The oscillating electric and magnetic fields in electromagnetic radiation will induce an electric current in any conductor through which it passes. Strong radiation can induce current capable of delivering an electric shock to persons or animals. It can also overload and destroy electrical equipment.
The induction of currents by oscillating magnetic fields is also the way in which solar storms disrupt the operation of electrical and electronic systems, causing damage to and even the explosion of power distribution transformers, blackouts (as in 1989), and interference with electromagnetic signals (''e.g.'' radio, TV, and telephone signals).
Extremely high power electromagnetic radiation can cause electric currents strong enough to create sparks (electrical arcs) when an induced voltage exceeds the breakdown voltage of the surrounding medium (''e.g.'' air). These sparks can then ignite flammable materials or gases, possibly leading to an explosion.
This can be a particular hazard in the vicinity of explosives or pyrotechnics, since an electrical overload might ignite them. This risk is commonly referred to as HERO (Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance). MIL-STD-464A mandates assessment of HERO in a system, but Navy document OD 30393 provides design principles and practices for controlling electromagnetic hazards to ordnance.
On the other hand, the risk related to fueling is known as HERF (Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Fuel). NAVSEA OP 3565 Vol. 1 could be used to evaluate HERF, which states a maximum power density of 0.09 W/m² for frequencies under 225 MHz (i.e. 4.2 meters for a 40 W emitter).
The best understood biological effect of electromagnetic fields is to cause dielectric heating. For example, touching or standing around an antenna while a high-power transmitter is in operation can cause severe burns. These are exactly the kind of burns that would be caused inside a microwave oven.
This heating effect varies with the power and the frequency of the electromagnetic energy. A measure of the heating effect is the specific absorption rate or SAR, which has units of watts per kilogram (W/kg). The IEEE and many national governments have established safety limits for exposure to various frequencies of electromagnetic energy based on SAR, mainly based on ICNIRP Guidelines, which guard against thermal damage.
There are publications which support the existence of complex biological effects of weaker ''non-thermal'' electromagnetic fields (see Bioelectromagnetics), including weak ELF magnetic fields. and modulated RF and microwave fields Fundamental mechanisms of the interaction between biological material and electromagnetic fields at non-thermal levels are not fully understood.
A 2009 study at the University of Basel in Switzerland found that intermittent (but not continuous) exposure of human cells to a 50 Hz electromagnetic field at a flux density of 1 mT (or 10 G) induced a slight but significant increase of DNA fragmentation in the Comet assay. However that level of exposure is already above current established safety exposure limits.
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Last Updated: Mar 14, 2011