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Can an EMP Harm a Human? | What You Need To Know

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If you’ve seen EMPs in movies or read about them in books, you’re probably already familiar with their effects on electronics and electrical components. But is that wave of electromagnetic energy enough to harm a human? If so, what effect would an EMP have on your body?

An EMP can harm a human if detonated at a very high level. Some of the potential dangers of an EMP to humans include cellular mutation, brain damage, nervous system damage, and internal burns. However, the average human shouldn’t worry about this as we’re not good conductors of electricity. 

In the rest of this article, I’ll explain the effects of an EMP on electronics and electrical components. Then, based on existing studies, I’ll also show you how it can affect humans. 

How an Emp Might Affect Humans

A Man and Woman in Gas Masks With a Nuclear Explosion in the Background

There’s little to no evidence to suggest that EMPs pose a physical threat to humans. 

One of the main reasons low EMPs may not harm humans directly is that we’re mostly made of water, and our body isn’t very conductive. 

However, the conclusion from most studies is that EMPs at high levels may directly harm humans. Some of the possible effects on humans include:

  • Cellular mutations
  • Internal burns
  • Nervous system damage
  • Brain damage

EMPs may also affect pacemakers and other implanted devices. Because they’re electronic devices, they can become damaged if an EMP occurs. 

The extent of damage will depend on the level of the EMP and the person’s proximity to it.

Long Exposure Could Cause DNA Mutations

According to Amir Raz, assistant professor of clinical neuroscience at Columbia University, exposure to ionizing radiation, such as the one in EMPs, can cause DNA damage and mutations.

He also stated that non-ionizing energy from cell phone towers, power lines, and wireless devices might cause structural and functional damage to the nervous system at radio wave frequencies. 

Temporary Microvascular Leaking Is Possible

In another study on the effects of EMP on the brain microvascular permeability in rats, the researchers found that EMP exposure of 200–400 pulses produced microvascular artery leakage in the brain. 

This sort of microvascular artery leaking has been linked to mild cognitive and memory issues in humans. Although they were still visible 12 hours after exposure, the effects were relatively transient.

EMPs Can Disrupt the Blood-Brain Barrier

Besides DNA damage, mutation, and internal burns, EMPs may also disrupt the blood-brain barrier. This barrier is what protects the tissues of your nervous system. 

When you break down that barrier, you’re destroying another layer of defense for your brain. The effect? Well, according to a 2010 research, temperature rises of merely 1°C (1.8°F) can have a harmful impact, giving easy access to macromolecules to permeate the blood-brain barrier.

High Levels of Emp Could Impact Cognitive Functions

Some studies also suggest that high levels of EMP may severely impact the cognitive functions of the left hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for language and speech. 

According to this study, it can briefly short-circuit the neural circuit.

Most Studies Show That Any Effects Are Limited

Based on the studies reviewed so far in this article, the conclusion is that you may experience some adverse effects during the first 12 hours of an EMP. 

However, it’s important to mention that the bulk of these researches includes relatively high levels of microwave radiation exposure during testing – probably much higher than what you’d get from a nuclear detonation or a solar flare in the event of an EMP. 

Fortunately, we’re not exposed to such levels.

What Would an EMP Actually Do?

EMPs or electromagnetic pulses are caused by short bursts of electromagnetic energy traveling fast through the air. 

An EMP can be natural or artificial, depending on its source. 

Natural causes can include: 

  • Lightning
  • Solar storms
  • Geometric storms
  • Solar flares
  • Any other event that induces the blast and spread of electromagnetic energy in different directions.

Due to the high burst of energy, an EMP would likely damage computers, radios, radar receivers, satellites, and any other electronics within its range. Though the burst would be quite short, the high power surge could permanently damage electronics, especially those with semiconductors. 

The extent of the damage can range from imperceivable to devices blowing up. It’s also believed that a large enough and high-enough EMP may physically destroy buildings and airplanes.

Nuclear explosions are the most common source of artificial EMPs. However, they’re rarely used due to their tremendous destructive potential. Faulty power generation systems can also cause EMPs if there’s a sudden power surge.

EMP Frequently Asked Questions

Can an EMP Affect the Brain?

An EMP can potentially affect the brain depending on how large it is. It may cause structural and functional damage to the central nervous system at extremely high levels. It may also cause neurobehavioral disorders. However, EMPs have no known effects on the brain at low levels.

Can an EMP Stop Your Heart?

An EMP cannot stop your heart as the pulse of energy is too short to affect the normal rhythm. At high levels, you may experience elevated or unusual heartbeats, but it is unlikely that it will stop your heart. However, those with pacemakers or on life support could be at risk.

If your heart relies on electronics to work, an EMP could potentially stop the machines or devices, which could, in turn, stop your heart. 

Though again, the strength of the pulse would need to be relatively high.

One of the only times these levels would be high enough would be after a nuclear disaster, at which point, the explosion and radiation would be more of a concern.

Will EMP Damage Electronics Turned Off?

EMPs can damage electronics regardless of whether they’re turned on or off. Even when a device is removed from its power source, current can still flow through it as an EMP will induce it in the electrical circuits. The size of the EMP determines the extent of the damage.

Electrical fields generate currents in the circuitry all the time, so this effect is always present. However, the currents created are tiny and tend to cancel out since the fields have low energy and emanate from several sources.

Do EMP Grenades Exist?

EMP grenades don’t exist as none has been fully developed. However, there are reports that the United States has developed EMP grenade technology for destroying enemy information systems. If EMP grenades exist, they would be intended for military use and battlefield applications.

People With Head Pain From an Electromagnetic Pulse

Final Thoughts

Although there’s limited research in this area, existing studies show that an EMP can hurt humans if detonated at extreme levels. Brain damage, cellular mutation, and nervous system damage are dangers of exposure to high EMP levels.

Also, there are metals and electronic systems all around us that can undergo damage in the case of an EMP. In extreme conditions, it can cause physical damage to electronic and electrical systems and hurt people directly.

For more, check out US Nuclear Target Map: Most Safe and Unsafe Areas.

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