The Dirt on Dirty Electricity

Up until recently, the term ‘Dirty Electricity” evoked in me images of the smoke stacks from coal fired power plants, open pit mines and mazes of huge erector-set like structures stringing power lines across the countryside. But the overt pollution of air, water and land resulting from the generation of electricity is only one meaning of the term. The other meaning of ‘Dirty Electricity’, though, specifically refers to one type of electromagnetic frequency called ‘high-frequency voltage transients’. A less visible is a form of pollution that does not appear on the agenda of the environmental movement hardly at all, it may turn out to be just as significant a form of pollution.

Radiation from electromagnetic fields emanates from just about anything that holds or carries power. This includes many of the items that constantly surround us in our modern life: electrical appliances, power lines, cellphones, TVs, WiFi fields, etc. For a long time, the health hazard related to EMF radiation exposure in general has been the subject of much research and heated controversy. But the focus on high-frequency voltage transients is relatively recent.

To the best of my recollection, until about a month ago, I had never heard of the term ‘voltage transient’, let alone that a flurry of research over the last few years has identified them as potential health hazards. So, after coming across some information about the problems they pose, it behooved me to do a little remedial review of some basic concepts concerning the physics of electricity as well learn a little more about the aforementioned transients.

It appears that the most common analogy and simplest way to understand some of the elementary notions about electricity is to visualize a water flowing through a hose or pipe. There is the pressure in the system that works to push the water, the rate at which the water flows, that is, current, and there is a resistance to flow determined by the size of the pipes. In addition, the power of the system, meaning the work that can be done over a given period of time, will be a function of the pressure and the resistance. Increase the pressure and/or decrease the resistance by enlarging the size of the pipes, and, voila, you’ll have more power.

Bringing this back to electricity, the term ‘voltage’ is analogous to pressure in the hose: the force, measured in volts, of the electricity pushing the current, which is the rate of flow of the electricity. (The term ‘pressure’ apparently isn’t used much anymore in relation to electricity, but ‘tension’ is – as in ‘high tension wire’ and this refers to the voltage.) The resistance is the degree to which a substance impedes the current, and the power in the electrical system is directly related to both the amount of the voltage and the current. Increasing either or both of those will increase the power.

OK. So, back to voltage transients... As the name implies, these are short lasting changes in the voltage or current that can occur in an electrical system. When a lot of people over a wide area notice a flickering of their lights, that is due to a transient in the electrical grid over that area. These can be the result of sudden changes in customer load, switching, or lightening, amongst other factors.

Transients also occur more locally. There can be transients in one’s own home or office building caused by local changes in energy use by neighbors or buildings on the same electric line. This is because the current fluctuations will back-up into the line and be transmitted elsewhere.

They can also develop just within the wiring system of one building because of motors or lights turning on, or other electrical inputs. It is significant to realize that modern electronic devices, and especially many of most efficient energy saving appliances create strong transients. High on this list are dimmer switches, computers, plasma televisions, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CLF), cell phones and other electronics. That is because these devices save energy by creating current fluctuations, depending on the amount of electricity needed.

So much for explaining transients, but why the fuss? It turns out that there is some very clear evidence that exposure to transients, that is being in the vicinity of devices and/or electric outlets where there is high transient activity, is, in fact, quite harmful.


Samuel Milham is a 78-year-old physician with a Masters degree in Public Health. His specialty over the last half-century has been epidemiology, that is the study of patterns of health and illness in various population as well as factors related to these patterns.

As one might imagine, his resume is quite long: medical school, internship in a public health hospital, professorships in various medical schools and government service as head epidemiologist for the State of Washington where he focused on chronic disease, and the author of over 100 scientific papers.

Milham has for most of his career held a special interest in the effects of electrification on health. This began in the 1960s when he studied the unusual preponderance of childhood leukemia cases in a town in New York State. He discovered that leukemia in children had only emerged some 30 years earlier and was statistically correlative with the spread of electricity throughout the country.

In his recently published book, “Dirty Electricity: Electrification and the Diseases of Civilization” (iUniverse, 2010), Milham writes that while electricity was available in urban areas from the turn of 20th century with 90 percent of people in the northeast and California having electricity in their homes by the 1940s, in rural areas, especially in the south, residential electrification was still less than 50 per cent. And, this correlated with a discrepancy in the rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and suicide which were much higher in urban compared to rural areas. The data shows that, for instance, urban cancer rates were 58.8 percent higher than rural cancer rates in 1930.

