ago, as some of you will remember, the media
were all over the fact that an electric blanket
produced a pretty
hefty electromagnetic field and these blankets should be turned off when you went to bed, because it wasn't a good idea to
bathe in radiation while you slept. That whole affair seems to have faded to nothing, possibly because electric blankets are
a thing of the past. Whether the bum warmers in your car seats produce the same effect, is an unknown at this point.
Next up was the kafuffle over high-tension power lines, which when strung over farmers' fields caused cows to abort, or stop
producing milk. The electromagnetic radiation these lines produce can be easily detected when you drive below them as your
radio will momentarily stop working.
When microwave ovens first arrived, the standing advice was to stay away from them while they were working and not to peer
through the window at your food as it rotated on its little stand. In this case, it's microwave radiation that is the concern, but it's
still a case of the unsuspecting public being subjected to radiation without their full knowledge.
Then, of course, the cellular phone showed up and the jury is still out on whether your brain is subjected to enough electromagnetic
radiation to do you any real harm. Although, The Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection says that use
of the phones by both pregnant women and children should be "limited". It concludes that children who talk on the handsets are
likely to suffer from "disruption of memory, decline of attention, diminishing learning and cognitive abilities, increased irritability"
in the short term, and that long-term hazards include "depressive syndrome" and "degeneration of the nervous structures of
I know of one case where a car owner who parked in a particular spot, used to come back to find his trunk lid was open.
The lid was openable from a distance by remote and at that particular place, some random, stray radiation was on the same
wavelength as his remote. So we are surrounded and unsuspecting of the electromagnetic radiation that is ever increasing
Many scientists and policy makers agree that hybrid vehicles may be good for the planet.
To a large and insistent group of skeptics, however, there is another, more immediate question:
Are hybrids and eventually fully electric cars, healthy for drivers?
There is a legitimate scientific reason for raising the issue. The flow of electrical current to the motor that moves a hybrid
vehicle at low speeds (and assists the gasoline engine on the highway) produces magnetic fields, which some studies
have associated with serious health matters, including a possible risk of leukaemia among children.
With the batteries and power cables in hybrids often placed close to the driver and passengers, some exposure to
electromagnetic fields is unavoidable. Moreover, the exposure will be prolonged — unlike, say, using a hair dryer
or electric shaver — for drivers who spend hours each day at the wheel.
Some hybrid owners have actually tested their cars for electromagnetic fields using hand-held meters, and some say
they are alarmed by the results.
Their concern is not without merit; agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute
acknowledge the potential hazards of long term exposure to a strong electromagnetic field, or E.M.F., and have done
studies on the association of cancer risks with living near high-voltage utility lines.
While we live with E.M.F.’s all around — produced by everything from cellphones to electric blankets — there is
no broad agreement over what level of exposure constitutes a health hazard, and there is no federal standard that sets
allowable exposure levels. Government safety tests do not measure the strength of the fields in vehicles — though Honda
and Toyota, the dominant hybrid makers, say their internal checks assure that their cars pose no added risk to occupants,
as you would expect. But that's like sending the fox to guard the hen house.
Researchers with expertise in hybrid car issues say that while there may not be cause for alarm, neither should the potential
health effects be ignored.
Charges that automobiles expose occupants to strong electromagnetic fields were made even before hybrids became
popular. In 2002, a Swedish magazine claimed its tests found that three gasoline powered Volvo models produced high
E.M.F. levels. Volvo countered that the magazine had compared the measurements with stringent standards advanced by
a Swedish labour organization, not the more widely accepted criteria established by the International Commission on
Non Ionizing Radiation Protection, a group of independent scientific experts based near Munich.
The concern over high E.M.F. levels in hybrids has come not just from worrisome instrument readings, but also from drivers
who say that their hybrids make them ill.
One lady in New York, bought a new Honda Civic Hybrid in 2007 for the 200 miles a week she drove to visit grocery stores
in her merchandising job for a supermarket chain. She said that the car reduced her gasoline use, but there were problems
— her blood pressure rose and she fell asleep at the wheel three times, narrowly averting accidents.
I never had a sleepiness problem before, she said, adding that it was her own conclusion, not a doctors, that the car was
causing the symptoms.
She asked Honda to provide her with shielding material for protection from the low frequency fields, but the company declined
her request last August, saying that its hybrid cars are “thoroughly evaluated” for E.M.F.’s before going into production.
The lady's response was to have the car tested by a person she called her wellness consultant, using a TriField meter.
The TriField meter is made by AlphaLab in Salt Lake City. The company defends its use for automotive testing even
though the meter is set up to test alternating current fields, whereas the power moving to and from a hybrid vehicle’s
battery is direct current. Generally, an A.C. meter is accurate in detecting large electromagnetic fields or microwaves.
Testing with a TriField meter led one Californian to sell his 2001 Honda Insight just six months after he bought it
— at a loss of $7,000. He said the driver was receiving “dangerously high” E.M.F. levels of up to 135 milligauss at the
hip and up to 100 milligauss at the upper torso. These figures contrasted sharply with results from his Volkswagen van,
which measured one to two milligauss.
He said he tried to interest Honda in the problem in 2001, but was assured that his car was safe. He purchased shielding
made of a nickel-iron alloy, but because of high installation costs decided to sell the car instead.
Honda points to the lack of a federally mandated standard for E.M.F.’s in cars. Despite this Honda takes the matter seriously.
“All our tests had results that were well below the commission’s standard,” referring to the European guidelines.
Kent Shadwick, controller of purchasing services for the York Catholic District School Board in York, Ontario, evaluated the
Toyota Prius for fleet use. Mr. Shadwick said it was tested at various speeds, and under hard braking and rapid acceleration,
using a professional quality gauss meter.
“The results that we saw were quite concerning,” he said. “We saw high levels in the vehicle for both the driver and left rear
passenger, which has prompted us to explore shielding options and to consider advocating testing of different makes and
models of hybrid vehicles.”
Donald B. Karner, president of Electric Transportation Applications in Phoenix, who tested E.M.F. levels in battery electric
cars for the Energy Department in the 1990s, said it was hard to evaluate readings without knowing how the testing was done.
He also said it was a problem to determine a danger level for low frequency radiation, in part because dosage is determined
not only by proximity to the source, but by duration of exposure. “We’re exposed to radio waves from the time we’re born,
but there’s a general belief that there’s so little energy in them that they’re not dangerous,” he said.
Mr. Karner has developed a procedure for testing hybrids, but he said that the cost — about $5,000 a vehicle
— had prevented its use.
A consultant with a speciality in E.M.F.’s and electrical sensitivity, was one of the electrical engineers who tested the Insight in 2001.
He agreed that the readings were high but did not want to speculate on whether they were harmful. “There are big blocks of high amp
power being moved around in a hybrid, the equivalent of horsepower,” he said. “I get a lot of clients who ask if they should buy hybrid
electric cars, and I say the jury is still out.”