Written by: Carter Jack Lewis
Sound policy objectives that consider and bolster contingency plans for worst-case scenarios, such as a catastrophic EMP, are imperative to our national security. Welcome to part 2 of The Mackenzie Institute’s series on North American society’s vulnerabilities to an EMP. Quick recap, an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is a burst of electromagnetic radiation, often associated with nuclear detonations or solar flares, which can potentially disrupt or damage electronic devices and electrical infrastructure, “an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a high-altitude nuclear detonation has the potential to cover an area as large as the continental United States with damaging levels of EMP radiation.”
This article will further delve into how our society changes if the lights went out and never came back. In particular, the effects of an EMP on the medical industry would likely be severe, compromising the full spectrum of healthcare, ‘the majority of electronic medical equipment would be damaged by a single nuclear detonation as far as 2,200 km away.’ Medical issues would compound as a lack of consistent health care and preventative health care leads to more severe health conditions down the road.
- EMT Services:
- Communication: EMT services heavily rely on communication equipment like radios and GPS devices. An EMP could disrupt or damage these devices, making it challenging for EMTs to coordinate and respond to emergencies.
- Ambulance Electronics: EMPs can damage the electronic components of ambulances, affecting vital equipment like defibrillators, monitoring devices, and ventilators.
- Backup Power: Ambulances typically have backup power sources, but EMPs can damage these systems, potentially leaving EMTs with limited power for life-saving equipment.
- Surgery and Critical Care:
- Surgical Equipment: Modern surgical procedures heavily depend on electronic medical equipment, including anesthesia machines, surgical robots, and monitoring devices. An EMP could disrupt surgical operations and the ability to provide critical care.
- Life Support Systems: Ventilators and other life support equipment used in intensive care units are vulnerable to EMPs. Failure of these systems could have life-threatening consequences.
- Hospital Services:
- Data Systems: Hospital records, patient data, and administrative systems are electronically stored. An EMP could lead to data loss or corruption, impacting patient care, billing, and record-keeping.
- Security: Hospital security systems, including access control and surveillance, may be affected, potentially compromising patient and staff safety.
- Food and Medicines:
- Manufacturing: The factories and technology used to create and produce medication on an industrial level rely on vast amounts of power. The supply chain for medicine would be dismantled by the effects of an EMP.
- Storage: EMPs can disrupt refrigeration and storage systems, potentially leading to spoilage of perishable medications and medical supplies. Common medication that require refrigeration includes insulin, Repatha and antibiotics.
- Delivery: EMP-induced failures in transportation and communication infrastructure can disrupt the distribution of medical supplies, making it difficult for hospitals and pharmacies to restock essential medications.
- Pregnancy, Childbirth & Infant Care:
- Diagnostic Equipment: Obstetricians and gynecologists use electronic diagnostic equipment like ultrasounds to monitor the health of both the mother and the developing fetus. An EMP could disrupt access to these essential tools, affecting the quality of prenatal care.
- Health Records: Electronic health records (EHRs) that contain vital information about a pregnant woman’s medical history may be inaccessible due to EMP-related data loss or corruption.
- Communication: Electronic communication systems for appointment scheduling, test results, and consultations may become unavailable, making it challenging for pregnant individuals to receive timely information and care.
- Medications and Supplements: EMP-related disruptions in the supply chain could lead to delays in obtaining prenatal vitamins, medications, and other essential supplements.
- Labour Monitoring: Electronic fetal monitoring equipment used during labour may be compromised during an EMP event, potentially affecting the ability to monitor the baby’s health and the progress of labour.
- Medical Equipment: Electromedical instruments commonly used during childbirth, such as electronic infusion pumps and anesthesia machines, could be disrupted, impacting the administration of pain relief and medical interventions.
- Emergency Services: Access to emergency medical services may be compromised, leading to delays in addressing complications during labour and delivery.
- Neonatal Equipment: Neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) depend on electronic equipment to provide life-saving care to premature or ill newborns. EMP disruptions could jeopardize the health of these vulnerable infants.
