Electromagnetic fields – is “electrosmog” harmful to health?

The term “electrosmog” is sometimes used to refer to artificially produced electromagnetic fields that some people fear could have negative effects on health. This article examines the question of whether electromagnetic fields – for example in connection with smartphones – can actually pose a health risk.

At a glance

  • The term “electrosmog” is sometimes used to refer to artificially produced fields in which electric and magnetic components are combined in the high-frequency range. The correct scientific term is “electromagnetic fields” (EMFs).
  • In today’s world, EMFs are everywhere – for example, in mobile communications, in WLANs and in cordless phones.
  • To date, there is no proof that EMFs have a negative impact on health.
  • However, research is ongoing into whether EMFs could have long-term effects.
  • The Federal Office for Radiation Protection (Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz) provides helpful hints for using the relevant technologies wisely and minimizing personal exposure to EMFs.
A woman has fallen asleep in bed with a smartphone in her hand.

What are electromagnetic fields?

Physically, electromagnetic fields (EMFs) consist of an electric and a magnetic field component that are closely coupled to one another. From a purely practical perspective, people encounter these electromagnetic fields on a daily basis when performing a wide range of routine tasks – such as making a call on a cell phone or cordless phone, working on the computer via WLAN or preparing meals in the microwave. However, not all electromagnetic fields that surround us every day are produced artificially. They can also occur naturally in the environment.

Electromagnetic fields are a form of non-ionizing radiation. With this type of radiation, not enough energy is produced to chemically alter atoms and molecules. The energy level is too low to be directly involved in a person developing cancer, for example. However, electromagnetic fields can affect the human body in another way. High-frequency electromagnetic fields can increase the temperature of biological tissue. 

What is meant by “electrosmog”?

The “smog” component of the term “electrosmog” is a word that was coined to refer to both “smoke” and “fog” in the context of dangerous concentrations of pollutants in the air. When the term “electrosmog” appears in the media, it usually refers to the electromagnetic fields that surround us in our daily lives and that some people fear pose a potential risk to health. 

The negative connotations of the word “electrosmog” are based on an assumption that human health can be negatively impacted not only by ionizing radiation (such as X-rays) but also by the non-ionizing radiation produced by electromagnetic fields below certain limits.

Important: Research to date has not established that any harmful health effects are connected to the electromagnetic fields found in our everyday environments. Direct and immediate effects have only been found when the radiation produced by these fields exceed the legal limits. Research is ongoing to determine whether electromagnetic fields could potentially have long-term effects on health.

What are the known effects of electromagnetic fields?

It is known that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) can potentially have a thermal (i.e. heating) effect. For example, if the human body comes into contact with electromagnetic fields when making a call on a smartphone, it may absorb some of the energy that is given off. As a result, the temperature of the body tissue increases. Whether and to what extent this happens depends on several factors, such as the transmission capacity of the device.

If the human body comes into contact with electromagnetic fields (e.g. when making a call on a cell phone), some of the energy emitted by the fields is absorbed into the body.

The Federal Office for Radiation Protection (Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz, BfS) has been conducting research into the potential effects of “cell phone radiation” for many years. Based on the latest scientific findings, mobile phone technology presents no risk to health, provided that the applicable limits for mobile communications equipment are not exceeded and product safety requirements are met.

Despite this, some people report health problems in connection with the use of cell phones – for example, headaches, nausea and sleep disturbances. The German Mobile Telecommunication Programme (Deutsches Mobilfunk Forschungsprogramm, DMF) has carried out research into many issues relating to mobile communications, including what the possible causes of this type of “electrosensitivity” could be. This research and other studies found no causal link with electromagnetic fields. However, this doesn’t mean that the symptoms experienced by those affected aren’t real.

One possible explanation discussed in the research is the nocebo effect – when people fear that electromagnetic fields are harmful to health, this can sometimes cause actual symptoms, such as headaches, to develop. A nocebo effect could be made more likely by media reports about “electrosmog”, for example.

However, this explanation doesn’t mean that real health issues relating to EMFs can be entirely ruled out. Potential long-term effects in particular are the subject of ongoing research.

Could electromagnetic fields have an effect on medical implants?

A malfunction in electronic medical implants, such as cardiac pacemakers, can occur in connection with electromagnetic fields (EMFs) under certain conditions. However, the electromagnetic influences must be of a certain strength before this can happen. In general, modern medical implants are insensitive to EMFs. However, people with medical implants like cardiac pacemakers should exercise caution when using devices that produce EMFs.

In Germany, there are various norms that require specific tests and procedures to determine the potential influence of EMFs on such implants. There are also certain danger zones in everyday life that must be identified with a warning and, if necessary, a no-entry sign – ideally also specifying the minimum safety distance. For safety reasons, people with a pacemaker are not permitted to enter these areas.