When first reading this information, it occurred to me that the difference between urban and rural areas at the time was probably not limited to electrification. At the time, farming was probably still was the predominant occupation of rural populations. The amount of exercise, types of food, exposure to chemical pollutants and everyday stress probably had something to do with this discrepancy. The widespread use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture was also decades away.

While this may be the case, Milham writes that a more detailed analysis shows that death rates from these diseases was statistically correlated with rates of residential electric service on a state by state basis. It wasn’t just a difference of lifestyle, rural versus urban, but it was the presence of electricity in the home that was the deciding factor.

From an epidemiological point of view, a study of the first half of the 20th century is critical because this is the epoch when there were great disparities between electric service in various parts of the country. After the Second World War, this disparity became less and less, and it became virtually impossible to find populations of people not exposed to electricity in their homes, work place and schools.

The one exception to this is the Amish population who eschew the use of electricity in their homes and who, according to statistical studies Milham cites, show significantly lower rates of cancer and heart disease.

As Milham began to recognize the scope of this issue, he at first wondered why, given the availability of national vital statistics and census records throughout the first half of the century, no one in his field had ever recognized that possible link between electricity and various illnesses. If, as he puts it, “the 20th century epidemic of the so called diseases of civilization including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes and suicide was caused by electrification not by lifestyle” and there was readily accessible data to back up this hypothesis, why had ‘flown under the radar’?

His conclusion is simple: No one was looking for it. And the reasons are probably three fold. First, differences in lifestyle such as diet, exercise, air quality, etc. were much more obvious factors to explain the discrepancy in rates of disease. Secondly, epidemiologists during the first half of the century were still focused on communicable diseases, which, historically, had been the most pervasive.

Thirdly, until the late 1970’s there was little general awareness that electro-magnetic radiation in general and electricity in particular, which was something that could not be seen, smelled, tasted or felt, could be a harmful form of pollution. And by that time, electrification was so pervasive, it was nearly impossible to study discrepancies amongst differing contemporary US populations that correlated with electrical exposure.

It was a combination of his research on small clusters of high rates of certain cancers along with a review of historical data that gave Milham the perspective to recognize the significance of the issue. Even so, it was only in the 1990’s that he started to understand the nature of the problem more completely.


As of the turn of the century, decades of research and analysis had convinced Milham, that exposure to electrical currents was indeed a potent carcinogen as well and increased the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and even committing suicide.

In the late 1970’s Milham had researched plants that produced aluminum where he found that compared to the general population, there were increased death rates from various malignancies such as lymphomas, leukemia, brain tumors and pancreatic cancer.1 It had been assumed by the industry that exposure to chemical pollutants from the burning of coal tar pitch was responsible factor.

But careful analysis by Milham showed that men with the highest exposure to these chemical pollutants showed an increased incidence only of lung cancer and not other types. In contrast, there was an increased risk of lymphoma and leukemia amongst those who worked in rooms, known as ‘pot rooms’, where a process of electrolytic reduction was performed and consequently where exposure to electro-magnetic fields was quite high.

For the next decade Milham continued with his statistical research of the effects of EMF exposure, finding that people who worked as electricians, power and telephone linesmen, radio and TV repairman as well as amateur radio operators also were at increased risk for leukemia, lymphoma and brain cancer.

But, although the statistics were clear, he was not satisfied with his grasp of the problem because what exactly it was about these currents that affected the human body in such negative manner was not understood. In fact, it has been well established that some forms of electrical current can be applied therapeutically to heal tissue or relieve pain.

He started to understand the phenomenon better in the 1990’s; Milham had investigated an office on the first floor of a building where there was a suspiciously high rate of disease. He found that directly below this office were a number of powerful transformers and surmised that perhaps something about the nature of the EMF radiation coming off of them was particularly potent.

About a decade later, he investigated a school near Palm Springs, California where there had been an unusual cluster of cancer in both teachers and former students. The building was built in 1990, and 16 of the 137 staff who had formerly or were currently employed there as well as about a dozen former students had developed some form of cancer.2

Milham had the opportunity to go into the school after hours with a colleague to investigate the building, measuring levels of magnetic fields and a specific form of electrical radiation called ‘high frequency voltage transients’ (see previous columns) that he had only recently learned about. What he discovered was that while, with one exception, magnetic fields in the rooms they surveyed were normal, all the rooms had enormous levels of these transients that were literally ‘off the meter’.

