How Electromagnetic Fields Affect Our Bodies

By Lyn McLean, Director, EMR Australia

We know that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) can both damage the body and can repair it. But how can both be true?

In a paper published recently online Dr Henry Lai and science journalist B Blake Levitt explain this apparent contradiction. The story begins with the cell, they say. “As the primary building blocks of life, living cells are a true wonder of chemical and electrical activities.”

There are many types of cells that perform many different functions and their activity is determined by microcurrents present in cell membranes.

Because electrical energy is intrinsic to a cell’s operation, cells can be affected by external energies from electrical and wireless technologies. The authors say that these EMFs are “speaking the same fundamental “language” in distorted fashion – beginning at the cellular level and affecting the entire organism.’”

Lai and Levitt explain the process by which EMF damages the body. Firstly, EMF can cause changes in the oxidative status of the cell. “Oxidative changes are the most well-established effect of EMF,” they say. This causes molecular damage which triggers the cell’s stress response, a “brilliant evolutionary process” that enables cells to return to normal function. Once molecular damage occurs, the cell cycle stops and the cell begins to repair damaged proteins, DNA, and lipids.

If the damage is too great to repair, apoptosis (cell death) occurs.

In some cases, the cell neither repairs nor dies, but continues to live and replicate in a damaged or mutated state, potentially causing health problems.

According to Lai and Levitt, these cellular processes can affect the body in different ways.


EMFs can both cause and cure cancer, the authors say.

When the stress response repairs or kills deviant cells, there can be a beneficial effect on cancer and EMF can be used therapeutically to treat cancer.

However, that’s not the only possibility.

“Under EMF exposure, some cancer cells within a tumour probably go into apoptosis. Thus, there can be an initial decreased risk of cancer incidence. With continued exposure, however, surviving cancer cells can transform into a more resistant and aggressive state, likely leading to increased cancer risk. The actual response would depend on factors such as cell type, duration of exposure, and the characteristics of the EMF,” the authors say.

Neurodegenerative diseases

Similarly, EMFs have been shown to both increase risks of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases) and to prevent related cognitive disorders.

“Cellular stress, and particularly oxidative stress, can lead to protein misfolding. Aggregation of protease-resistant misfolded proteins can cause cell death and development of neurodegenerative diseases. Apparently, long-term high-intensity EMF exposure is needed to lead to these detrimental effects. On the other hand … EMF can initiate cellular processes to repair or eliminate misfolded proteins and possibly retard the progress of some of these diseases.”


Exposure to EMFs can cause both improvements and reductions in behavioural performance. Lai and Levitt say this is because EMF changes levels of arousal and anxiety which affect performance.

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS)

The authors point out that free radical damage can affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and, ultimately, the limbic system of the brain. It can also increase levels of nitric oxide which affect the limbic system, too.

Lai and Levitt suggest that some people may have a more sensitive limbic system than others, leading to EHS.

They point out that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis has been found to be more sensitive in some strains of rats than others.

What determines whether the body will respond in a positive or negative way to EMFs?

Lai and Levitt suggest there are different factors that need to be explored in more detail. One is the presence of other stressors on the body at the same time. EMFs can have a synergistic effect with ionizing radiation, heat, and even a psychological stress such as immobilisation, as seen in some animal studies. Another is the characteristics of the EMF (frequency, duration, strength, modulation and so on). And a third is the genetic characteristics of the person or animal exposed.


This is an important paper because it coalesces decades of scientific research to arrive at a “likely unifying mechanism to explain both the many adverse and beneficial effects” of EMFs.

‘”[B]iological effects of EMF are simply “cellular stress responses” – a well-investigated cellular/molecular concept,’ Lai and Levitt say. “The fundamental biological dynamic inherent in the ‘cellular stress response’ is a fine balance between two potentially opposing mechanisms – the repair of cellular damage leading to healthy cell proliferation and survival, or cell death when the former is no longer viable.”

Lai and Levitt’s work has implications for radiation standards and public policy.

The first is that it can no longer be argued that there is no known mechanism to explain how everyday levels of EMF can damage the body.

Another is that harm can occur at very low levels of exposure – levels that comply with Australian and international standards and guidelines.

In other words, these standards don’t protect us.

What’s needed, the authors say, is to change the committees that develop these standards. “There should be a preponderance of committee members with backgrounds in biology, not just physics/engineering as is the case today,” they write.

Ref: Lai H, Levitt BB. Cellular and molecular effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields. Rev Environ Health. 2023 Apr 7. doi: 10.1515/reveh-2023-0023. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37021652. 

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Lyn McLean is Australia’s foremost expert on understanding and reducing exposure to electromagnetic exposures in homes, businesses and learning environments. She has been working in this field since 1996 and brings a commitment to helping people to her work. Lyn has been involved in or commented on the major political and regulatory developments of the last two decades, and has authored four books on the topic of electromagnetic radiation. Find out more.