WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
Among the voices speaking out against gas stoves is a group worried about induction stove radiation. The Frontline investigates what the science says.
When new research found that over 12% of current childhood asthma in the U.S. was attributable to gas stoves, a small corner of the internet was willing to take the risk. The alternative—electric-powered induction stoves—could cause something much worse, they argued: radiation exposure.
Radiation exposure is no joke. Head to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it is clear on how such exposure can damage your cell’s DNA, potentially causing cancer later on. After all, that’s why people wear special protection when they get x-rays or sunscreen when they’re out in the sun all day. Radiation can be harmful!
Since gas stoves became the latest culture war, I’ve seen some people on the internet flag concerns over radiation from induction stoves. If you head to Twitter or Google and search “induction stoves radiation,” you’ll come across tweets or blogs from individuals sharing the fact that induction stoves emit electromagnetic fields (EMF) when heating cookware and the food a person consumes. The technology is similar to how our microwaves work as they produce EMFs, too. As do our phones, laptops, tablets, and even other electrical appliances like hair dryers. The rollout of 5G mobile networks elicited a similar response in 2020 from conspiracy theorists because the networks also rely on EMF to transmit info.
So, are you better off with a gas stove? What does the science say?
Well, it’s complicated.
“Not all radiation is of the type that can be dangerous to your cells and tissues.”
“When people hear the word ‘radiation,’ they often think of the radiation that’s emitted from nuclear power plants or from radioactive materials, such as uranium or radium, or the radiation that we’re exposed to from outer space or when we get x-rays,” said Kristopher Sarosiek, the co-director of the JBL Center for Radiation Sciences at Harvard University, via email. “However, not all radiation is of the type that can be dangerous to your cells and tissues.”
Technically, all energy emitted from a source is radiation. The radiation that’s harmful, though, is high-energy radiation from higher-frequency EMFs that ionize, meaning it carries enough energy to disrupt atoms. This can damage a cell’s DNA or protein and potentially lead to cancer, a serious and deadly disease. That level of energy is not found in low- to mid-frequency electromagnetic fields, which is what our electronics and appliances emit.
With induction stoves, these fields are produced by the cooktop’s electrical currents that heat up pans and, then, cook the food. Governments regulate these appliances—and the EMFs they emit—through safety standards that ensure the fields aren’t strong enough to cause harm. The strength of magnetic fields is measured in units called teslas. The tesla is a large unit, so magnetic fields generated through household appliances are typically only a few millionths of a tesla (microteslas).
In an MRI machine, for instance, the magnetic field can measure 1.5 teslas. Scientists haven’t found adverse impacts in strengths of up to 8 teslas, but patients are still advised to wear protective gear and disclose pregnancies. It’s also why some people feel nauseous during or after an MRI scan. The strong magnetic fields are interacting with the body’s cells and particles. That’s not, however, the strength we see in household appliances. One report found that an office setting measured only 0.1 microteslas, for example.
“No mechanism by which [extremely low-frequency EMFs] or radiofrequency radiation could cause cancer has been identified,” reports the National Cancer Institute.
That said, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed other symptoms possibly related to EMF exposure. Some people suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), which includes symptoms like headaches, muscle pains, rashes, and sleep disturbances. The WHO doesn’t quite understand why this happens, and research is ongoing—but it hasn’t shied away from naming the condition.
“Whatever its cause, EHS is a real and sometimes disabling problem for the affected persons,” the WHO wrote in a 2006 report.
And yet, the scientific community at large remains unsettled about linking health effects to EMFs, Sarosiek said. Even the WHO’s 2006 report didn’t link these symptoms to EMF exposure because the science hasn’t provided evidence. Plus, individual reactions to these magnetic fields vary. People who require pacemakers, for instance, shouldn’t use induction cooktops because they can interfere with their medical devices.
“As induction cooktops gain in popularity, additional research on the potential health effects of these and other appliances should continue to be carried out,” Sarosiek said.
Unfortunately, the lack of answers has given way to confusion: “In recent years, there has also been an increase in misinformation on this topic,” explained Ken Karipidis, an assistant director at the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, which sets national EMF safety standards in Australia, via email.
