Safety Alert! High EMF Radiation Risk in Welding

October 22, 2018 -- You may be unaware of the hazard, but welding is among the highest-risk occupations for worker exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). EMFs are a form of non-ionizing radiation known to cause serious harm to human health. Moreover, research dating back nearly 70 years has demonstrated the link between EMF radiation and many diseases and conditions. These include leukemia and other cancers, brain tumors, sterility, heart problems and neurological damage.

While the American Welding Society states on its website that "Studies to date indicate that there is no confirmed evidence of health problems from EMF", this is simply not the case. For example, a 2005 investigation by Swedish researchers uncovered higher rates of endocrine cancer among welders. Perhaps because so much evidence of a clear and present danger exists, European companies are now required to monitor worker exposure to EMF radiation. Employers must also deploy counter-measures when certain limits are exceeded.

Welders Universe urges welders in the United States and elsewhere to learn more about this little-known hazard. What follows is a brief explanation of EMFs in a typical welding environment, along with recommendations on how to limit your exposure and links to other websites for more information.

How EMFs Are Created

EMFs are present in all forms of welding where electricity is used. In arc welding, for instance, high currents generated by a machine power source flow through an attached power cable into the torch and electrode, cross the welding-arc and enter the work-piece, then return to the power source via a ground cable. Electromagnetic fields of various magnitudes can form along the entire circuit of current flow. Generally speaking, the higher the current, the more intense the EMF. Where the welder’s body is closest to the components in the circuit (machine, cables, torch and work-piece) the higher the potential of harmful EMF radiation altering blood flow and causing a wide range of symptoms. The anatomy most likely to be affected by EMFs includes the hands and arms, the area stretching from the torso to the thighs, and the genital organs.

Keep in mind that EMFs generated by high-frequency welding equipment and components, such as inverters and pulsed welding processes, typically result in the most intense radiation exposures. Yet even basic welding practices – especially arc welding and resistance welding – may pose a significant threat.

Of course, EMFs aren’t restricted to the workplace. In fact, they've become ubiquitous in the developed world with the advent of the mobile phone and other high-tech wireless technologies . This has created the phenomenon of electrosmog, where radiofrequency (RF) waves propagate through cities and residential neighborhoods 24/7/365. The most common transmission frequency, 2.4 gigahertz, represents nearly two and a half million waves flowing through you each second. This is the same frequency used by microwave ovens to agitate water molecules for heating food.

Imagine a “walls-of-Jericho” effect taking place within each of the 70 trillion cells in your body, as numerous wireless waves vibrate them constantly. In both humans and animals, cell membranes have been documented to leak calcium as one consequence of long-term RF exposure. The leakage can cause the cells to function abnormally, mutate when replicating or stop functioning altogether. At this point, a variety of pathologies related to radiation sickness, cancer and neurogenerative disease may be triggered.

Another kind of EMF radiation, known as dirty electricity, is also worth noting. These EMFs are generated by faulty wiring, the use of transformers and magnets in appliances, high voltage transmission lines, public transport systems, dimmer switches and voltage transients inside utility wiring. The intense magnetic fields produced by these sources can alter the flow and function of your blood cells, since the latter contain the mineral iron. Like iron filings forming a pattern around a magnet, blood cells may start forming long chains in the bloodstream after as little as ten minutes of exposure.

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In the image up top, iron filings near a magnet fall in line in the familiar pattern. In the lower graphic, a PowerPoint slide demonstrates how the magnetic force of EMF fields affects our iron-rich blood cells. The cells appear to be forming lines just like the filings. Graphics: Wikicommons, Dr. Magda Havas

EMF Safety Regulations

While many initiatives are being considered by government agencies in the United States and internationally, EMFs relating both to the general public and the workplace remain largely unregulated. However, in 2013 the European Parliament passed the Physical Agents Directive 2013/35/EU, which specifically targets exposure to EMF radiation in welding and other occupations. Enforcement began in July of 2016, so that all European companies are now required to monitor exposure levels and enact counter-measures where maximum limits known as “action levels” are exceeded.

In the case of welding, a new software application called EMFWELD (www.emfweld.eu) has been developed to help implement the legislation. After the user enters details of the equipment, welding parameters and operator position, the software calculates the EMF exposure based on a database of test case measurements. A report is then generated, providing interpretable maps of the magnetic field strength around the welding equipment and lets the user know what action, if any, is required to reduce exposure below the established action levels. The online software was developed by TWI, a UK-based company involved in welding and joining research.

Unfortunately, the acceptable exposure limits that determine the action levels are based on the controversial standards issued by the International Community on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Some agencies, as well as EMF safety advocates, contest those limits, arguing they may be up to a thousand times too high, since biological harm has been regularly documented at much lower levels. A coalition of EMF researchers known as the BioInitiative Working Group suggested a new set of maximum exposure limits in 2012. In 2015, the German-based Building Biology Institute set out a similar set of limits, known as SBM 2015. These are summarized in the graphic below.

A summary of the German Building Biology Institute EMF exposure limits established in SBM 2015. These limits target sleeping areas, so that the numbes in the green column would not apply to the workplace. Note: Nanoteslas are used in place of milligauss for magnetic field limits. The conversion formula is 1 Nanotesla (nT) = 0.01 Milligauss (mG). Here's an online calculator to bookmark for future reference.

Preventing and Mitigating EMF Exposures

To measure your own exposure when welding, your best option may be to rent or purchase a portable EMF meter. These hand-held devices measure radiofrequency (RF) fields, magnetic fields and/or electrical fields, so you can use them to determine the intensity of radiation at different distances from the EMF source. To learn more, see the article about EMF Meters at EMFradiation.net.

As for taking counter-measures to limit your exposure, here are some suggestions provided on the Lincoln Electric Canada website:

  • Route the electrode and work cables together. Secure them with tape or tie wraps when possible. If the cables are routed together, the EMF field at that point is reduced. Some cables even include electrode and work conductors inside one cable which may be a convenient way to reduce EMF exposure.
  • Coiling the cables around your body increases your exposure to EMF. Do not place your body between the electrode and work cables. If the electrode cable is on your right side, the work cable should also be on your right side. There is an EMF field at and between each cable.
  • Welding next to the welding power source increases your exposure the EMF due to the field located at the welder.
  • You may further minimize EMF exposure by using arc welding processes such as TIG or by welding at the lowest DC output settings acceptable for your welding application. This is particularly important if you have a pacemaker or defibrillator.
  • If you have a pacemaker or defibrillator and wish to continue to weld you must talk to your physician and follow the advice that he gives. Your physician may want to contact the manufacturer of the pacemaker to obtain their recommendation about arc welding. In some cases, your physician may advise against continuing to weld.

You might also consider using some form of electromagnetic shielding to help block or decrease EMFs. A wide variety of products are available nowadays, including clothing and caps. See the article on EMF Shielding Solutions at EMFradiation.net for more info.

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