- Milk Storage and Formula Preparation: EMP-related disruptions to refrigeration systems may affect the storage of breast milk and the preparation of infant formula, which is crucial for infant nutrition.
- Supply Chain: Delays in the supply chain may impact the availability of essential infant care products, including diapers, formula, and medications.
Essentially, we would be going back at least a hundred years in terms of our society’s ability to assist protect mothers and newborns.
- Dental Care:
- Equipment & Tools: Dental practices rely on a range of electronic and motorized equipment, such as X-ray machines (dental radiography), dental drills, and sterilization devices. An EMP could damage or disrupt these critical tools, making routine dental procedures more challenging or outright impossible.
- Patient Records & Information: Many dental practices use electronic health records (EHRs) to manage patient information.
- Sterilization & Infection Control: Dental offices use electronic sterilization equipment to ensure infection control.
- Vision Care:
- Optometry and ophthalmology: These practices rely on electronic diagnostic equipment, including auto refractors, slit lamps, and retinal scanners.
- Eyeglass & Contact Lens Production: The production of eyeglasses and contact lenses often relies on automated equipment.
- Hospice Care and Senior Care:
- Vulnerable Patients: Seniors and patients in hospice care may be particularly vulnerable during a disruption caused by an EMP. They often rely on medical devices and medications that can be affected by electrical disturbances.
- Care Facilities: Nursing homes and senior care facilities depend on electronic systems for resident care, medication management, and communication. An EMP could disrupt these services and put residents at risk.
It is important to keep in mind that supply chain issues would impact every category on this list. This along with the compounding negative influence on the loss of our current health care apparatus, which emphasizes preventative care would be devastating. To mitigate the impact of EMPs on the medical industry, healthcare institutions and emergency services should consider implementing the following measures:
- EMP Shielding: Designing and retrofitting critical medical facilities with EMP shielding can help protect electronic equipment and systems.
- Backup Power: Maintaining robust backup power systems, such as uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and backup generators, is crucial to ensure continuous care.
- Redundancy: Maintaining redundant systems and equipment can help ensure healthcare services remain operational in case of an EMP.
- Emergency Preparedness: Developing EMP-specific disaster response and recovery plans can help healthcare institutions respond effectively to such an event.
Given the potential catastrophic consequences of EMP events, it’s essential for governments, healthcare institutions, and emergency services to prioritize EMP protection and preparedness to safeguard the health and well-being of the population. While the case of a nuclear EMP is thankfully unlikely, it is important to keep in mind that an EMP can also come from an over active solar burst, such as the 1859 Carrington event or the East Coast railway disruption in 1921. The sun is in a cycle of high activity these days, “more active than NASA predicted.” These possibilities underscore the need to strengthen our electrical grid.
Carter, Jamie. “The Sun Is Now More Active than NASA Predicted. It Could Be in Its Strongest Cycle since Records Began.” Forbes Magazine, 12 Oct. 2022, www.forbes.com/sites/jamiecartereurope/2022/08/02/the-sun-is-now-more-active-than-nasa-predicted-it-could-be-in-its-strongest-cycle-since-records-began/.
Green, James L, and Scott Boardsen. “Duration and Extent of the Great Auroral Storm of 1859.” Advances in Space Research: The Official Journal of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5215858/.
Love, Jeffrey J., et al. Intensity and Impact of the New York Railroad. Wiley Online Library, 16 July 2019, agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2019SW002250.
Vandre RH., et al. Electromagnetic pulse (EMP), Part I: Effects on field medical equipment. Mil Med. 1993 Apr;158(4):233-6. PMID: 8479629.
 Vandre RH, et al. Electromagnetic pulse (EMP), Part I: Effects on field medical equipment. Mil Med. 1993.
 Green, James L, and Scott Boardsen. “Duration and Extent of the Great Auroral Storm of 1859.” Advances in Space Research: The Official Journal of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2006.
 Love, Jeffrey J., et al. Intensity and Impact of the New York Railroad. Wiley Online Library, 2019
 Carter, Jamie. “The Sun Is Now More Active than NASA Predicted. It Could Be in Its Strongest Cycle since Records Began.” Forbes Magazine, 12 Oct. 2022