An electromagnetic field (EMF or EM field) is a physical field produced by moving electrically charged objects. It affects the behavior of charged objects in the vicinity of the field. The electromagnetic field extends indefinitely throughout space and describes the electromagnetic interaction. It is one of the four fundamental forces of nature .The field can be viewed as the combination of an electric field and a magnetic field. The electric field is produced by stationary charges, and the magnetic field by moving charges (electric currents); these two are often described as the sources of the field. The way in which charges and currents interact with the electromagnetic field is described by Maxwell’s equations and the Lorentz force law.
From a classical perspective, the electromagnetic field can be regarded as a smooth, continuous field, propagated in a wavelike manner; whereas from the perspective of quantum field theory, the field is seen as quantized, being composed of individual particles. Electric fields are created by differences in voltage: the higher the voltage, the stronger will be the resultant field. Magnetic fields are created when electric current flows: the greater the current, the stronger the magnetic field. An electric field will exist even when there is no current flowing. If current does flow, the strength of the magnetic field will vary with power consumption but the electric field strength will be constant. Electromagnetic fields are present everywhere in our environment but are invisible to the human eye. Electric fields are produced by the local build-up of electric charges in the atmosphere associated with thunderstorms. The earth’s magnetic field causes a compass needle to orient in a North-South direction and is used by birds and fish for navigation.
Besides natural sources the electromagnetic spectrum also includes fields generated by human-made sources: X-rays are employed to diagnose a broken limb after a sport accident. The electricity that comes out of every power socket has associated low frequency electromagnetic fields. And various kinds of higher frequency radiowaves are used to transmit information – whether via TV antennas, radio stations or mobile phone base stations.
One of the main characteristics which defines an electromagnetic field (EMF) is its frequency or its corresponding wavelength. Fields of different frequencies interact with the body in different ways. One can imagine electromagnetic waves as series of very regular waves that travel at an enormous speed, the speed of light. The frequency simply describes the number of oscillations or cycles per second, while the term wavelength describes the distance between one wave and the next. Hence wavelength and frequency are inseparably intertwined: the higher the frequency the shorter the wavelength.
Wavelength and frequency determine another important characteristic of electromagnetic fields: Electromagnetic waves are carried by particles called quanta. Quanta of higher frequency (shorter wavelength) waves carry more energy than lower frequency (longer wavelength) fields. Some electromagnetic waves carry so much energy per quantum that they have the ability to break bonds between molecules. In the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays given off by radioactive materials, cosmic rays and X-rays carry this property and are called ‘ionizing radiation’. Fields whose quanta are insufficient to break molecular bonds are called ‘non-ionizing radiation’. Man-made sources of electromagnetic fields that form a major part of industrialized life – electricity, microwaves and radiofrequency fields – are found at the relatively long wavelength and low frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum and their quanta are unable to break chemical bonds.
Electric fields exist whenever a positive or negative electrical charge is present. They exert forces on other charges within the field. The strength of the electric field is measured in volts per metre. Any electrical wire that is charged will produce an associated electric field. This field exists even when there is no current flowing. The higher the voltage, the stronger the electric field at a given distance from the wire.
Electric fields are strongest close to a charge or charged conductor, and their strength rapidly diminishes with distance from it. Conductors such as metal shield them very effectively. Other materials, such as building materials and trees, provide some shielding capability. Therefore, the electric fields from power lines outside the house are reduced by walls, buildings, and trees. When power lines are buried in the ground, the electric fields at the surface are hardly detectable.
Magnetic fields arise from the motion of electric charges. The strength of the magnetic field is measured in amperes per meter; more commonly in electromagnetic field research, scientists specify a related quantity, the flux density (in microtesla, µT) instead. In contrast to electric fields, a magnetic field is only produced once a device is switched on and current flows. The higher the current, the greater the strength of the magnetic field.
Like electric fields, magnetic fields are strongest close to their origin and rapidly decrease at greater distances from the source. Magnetic fields are not blocked by common materials such as the walls of buildings.
- Electric fields arise from voltage.
- Their strength is measured in Volts per metre (V/m)
- An electric field can be present even when a device is switched off.
- Field strength decreases with distance from the source.
- Most building materials shield electric fields to some extent.
- Magnetic fields arise from current flows.
- Their strength is measured in amperes per meter (A/m). Commonly, EMF investigators use a related measure, flux density (in microtesla (µT) or millitesla (mT) instead.
- Magnetic fields exist as soon as a device is switched on and current flows.
- Field strength decreases with distance from the source.
- Magnetic fields are not attenuated by most materials.
- The electromagnetic spectrum encompasses both natural and human-made sources of electromagnetic fields.
- Frequency and wavelength characterise an electromagnetic field. In an electromagnetic wave, these two characteristics are directly related to each other: the higher the frequency the shorter the wavelength.
- Ionizing radiation such as X-ray and gamma-rays consists of photons which carry sufficient energy to break molecular bonds. Photons of electromagnetic waves at power and radio frequencies have much lower energy that do not have this ability.
- Electric fields exist whenever charge is present and are measured in volts per metre Magnetic fields arise from current flow. Their flux densities are measured in microtesla (µT) or millitesla (mT).
- At radio and microwave frequencies, electric and magnetic fields are considered together as the two components of an electromagnetic wave. Power density, measured in watts per square metre ,describes the intensity of these fields.
- Low frequency and high frequency electromagnetic waves affect the human body in different ways.
- Electrical power supplies and appliances are the most common sources of low frequency electric and magnetic fields in our living environment. Everyday sources of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are telecommunications, broadcasting antennas and microwave ovens.