“There is no living in a world without EMF exposure.”
And when it comes to EMF fears, there’s money to be made.
Two websites, in particular, support gas and propane stoves over induction stoves: EMF Academy and Shield Your Body. The websites are run by Christian Thomas and R. Blank, respectively. Shield Your Body sells products that claim to protect consumers from radiation: phone and laptop shields, $99 baby blankets, and a bed canopy that goes for over $1,000. EMF Academy doesn’t sell products directly but does profit from external affiliate links.
“Simply put, having an induction cooktop increases your exposure to high levels of EMF radiation, where if you had a normal cooking range of gas or electric, you would not be exposed to nearly as much,” reads one blog post on EMF Academy.
“Gas and propane stoves are, unquestionably, the best alternative to induction cooktops,” reads a post from Shield Your Body. “They don’t emit EMF, which makes them completely safe to use when it comes to EMF-induced health risks.”
Atmos reached out to Thomas and Blank for comment. Thomas didn’t respond, but wellness blogger August Brice dedicated a whole post to debunking the information on EMF Academy, claiming that Thomas, in fact, does not exist and is a catfish. Atmos could not confirm this.
When Blank, who is not a scientist, spoke to Atmos in a video interview, he pointed to a few studies on EMF health concerns, including research published in 2012 finding that induction stovetops can exceed public exposure limits from closer distances when cooking.
“With a microwave, at least you can create that distance,” said Blank, who calls himself an EMF advocate. “But when you’re cooking on the stovetop, generally, you have to stir, you have to watch it, you have to do all these things that preclude making that distance.
Sarosiek from Harvard found that the 2012 study (which he was not involved in) was done “quite rigorously,” but that the exposures were highest under worst-case scenarios. This is when pots are the wrong size for the cooktops or not centered properly. It’s important when using induction cooktops for users to use correctly sized cookware so that the EMF radiation is applied to the pan, rather than being emitted as stray fields, he explained.
Blank wouldn’t share how much revenue he makes from selling his products, but he did confirm that his products are how Shield Your Body makes money. His company commissions labs to test the products, which he encourages consumers to test themselves. Blank uses several products himself, he said, but he clarified that some people may need or want more protection than he does. He recognizes that many exposures are unavoidable and that EMFs aren’t the only health issue associated with technology.
“There is no living in a world without EMF exposure,” he said. “The reason that I do what I do is to help explain the nature of EMF to the layperson and, if they are concerned about that, the steps that they can take to reduce their exposure.”
So, yeah, it’s complicated.
“In science, there are always gaps in knowledge.”
Anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer may be hesitant to bring more potential exposures into their home. Black people face the highest risk of cancer death in the U.S. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t own a microwave, you probably don’t want an induction stove, either. The research still has a ways to go.
“In science, there are always gaps in knowledge,” Karipidis said. “Although there is no substantiated evidence that exposure to low-level EMF can cause cancer, it is important to continue the research to reassure people and continue to broaden understanding.”
In the meantime, let’s not forget what research has confirmed. That gas stoves can cause asthma among children. That Black and Indigenous children are at higher risk of asthma. That some of the leading causes of cancer are tobacco smoke and sun exposure. That another cause is the toxic air, food, and water that many communities cannot avoid. That the fossil fuel industry has known with scientifically rigorous accuracy that its products—coal, oil, and gas—were harmful to humanity decades ago and that it went ahead and told us all they were safe, anyway.
Though no scientific evidence has yet linked induction stoves to cancer or even EMS, the science is clear that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we want to avoid an unrecognizable future where climate change has ravaged everything. Only you can decide what’s the right choice for you—but only together can we transition away from fossil fuels.
I’d go for induction over gas if I could choose. (I rent, so I don’t have much choice, unfortunately.) Then again, I heat up my lunch most days in the microwave.
I, however, have never lost a loved one to cancer. I don’t know that fear. The fear I do know is the climate anxiety around a future where the fossil fuel industry wins. That’s enough for me to decide.
February 8, 2023 11:18 am
The story has been updated with additional information regarding MRI machines to clarify their safety to readers.