In 2000, the National Academy of Engineering announced the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century in rank order as determined by a distinguished panel deliberating nominations from 29 engineering societies. The main criterion was the role the achievement played in improving the quality of life. Electrification of modern society ranked first ahead of notable achievements that included the automobile, the airplane, the telephone and the U.S. interstate highway system. A common thread running through the evolution of these innovations was the requirement that any possible hazards associated with them were minimized to acceptable levels. Obvious examples include the inclusion of airbags in vehicles, oxygen masks when airplane cabin pressure drops, and adequate shoulders on highways for disabled vehicles. In the case of electrification, we had learned by the turn of the 20th century about the risks associated with electrical shock and the possibilities of sparks igniting fires. Accordingly, safety practices were adopted into codes such as the National Electrical Code to ensure that building wiring practices protected occupants against fire and shock hazards. By the late 1960s-early 1970s transmission lines operating at voltages of up to 765 kV were being built prompting questions and concerns from the public about exposures to EMF and possible effects on health.
Over the past 40 years, a large body of research has accumulated addressing health and safety questions about EMF in our homes and workplaces. Since its founding in 1973, the Electric Power Research Institute has participated in every aspect of health and safety research on EMF coordinating its program with the U.S. DOE in the 1970s and 1980s, and interacting with international organizations, such as WHO and IARC. This brochure has covered key aspects of EMF health research since the publication of the 2002 NIEHS Q&A booklet.
Research is a continuing process whose purpose is to develop valid information in response to specific questions. In the case of EMF health research, researchers are interested in quantifying relationships (or lack thereof) between EMF exposure and diseases or other health-related outcomes. The two major research pathways involve epidemiologic studies of human populations and studies with whole animals. As research progresses, the major objective is to continually reduce uncertainties until a question is resolved in a manner that is acceptable to the scientific community and to the broader society. In this respect, EMF research sponsored since the 1970s by various organizations worldwide, including EPRI, has achieved a fair measure of success in reducing key uncertainties about potential effects from EMF, as reflected in the broad consensus of expert scientific panels. As described in this brochure, uncertainties remain as the focus of ongoing study.