Electromagnetic Fields in Hybrids

Q: Does my hybrid have elevated electromagnetic fields? If so, will they hurt my family or me?

A: That’s two questions.

To date, neither an exhaustive web search nor the services of a crack librarian at the University of Texas have been able to unearth precise measurements of electromagnetic fields, or EMF, in hybrids. What you do with this knowledge, or lack thereof, depends largely upon your personality. Currently, the public can only be sure that the electronics contained in the vehicles meet FCC standards for electromagnetic interference (EMI) with other electronic devices.

But you should also know that EMFs are everywhere. Some come from the earth (why a compass works), some from the sun (sunspots intensify them), and some from man-made sources like power lines, televisions, radios, microwave ovens, and even cars. Should you be concerned about excess EMF exposure in your hybrid? The answer, after an exhaustive survey of available medical and engineering literature, is a resounding “nobody knows for sure.”

EMF comes in the form of waves of varying frequency and wavelength, from the extra-low frequency (ELF) of power transmission lines to the very high frequency of microwaves, x-rays, and gamma rays. If you’re wondering which kind might be more harmful, consider spending 30 seconds in a microwave oven versus standing next to a power pole for 30 seconds. The kind of EMF most likely to be found in a hybrid is the lower-frequency type, which dissipates very rapidly with distance from the source.

Swedish Muckrakers: Volvo Doesn’t Measure Up

In 2002, the Swedish magazine Vi Bilagare EMF-tested 14 vehicle models and concluded that Volvo had three cars with excessive EMF. The fields measured were 0.9 microteslas (µT) at the chest and 0.6 µT at head level in the driver’s side, but the numbers most widely reported were 12-18 µT, which were measured sporadically at the area corresponding to the left ankle of the driver.

For comparison, the European public exposure standard is about 100 µT, the average Swedish apartment measures about 0.1 µT, and the field under a high-voltage power line ranges from 3-10 µT. The magazine’s measurements may even be inaccurate, because frequency was not mentioned—instruments for measuring EMFs are usually geared to pick up specific frequencies.

Volvo responded that the reason for these higher levels of EMF was that the battery was in the rear of the car and the juice traveled by cable to the alternator in the engine compartment. This setup is similar to many of today’s hybrids, with their battery packs placed toward the rear and cables running underneath the occupants toward the front. In this case, Volvo offered retrofitted EMF shielding kits for consumers who requested them while denying that there was any proof EMF could be harmful.

Scant Evidence of EMF Harm

And Volvo is right about that. Danger and tragedy are likely to hit the headlines and stick in people’s minds. What could be more tragic than children’s lives cut short by a horrifying disease? The most common warnings about EMF link it to childhood leukemia, but a study in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics details how epidemiological and experimental studies have failed to prove a causal link between the disease and EMF exposure. In Fallon, Nevada, perhaps the most famous “cluster” of childhood leukemia cases, EMF isn’t even considered a factor.

On the other hand, the California EMF Program concluded, after a survey of existing studies, that excess EMF exposure might be a risk factor for childhood leukemia. Some dissent was noted in the California team’s final letter, though, because there is no evidence at all that EMF causes pathological response in animal or laboratory studies. The World Health Organization covers its bases by pointing out that, while there is no convincing proof of a causal link between EMF and health problems, much more research needs to be done.

One Born Every Minute

But if you still feel uneasy about the effect EMF might have on your family and your person, there are those who would love you to get in touch! First choice: see if the Amish community will take you in. But if living, working, and traveling without any of the conveniences of modern life is beyond your ability or desire for safety, you can always purchase a handheld EMF meter. Although notoriously inaccurate, a handheld meter just may help you place your bed at a distance from that hot spot on the wall, locate that pesky poltergeist, or know when to don the tinfoil hat. And if that’s not enough, you can always slip into some slinky silver underwear, the equivalent of yesteryear’s hair shirts for the true believer. Somebody should tell Mel Gibson.

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