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What is electrical pollution?

Electrical pollution is not something you can see, smell, taste, or touch. It is not something you can sense, making it difficult for one to be aware of the presence of electrical pollution. With this in mind, it is important to understand what causes electrical pollution and what to look for in your everyday environment and home.

Normally occurring incidents from everyday electrical use, electric and magnetic fields, earth currents and transients and high frequency noise are sources that cause electrical pollution. Electrical pollution can be one of these causes or a combination of the causes.

Stray voltage is also a cause of electrical pollution. Stray voltage most often occurs on and off farms in localized areas. These localized areas can have poor grounding and utility infrastructure causing electrical failure. Stray voltage on farms has been detected by observing behavioral changes in farm animals and some health problems for humans. Stray voltage was one of first discovered sources of electrical pollution prior to the 1950s in areas of the rural United States.

Electric and magnetic fields, or EMF, are emitted from electrical devices or anything that uses electricity. Earth currents are low electrical currents found in soil. Natural activity deep within the earth causes some of these currents along with above ground electrical energy to produce low magnitude electrical currents. Transients and high frequency noise or signals come from the wiring of buildings, and from the use of common electrical devices found in homes and offices. The noise is created when electrical current is transmitted and interrupted.

In these characterizations of electrical pollution, high frequency signals pollute regular electrical currents traveling in wires and currents through the earth. To better understand the background for the causes of electrical pollution, it is helpful to learn the basics of how the electrical current works.

Direct current is similar to battery power where current flows back and forth between energy terminals. Alternating current is a wave-like movement of energy that oscillates back and forth, and the energy flows in the direction of the load. The rate of oscillation is defined as frequency. At an electrical grid base, the current oscillates at 60 times per second, or 60 Hz.

Regular “clean” power enters homes, buildings, and offices at 60 Hz. The increased use of electrical power overloads electrical grid base, which distributes the power. Power is “dirty” or polluted when it contains the high frequency signals flowing through overloaded wires, and not just clean 60 Hz power.

The pollution of electricity is often compared to how water is polluted. At the source, water is clean. It is what comes with the water and pollutants along its path to the recipient that makes the water harmful to humans. However, like water pollution in many ways, electrical pollution is complex and often difficult to understand for the common consumer. The causes are varied and sometimes cannot be identified with certainty. However, the bulk of overloaded electricity bases can be attributed to the reliance on electrical appliances in today’s environment.

In the 1950’s, the National Electrical Safety Code required a neutral wire to return wire to utilities. In this code it was forbidden to use the earth as a neutral return. This was a worsening problem in rural, farm areas where the currents were being returned to the soil affecting the feeding of animals. Later, the Public Service Commission allowed utilities to use grounding rods to serve as neutral wires for return. This was done instead of increasing the size of the neutral rods. Installing ground rods is a less costly solution than making the neutral rods larger in size. The grounding rods serve as an alternate and additional pathway for the energy to return to the substation instead of to the earth.

The use of electricity has dramatically increased in the past 50 years causing stress on the electrical infrastructure. In 1950, 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity were sold nationwide. Fifty years later, it was reported in the year 2000 that American consumers used 65 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. Texas Electric Companies alone sold 342,828,582 in 2007 for an average price of $10.11/mWh.

Those concerned about electrical pollution say the size of neutral wires to make sure energy is returned to its source needs to be much larger. The current regulated size of the neutrals is not large enough to handle the load due to the greater use of electricity. The currents that are not properly directed are emitted into the environment or into homes or offices where electrical devices are widely relied upon by consumers. Neutral wires are not often sized for the modern electrical load. Power that is misdirected into the earth or home environments contains a much higher frequency that the 60 Hz classification making it “dirty” or unclean.

Knowing that consumers use a more significant amount of electricity in today's modern environment, there is a concern that electrical pollution is affecting humans. Those concerned about electrical pollution advocate for stricter regulations and for the widespread use of filters to measure and control “dirty” electricity. Considering electrical pollution can come from a variety of sources, the subject is complex and there is still a lot to be learned on the topic. In the meantime, some technology has been created to measure and control electrical pollution. This is especially important for those who have realized they are "electrically sensitive" and are experiencing health problems which are attributed to electrical pollution.

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