The Dirty Secret of Dirty Electricity
Is there such a thing as a type of electricity running through your home's wiring that delivers horrific health impacts to anyone living there?
Whenever some new technology comes on the market, there are always technophobes claiming that it causes some kind of terrible health problem, always without any evidence and usually without any plausibility. When cell phones first came out, people said they'd give us all brain cancer; and 30 years later with zero cases, there are very few people still beating that drum. Same with wind turbines, same with Wi-Fi, same with smart meters. And when compact fluorescent light bulbs first appeared, it happened there too. The claim was that they produced "dirty electricity", a term which was basically undefined, and that it caused a range of health problems. Gradually the claim was refined and it evolved to eventually mean that electronic devices would somehow corrupt the municipal power supply, and fill your home with a dangerous form of electricity that would irradiate you with damaging electromagnetic radiation. This would cause cancer, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer's, and something they call "type 3 diabetes" which is not even a real thing.
The odd thing about this, and the thing that blows my mind, is that there is nothing even vaguely plausible about any of this. Neither the claimed cause nor the claimed effect are supported by any evidence. And yet some activists devote their lives to raising the alarm about this fearsome threat. Do people truly have nothing better to do?
In the world of reality, the term "dirty electricity" does sort of have a real meaning, though informal. Alternating current, the type that powers your home, oscillates at a certain rate. It's 60 Hz in the United States, and 50 Hz in most other countries. Plotted on a graph, this would look like a sine wave. Depending on how that power is being generated, it might be a very nice clean sine wave, or it might be a rough one with distortion or unwanted harmonics in the wave form. Some electrical appliances and other devices tolerate distortion pretty well, but others don't. If it has an AC motor, like a refrigerator, then it needs a clean sine wave. If it's sensitive medical equipment or otherwise very important, then you need to give it clean power. Give distorted power to some appliances like these and they may run less efficiently; they may get too hot; they may become damaged. But this would be a rare exception in a home environment. It's really only places like hospitals, supercomputer facilities, and industrial plants that have to worry about this stuff, so they generally use their own power conditioning facilities.
The electricity you get from the local power station is generally pretty clean; but there are other ways alternating current can be produced, and they tend to be less consistent. You could use a portable generator, and those are all over the map. Depending on your application, you might well want to choose one that delivers pure sine wave power. An inverter, as you might use in an RV to convert 12V DC to 120V AC, might produce clean or dirty power; so again, choose the right one for the job — choosing one that produces a pure sine wave will mean you're always covered.
The generators, inverters, and other devices that don't produce pure sine wave usually put out what's called a modified sine wave. The benefit is that they are less expensive. The waveform they produce is made of square steps to roughly simulate a sine wave. Not good for motors and sensitive electronics, but for all practical purposes, just fine for most anything in the average home.
When power leaves the power plant, it's kept within a number of specifications: volts, amps, watts, total harmonic distortion, frequency, etc. If it checks all the boxes, then we're all good. If it's out of spec on one or more, then it's what many are informally calling dirty. With the rise in home solar power generation, some homeowners use cheap inverters to convert that power to what their home runs on, and excess power from them may make it to the grid. These systems are sometimes out of spec for the municipal grid, since they're intended for homes and not hospitals or NASA, so they are arguably a source of dirty electricity to the grid.
So that's the closest thing in reality to what might be termed "dirty electricity": a modified sine wave, or a bad sine wave that includes some harmonics or distortion or spikes. All variations are common in the world, none make any differences to human health — though you can certainly be electrocuted equally by any of them — beyond that, only your sensitive electronics might care.
But that's not the claim being made by the promoters of dirty electricity as a health threat. Their version is a bit different. What they describe as dirty electricity is mostly the same thing, but with an emphasis on transient voltage (basically small spikes on the sine wave), and they invent imaginary causes for this and describe dangerous threats to your health — not from getting electrocuted, but from EMF — electromagnetic frequencies, or radiation.
The electrical wires in your home do produce electromagnetic radiation. They have to; it's a part of the physics of conductance over wiring. Electrical testing tools like clamp meters that you can buy at the hardware store rely on this. They have to be right up against the wire, or very close to it; this radiation drops off very rapidly; it's undetectable more than a few inches away by all but the very most sensitive equipment. How and why this works is exhaustively described by electromagnetic theory, and also proven by 150 years of real-world data to be harmless to humans or other living tissue. The waveform doesn't matter. Whether it's a clean sine wave or a dirty one, it cannot interact with your body. That, too, is physics. There is no interaction, the waveform is irrelevant.