Metal detectors and anti-theft devices

When passing through security checks at the airport, passengers with pacemakers should inform staff in advance that their implant may trigger the metal detector alarm. In general, current metal detectors used in security checks pose no risk to people with cardiac pacemakers if they pass through them quickly. They should also pass quickly through anti-theft devices used in shops.

Electric household appliances, everyday objects and induction hobs

A certain amount of caution is also required around the home. As electric household appliances such as induction hobs and everyday objects such as pinboard magnets can, in some cases, generate very strong EMFs, people with a cardiac pacemaker need to ensure that they maintain a certain distance (the length of a forearm or longer) between these items and their upper body. It’s also important to ensure correct grounding and to avoid use of defective devices.

A distance of a forearm or longer should be kept between an induction hob and the upper body of a person with a cardiac pacemaker.

Cell phones

In contrast, there is only a very small risk of modern cell phones (telephony and Internet functions) affecting pacemakers – which means that it isn’t strictly necessary to maintain a minimum distance. In addition, the magnets in the internal speakers of smartphones have not been observed to have any effect. Despite this, it does no harm to keep a distance of 10 centimeters between a cardiac pacemaker and a cell phone that’s switched on – although there’s no reason to worry if this isn’t the case.

If inductive cell phone charging stations based on the Qi standard are used, people with a pacemakers should always keep a distance of 10 centimeters between their upper body and the station.

Important: Anyone who has an implant and is unsure about what precautions they should take can consult their family doctor or check the recommendations of the device manufacturer.

Do new technologies like 5G increase our exposure to radiation?

In Germany and many other countries, the new 5G standard for cellular networks is gradually being introduced. 5G enables much higher rates of data transfer compared with older generations of mobile networks. Some people are wondering if this may also lead to a greater exposure to radiation.

In this context, it’s important to know that, despite its greater capabilities, many aspects of 5G are still comparable with previous mobile technology standards. This means that results from studies in which the possible health effects of mobile communications technology were investigated can, in principle, be applied to this new standard, especially where similar frequency ranges are concerned.

According to the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), there is no evidence that 5G mobile communications technology has any impact on health – at least not “within the valid limit values for mobile base stations and in compliance with the product safety requirements for mobile phones”.

To reduce any remaining uncertainties in relation to risk assessment, ongoing research is being conducted into the question of potential long-term health effects of cellular technology. Some questions still remain unanswered, particularly in relation to the long-term effects of intensive cell phone usage. The German Federal Office for Radiation Protection therefore advises that the new technologies be treated with caution and provides useful advice on how users can take preventive steps to minimize their exposure.

The “Deutschland spricht über 5G” website provides extensive information about the new 5G generation of mobile telecommunications systems. This website, which was set up by the federal government as a dialog initiative, not only explains 5G and closely connected topics such as 5G and health, but also encourages an active exchange of information and views between citizens and experts.

How can people reduce their daily exposure?

Even if electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have not been proven to pose any risk to health, people can still take precautionary measures to keep their exposure to EMF to a minimum.

Smartphones and tablets

Today’s smartphones and tablets offer many advantages over older devices – including in relation to electromagnetic fields. That’s because the latest devices adhere to the latest mobile communications standards which require connections to be established at lower radiation levels compared to older standards.

Following the tips below can also help minimize exposure to radiation when using a cell phone:

  • keep calls short
  • use a headset instead of holding the phone directly to the ear
  • use a fixed landline for longer conversations
  • only make calls and use the internet on a smartphone when there is a strong, stable connection

Another important consideration when using cell phones, smartphones and tablets is the SAR level (specific absorption rate). Choosing a device with a low SAR level minimizes exposure to electromagnetic fields even under unfavorable conditions.

For more information about SAR levels, visit the website of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection.

You can search for the SAR levels of specific cell phone models using the SAR Search on the website of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection.


High-frequency electromagnetic fields are generated inside microwaves, which serve to heat up food and liquids. These appliances are very well shielded with a special coating that ensures that only a small amount of the radiation generated can escape. If a microwave is working properly, it poses no risk to health. However, if there is visible damage, such as signs of wear on the door, the appliance needs to be checked by the manufacturer’s repair service technicians.

Baby monitors

Some baby monitors are connected to the grid, while others are wireless. For those in the first category, the separate power supply unit can be kept as far away from the baby’s bed as possible. For wireless monitors, it is wise to minimize transmission capacity and to keep the device some distance away from the baby’s bed.

For detailed information about other sources of EMFs, such as screens or WLAN routers, about the defined limits for electronic devices and about possible measures that can be taken to minimize exposure, visit the website of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection.

In collaboration with the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz, BfS) and the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, BAuA).

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