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Designing for Low Electromagnetic Radiation in the Home
Appeared in—before Interior Concerns Newsletter

By Mary Cordaro

Our homes are places for rest, retreat and regeneration. If designed, built and furnished simply, thoughtfully and intelligently, they can help us restore our natural balance and connection with nature. For most of us, however, creating a healthy home environment is often unfamiliar and sometimes overwhelming territory. And many of our conventional methods of design and building can add stress, rather than harmony. One potential area for stress in the home is "EMF" -- electromagnetic fields --from power lines, inside wiring, appliances and other electrical equipment in the home.

Health Effects
"Electro-pollution" has recently become a hot topic in both the television and print media. Stories about schools and homes that have been tested for low-frequency electromagnetic radiation have appeared in Time Magazine, The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal, as well as on "CBS Street Stories" and "Good Morning America." A large-scale Swedish government study, released in September 1992, continues to receive attention. The authors of this study have associated proximity to power lines with childhood cancer, and the Swedish government is currently setting new exposure standards for new homes and schools near power lines. The Swedish Guidelines, adopted by many computer manufacturers, have greatly influenced and lowered the levels of electromagnetic fields emitted by personal computers. More recently, the University of California at Los Angeles studied the relationship between occupational exposure of sewing machine operators and factory workers to electromagnetic fields and Alzheimer's disease, and found that magnetic fields may be a risk factor. In September 1994, the American Journal of Epidemiology published the results of a study that provides evidence for the possible association between acute non-lymphocytic leukemia and the use of electric razors. And in January 1995, the American Journal published a study that found that electric utility workers with high exposure to magnetic fields had twice the risk of brain cancer.

In the United States, the scientific community acknowledges a consistent, slightly elevated risk of childhood leukemia associated with electromagnetic radiation across the body of pediatric cancer epidemiological research. But at present there is still a lack of known biological parameters of magnetic frequency field exposures. There is a need for more toxicological study and exposure assessment. This trend, however, of even slightly elevated risks cannot be ignored, and Bau-Biologists continue to worry about exposure to electromagnetic fields. In Germany, the Bau-Biologie (German, meaning "building biology" community has established recommended guidelines for exposure limits, a followed by Bau-Biologists in this country. These exposure limits are based on work with physicians and patients in the field. The overall recommendation is one of "prudent avoidance."

The Holistic Design Approach
Although mitigation of electro-pollution, in existing homes usually quite successful, in some situations solutions can be expensive, and sometimes less than satisfactory. These potential problems can be avoided or greatly minimized with thoughtful site selection and planning, careful building layout and design, and meticulous attention to materials selection and detailing. The design and building of a healthy home that is free of electro-pollution as well as other potential health problems must be approached holistically from the beginning with a team approach, including the architect, designer, Bau-Biologist, mechanic and structural engineers, and EMF-specialized electrician.

Since sources of electromagnetic fields from power lines and sub-stations are the most difficult to abate, the selection of a safe site is the most important first step. A qualified Bau-Biologist or environmental consultant should test for ambient EMF levels on prospective sites, especially if there are power lines nearby. In the spirit of prudent avoidance as a rule of thumb, one should also consider sites that are at least one mile away from radio or microwave towers.

At the site-planning phase, the team should study the relationship of the building to both man-made electromagnetic frequencies, such as from overhead wiring, as well as to natural but undesirable earth frequencies (called geopathic zones). This will help to configure and orient the structure. Then, during schematic design, as the team studies the layouts of rooms and their relationships, it should pay particular attention to the bedrooms.

The Bedroom
During the night, our bodies regenerate, detox and heal. At this time we are also most vulnerable to pollution. And since we spend over thirty percent of our time at rest, the presence of excessive EMF emissions in the sleeping space have the greatest impact on our health and well-being. The magnetic field exposure limit for the bedroom recommended

Bau-Biologists is 1 milligauss. In comparison, someone sleeping right next to a simple electric analog clock (the type you can purchase for under $10.00) can be sleeping in a magnetic field as high as ten to fifteen milligauss.
Environmental consultants who follow the principles of Bau-Biologie place the greatest emphasis on the location, design and wiring of the bedroom. For example, ideally, no wiring should cross behind or under the bed. All circuit boxes, as well as wiring for the rest of the house, particularly the kitchen and home office, should be located as far away from the bedrooms as possible. Usually this requires the architect to design the bedrooms on the side of the home opposite the kitchen, office and circuit boxes. In addition, seating areas should be several feet away from appliances and transformers. Since more and more people work out of their homes, the placement of home office equipment such as computers, copiers, televisions, transformers, and fax machines need to be carefully considered in respect to seating areas or walls adjacent to them. For example, a simple transformer plugged into a wall close behind an office chair can be emitting fields as high as 20 to 100 milligauss. A person's exposure to these fields will vary, depending on one's proximity to the transformer, as well as the field strength of the transformer itself.

Materials Selection and EMF
The use of appropriate building materials and their assembly is also very important. One of the more controversial aspects of building concerning EMF is the use of metal, such as metal studs and metal used for concrete reinforcement. Many German physicians working together with Bau-Biologists recommend that their patients build with as little continuous metal as possible. Metal can induct, or absorb, as well as conduct magnetic fields. Metal also acts as an antenna and will pick up electric and high-frequency fields. At present, there are no conclusive studies associating low-frequency electric (distinguished from magnetic) fields and high-frequency fields with long-term health effects, but physicians and Bau-Biologists are having considerable success in the field with patients who minimize this form of radiation in their homes. In addition, for those designers and architects who incorporate dowsing for earth energies in their work, it is important to know that metal and concrete will block the earth's natural and desirable frequency.

Code is Not Enough
Finally, the electrician plays a crucial role in the home that is free of electro-pollution. Wiring to code is a start, but it is often not enough. A properly functioning electrical system that meets all codes for safety does not ensure a home free of EMF. It is important to work with an electrician who is aware of these EMF concerns and has the proper training and testing equipment to correctly and systematically ground and wire a home for low electro-pollution.

This article appeared in Interior Concerns Newsletter, 1997
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