But the activists never let the facts stand in the way of a good bogeyman to scare people about. From my survey of a number of websites trumpeting the alarm of dirty electricity, I find there are two basic motivations guiding their claims. First, obviously, is to sell you worthless gadgets claiming to clean up your dirty electricity; and second is to beat the immortal anti-technology drum.
This second motivator — generalized anti-radio, anti-electronics technophobia — is promoted the loudest by longtime anti-radio activist Magda Havas, a retired professor with more than 70 publications touting the imaginary dangers of cordless phones, smart meters, Wi-Fi, wind turbines, and of course dirty electricity. Paradoxically, she also writes about the equally-imaginary miraculous healing powers of some of these same phenomena: pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, healing with light, and other such nonsense. All of her publications are horrible. Some have been retracted, most are based on anecdotes or wishful thinking, the vast majority are in pay-to-publish journals that have no meaningful standards. You may recognize her name from many past Skeptoid episodes. As one of the very few academics who have bought into this particular brand of pseudoscience, she's in high demand at anti-technology conferences, and sellers of snake oil EMF healing devices are constantly waving her publications as proof their worthless products are useful.
Havas is perhaps best known as an advocate of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a perceived condition in which sufferers complain of horrific symptoms upon being in the presence of electronics (the Michael McKean character in the show Better Call Saul famously believed himself afflicted by this). Although its existence has been disproven every time it's been tested under controlled conditions (when claimants don't know if a device is turned on or not, they are no longer able to discern whether or not they have symptoms), Havas continues promoting it as real and crusading against dirty electricity, which seems to have taken over from radio as her preferred bogeyman explanation for its cause.
I said before how I was personally befuddled by this particular brand of fearmongering. Here is a big reason why. The electrosensitive crowd and the anti-radio crowd tend to seek out places which they believe are isolated from manmade electronics and electromagnetic radiation. They are not bothered by natural EMF, like that from the sun; only by manmade EMF, like from a radio station. Yet their main point here seems to be that dirty electricity is some kind of manmade corruption of perfectly natural sine wave electricity, which — if I read their publications and websites correctly — they regard as harmless. The funny thing is that the only electricity that exists in nature is extremely dirty. Only precise human-built equipment can produce alternating current with a pure sine wave. The position they advocate is heavily conflicted and self-contradictory.
It turns out that there are very few natural sources of electrical current — and it's almost all DC, direct current, with no sine wave at all, clean or dirty. A lightning bolt is the most familiar natural source of electrical current, and it's a single burst of direct current. If you could run it through an oscilloscope, you'd get a single very fast, very ragged peak — about as dirty as current can get.
Another source is electric eels, including a few types of rays and catfish that also have electrical discharge organs. Similar to lightning, these discharges are just a single pop, which the fish repeats, making a pop-pop-pop sound. Some such fish produce a single burst of DC, and in others, this pop consists of one single cycle of AC. It's hardly a sine wave, more like a ragged sawtooth waveform; but it is alternating current, just not much of it.
There are very few other natural sources of electrical current. If a metallic mineral comes into contact with seawater, a weak but constant DC current will cause it to corrode, the same process that requires boat owners to install sacrificial anodes. And — though this one is a stretch — the magnetic field of a rotating planet, or the churning of ferrous magma within a planet's core, could draw electrons back and forth through some metallic ore; and you would not be inaccurate to call this alternating current, though obviously very slow and weak.
So, in short, it's pure sine wave alternating current created by corrupt human beings that Magda Havas and her ilk feel so safe around, and only power matching the rough natural forms that they are so terrified of and suffer appalling symptoms from. So the self-diagnosed electro-sensitives retreat to their rural communities that prohibit electricity of all kinds, despite their guru, Magda Havas, celebrating the safety of that very same electricity. It just makes no sense.
So let's summarize a few points from this episode.
And so you need not worry about EMF. You need not spend your hard-earned dollars on any devices promising to clean up your so-called dirty electricity. And you most definitely do not need to worry about dirty electricity in your home or anywhere else.
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