What Are Alternating Current (AC) Electric Fields?

Alternating current (AC) electric fields signal the presence of electrical pressure along a wire. For there to be AC electric fields the wiring must be ‘live’ or ‘hot,’ connected to a 120-volt AC power supply or another electricity source. These fields are represented through electric field lines, which consistently flow from positive charges to negative ones, extending perpendicularly from the charged conductor’s surface. Field lines of the electric field have a defined beginning and a defined end. The strength of the electrical field fluctuates based on factors such as voltage, wire and appliance configurations, material conductivity, and distance from the field’s source.

In contrast to concentric rings observed in AC magnetic fields, AC electric fields emanate like arrows, with a greater concentration moving toward the earth/ground. In cases where a wire is ungrounded, as seen in small appliances, the AC electric fields are notably higher when compared to a grounded wire. The grounding wire serves as the closest connection to the ‘ground/earth,’ whether in relation to our bodies or the actual earth.

What Are the Adverse Health Effects of Alternating Current Electric Fields?

Our bodies act as antenna, receiving energy from ambient electric fields. Our bodies couple effortlessly with the surrounding electric field lines, leading to a measurable AC voltage both on and within the body, particularly when ungrounded, like when we are lying in bed. Since the electromagnetic cell communication systems of our own body run very efficiently at extremely low voltages, even minimal potentials from external fields can induce undesired currents and depolarizations across muscle and nerve cells.

Research has established that electricity impacts the circadian rhythm (sleep cycle), as well as the production of neurohormones and melatonin. Additional biological changes and mechanisms have also been discovered to affect the communication systems of the body, albeit in a more subtle manner than thermal effects. Thermal effects often arise from exposure to high levels of radiofrequency (RF) radiation, which can cause heating of the body’s tissues. The human body absorbs RF energy, and if the absorption is significant, it can lead to a rise in temperature.

Biological effects of alternating electric and magnetic fields within the 20-80 Hz ranges (such as household wiring) both induce currents within the human body, interrupt intracellular gap junction communication, and also cause nerve stimulation.

Low-level, alternating electric fields have been linked to the incidence and progression of cancer. Numerous studies, particularly those involving animal and cell experiments, suggest biological effects of alternating electric and magnetic fields with specific characteristics at low exposure levels. These effects include adverse impacts on melatonin production, calcium metabolism, the immune system, as well as resulting muscle pain, alterations in cell division, and changes in enzyme activity within cells.

The University of Toronto conducted a study involving Ontario Hydro One workers, revealing that electric fields played a more significant role in the development of cancer among electrical workers compared to magnetic fields. Exposure to both fields increased the risk ratio to 1.

How Do I Reduce the Adverse Exposures to Alternating Current Electric Fields in My Home?

Within the home, the bulk of exposures from AC electric fields will come from ungrounded appliances and other plug loads. With no grounding wire to draw the fields to the grounded wire, the fields will be drawn to us. As such, where possible purchase appliances with grounded power cords. Where this is not possible, plug them into grounded power bars, and shorten the ungrounded cords as much as possible, to reduce the fields. For around your office desk, or other spaces that have a large number of power cords, attach them together with twist ties so that the cords with ground wires are tied to ungrounded power cords, reducing the fields. 

Finally, you can have a licensed electrician rewire lamps and appliances where possible. Where none of these options are possible, distance yourself from the power cords, such as moving a bed lamp away from you, or unplug the cords at night, when sleeping. It is not recommended to use heating blankets because of the high AC electric fields generated.

External sources such as high voltage transmission lines are a concern when close to them. If your home is located near these power lines, have an Electromagnetic Radiation Specialist measure the AC electric fields and discuss the potential for shielding options.

In modern times, the wiring within our homes is all grounded. Older wiring is ungrounded, and if you have two-wire wiring in your home, or even older knob and tube, then the AC electric fields will be high. Even in modern homes with grounded wiring, the presence of AC electric fields can occur due to wiring errors and certain older electric in-floor heating systems. Commercial buildings typically use metal shielded wiring in the building, reducing AC electric fields.

An awareness of the pervasive nature of alternating current (AC) electric fields and their potential impact on human health underscores the importance of proactive measures to mitigate exposure. From how these fields affect our bodies to the various impacts on our biological systems, including disruptions in sleep patterns and potential connections to cancer, it’s clear that we must take informed action. 

It’s crucial to reduce exposures in our homes by tackling common sources and considering external factors like high voltage transmission lines. Adopting modern grounded wiring and being mindful of potential issues, like wiring errors or outdated systems, sets the groundwork for healthier homes and workplaces. In the end, a comprehensive approach to understanding and handling AC electric fields is vital for environments that prioritize well-being and long-term health.