Martin Graham, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Berkeley, and Dave Stetzer, a veteran electronics expert, invented the meter Milham used. These transients – so-called ‘dirty electricity’ – are caused by any interruption of the flow of electrical current and exist in electric wiring. They create an ambient radiation that pollutes areas surrounding the wiring. Naturally, in a modern building, that means pretty much everywhere.

The question is what is harmful about ‘dirty electricity’? While not absolutely clear, one can hypothesize. To paraphrase Stetzer, transients are like magnets where opposite charges attract and like charges repel. Positive transients will attract negatively charge electrons in the body, while negative ones will repel them. The electrical system of the body will oscillate back and forth extremely rapidly because these transient positive-negative shifts occur thousands of times per second. The natural state of the entire body is thus disturbed because the stimulation ‘charges it up’ in resonance with the transients.


Milham is not alone in his findings concerning the dangers of exposure to high voltage transients that are ubiquitous in the modern world. Dr. Magda Havas, an associate professor of Environmental & Resource Studies in Canada has also researched these transients and come to similar conclusions.

An academic with a PhD from the University of Toronto and a post-doctoral appointment at Cornell University, Dr. Havas is currently at Trent University in Ontario. She began her career in the 70’s with research on acid rain and metal pollution. But in the last two decades her focus has been on electromagnetic pollution. Her findings have led her beyond the classroom to become an advocate for the awareness of and protection from the deleterious effects this form of radiation.

She has worked with the International Association of Firefights, the Ontario Energy Board, the Ontario Legislature and a number of public interest groups in this capacity. In addition, she is active giving expert testimony in litigative proceedings, presenting at various forums and conferences.

While as an epidemiologist, Samuel Milham did statistical analyzes of populations exposed to electromagnetic fields, Havas has worked with many individuals who have been made sick by them. She has identified that certain persons are electrically hypersensitive and are much more susceptible to becoming ill because of EMF exposure.

These are the people who, for instance, might become ‘spacey’ under fluorescent lights or feel sick while driving a Prius (which due to the batteries and electric engine has a strong EMFs). But even more insidious than that, these are the people who become sick in their own homes because of the high levels of high voltage transients or ‘dirty electricity’ (DE).

Depending on the constitutional make-up, Havas has found for sensitive individuals DE has caused or exacerbated diabetes, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, heart disease and cancer.

For instance, recently Havas has revealed the results of a double-blind, peer-reviewed study (the gold standard of scientific research) that radiation from cordless phones results in heart arrhythmias, rapid heart rate as well as a nervous system stress reactions.2 Interestingly, she was able to show such reactions even when the level of exposure was less than 1% of federal guidelines in both the US and Canada.

Another study from 2008 also reveals the effect of this type of pollution on diabetics.3 Working with both Type 1 and Type 2 (childhood and adult onset, respectively), she found that blood sugar levels correlated with the level DE in their immediate environment. Interestingly, even though exercise is one of the best ways to regulate blood sugar, treadmill exercise was found to increase it because of the machine is a DE producer.

Havas estimates that anywhere from 3 to 35% of people may be hypersensitive to electricity. This would translate into possibly upward of 50 million people suffering from diabetes around the world being dramatically affected and might be a significant factor in the worldwide epidemic of this disease. She has even suggested the creation of a third category of diabetes – ‘type 3’ – for electrically hypersensitive diabetics.

Fortunately, there is a relatively simple way to remediate DE relatively effectively. Martin Graham, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Berkeley, and Dave Stetzer, a veteran electronics expert have worked together to create a meter and a filter to measure and reduce DE levels.

Specifically, the Graham-Stetzer meter measures the change in voltage over time on AC circuits, therefore indicating transient levels and other high frequencies that are changing rapidly. The GS filter reduces DE levels in electrical circuits. Both of these are easy to use, needing only to be plugged into wall outlets in a given space, building or home. Generally, multiple filters – often in the range of 20, are necessary to lower DE levels in a typical home with modern day appliances.

Using the meter and filters, Havas has assisted diabetics to lower doses, and in some cases, even eliminate medication. She has also done similar work with multiple sclerosis and cardiovascular patients.