values sadly not only exceeded near high voltage cables but often also near low voltage cables, transformers, electrical panels and various electrical appliances.

What is the safe distance from high voltage power lines?

In most countries the legislation permits safe minimum distance of residencies form high voltage lines around 200-25 meters.

However the proposed limits for exposure to electromagnetic radiation can be exceeded also in longer distances.

Elevated electric field values can be recorded at a distance> 200 meters. However because these fields are blocked by various grounded conductive objects such as trees, most building materials etc. so we can record low electric fields even in smaller distances.

The prices of the emitted magnetic fields dependent on electric loads of specific power lines, the spacing of the current carrying conductors etc. Just below and next to high-voltage lines is most likely that we will have magnetic field values many times higher from the recommended safe limits and the averages (70nT in Europe and 110 in the USA according to the World Health Organization). 200 meters are a good safe distance, which usually ensures values corresponding to the population average. Depending on the loads served by each line we can record normal levels even 50 meters or less from the cables.

How to measure the radiation from power lines and transformers?

High electric fields are emitted by high voltage lines but because they are grounded from most building materials (exception = wooden houses) they usually do not enter the interior of buildings and measuring them is more meaningful outdoors.

Magnetic fields on the other hand penetrate all areas since they are unaffected by most building materials.

You can measure low frequency electric and magnetic fields with a low frequency radiation meter.

 


[3] Havas M, (2006) Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: biological effects of dirty electricity with emphasis on diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

[4] ICNIRP Guidelines for limiting exposure to time varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields (up to 300GHz)

[5] James Oschman, Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance

[Six] http://niremf.ifac.cnr.it/docs/niehs98.pdf

[7] http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol80/mono80-6E.pdf

[8] Camilla Rees- Magda Havas, Public Health SOS - The Shadow Side of the Wireless Revolution

[10] A pooled analysis of magnetic fields and childhood leukaemia, Ahlbom 2000

[11] A pooled analysis of magnetic fields, wire codes, and childhood leukemia. Childhood Leukemia-EMF Study Group, Greenland 2000

[12] Childhood cancer in relation to distance from high voltage power lines in England and Wales: a case-control study, Draper 2005

[13] Fews AP, Henshaw DL et al - 1999, Corona ions from powerlines and increased exposure to pollutant

[14] Henshaw, Enhanced deposition of radon daughter nuclei in the vicinity of power frequency electromagnetic fields., Physics Laboratory, University of Bristol, UK, 1996 Jan; 69

[15] Residential and occupational exposure to 50 Hz magnetic fields and malignant melanoma: a population based study, Tynes 2003

[16] Occupational exposure to extremely low frequency electric and magnetic fields and Alzheimer disease: a meta-analysis, García 2008

[17] Occupational magnetic field exposure and neurodegenerative disease, Feychting 2003

[18] Neurodegenerative diseases in welders and other workers exposed to high levels of magnetic fields, Håkansson 2003

[19] Neurodegenerative diseases, suicide and depressive symptoms in relation to EMF, Ahlbom 2001

[20] De-Kun Li et al, A Prospective Study of In-utero Exposure to Magnetic Fields and the Risk of Childhood Obesity, Scientific Reports

[21] De-Kun Li, MD, PhD; Hong Chen, MPH; Roxana Odouli, MSPH, Maternal Exposure to Magnetic Fields During Pregnancy in Relation to the Risk of Asthma in Offspring, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2011

[22] Lee GM, Neutra RR, Hristova L, Yost M, Hiatt RA. A nested case-control study of residential and personal magnetic field measures and miscarriages.

[23] Li DK, Odouli R, Wi S, et al. A population-based prospective cohort study of personal exposure to magnetic fields during pregnancy and the risk of miscarriage. Epidemiology

What you should know about modern day electrosmog

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How to measure electromagnetic radiation

Why buy an EMF meter? How to choose the right one - Which features to look out for and for which you should avoid overpaying - How to use the meter - Is there a device that measures all types of radiation? Are radiation measurements only needed when there is a significant radiation source nearby? Which radiation values are considered high and where are they usually recorded?

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