EMF Health Research


Over the past 40 years, a great many studies have addressed questions about potential health risks associated with exposures to power frequency EMF. A broad range of health outcomes has been studied including cancers of various types in children and adults, pregnancy outcome including miscarriage and birth defects, neurodegenerative diseases that include Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular function and disease, behavioral responses and others.

In the mid to late 1980s the emphasis of health-related research shifted away from electric fields to magnetic fields. A major reason for the shift was that a large body of research supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and EPRI, among others, did not find hazards associated with electric field exposure from typical levels up to those present beneath transmission lines. However, in the same time period epidemiologic studies increased the public’s concern regarding the relationship of childhood cancer particularly leukemia with residential magnetic fields.

The RAPID Program in the U.S.

In 1993, the U.S. federal government, under the 1992 Energy Policy Act, launched the RAPID program (Research and Public Information Dissemination), with the purpose of “providing scientific evidence to determine whether exposure to power-frequency EMF involves a potential risk to human health.” (quoted from NIEHS 2002 “Question & Answers” (Q&A) booklet) The program, administered by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) with engineering support from the U.S. DOE, consisted of a broad range of laboratory and exposure characterization studies. It ended in 1999 with NIEHS’ submission of its final report to the U.S. Congress. That report, based on an extensive review by a multi-disciplinary scientific panel stated :

The ultimate goal of any risk assessment is to estimate the probability of disease in an exposed population. …The NIEHS believes that the probability that ELF-EMF exposure is truly a health hazard is currently small. The weak epidemiological associations and lack of any laboratory support for these associations provide only marginal, scientific support that exposure to this agent is causing any degree of harm.

Evaluations by Government Agencies and Expert Panels

NIEHS, 2002: In 2002, after the RAPID program was complete, the NIEHS published its Q&A booklet for the public that covered the topics relevant to a general understanding of EMF and the research to that point in time. The NIEHS stated in its conclusion:

Electricity is a beneficial part of our daily lives, but whenever electricity is generated, transmitted, or used, electric and magnetic fields are created. Over the past 25 years, research has addressed the question of whether exposure to power-frequency EMF might adversely affect human health. For most health outcomes, there is no evidence that EMF exposures have adverse effects. There is some evidence from epidemiology studies that exposure to power-frequency EMF is associated with an increased risk for childhood leukemia. This association is difficult to interpret in the absence of reproducible laboratory evidence or a scientific explanation that links magnetic fields with childhood leukemia.

This conclusion was based on NIEHS’ report to Congress, as well as by an evaluation conducted in 2001 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), located in Lyon, France. IARC was established in 1965 as a part of the World Health Organization to “…provide governments with expert, independent, scientific opinion on environmental carcinogenesis.” Note that IARC is not a policy setting organization and it publishes its evaluations for use “by national and international authorities to make risk assessments, formulate decisions concerning preventive measures, provide effective cancer control programmes and decide among alternative options for public health decisions… [and] no recommendation is given [by IARC] with regard to regulation or legislation, which are the responsibility of individual governments orother international organizations.”

For about 40 years, IARC has issued carcinogen evaluations in reports called ‘monographs’ for nearly one thousand exposures, including chemicals, physical factors, medications, foods and additives, industrial processes, and various occupations. Each exposure evaluated also receives a classification with respect to its carcinogenicity to humans .

IARC appointed an expert panel that convened in 2001 to evaluate power frequency EMF, and published its final report in 2002. The panel examined a wealth of whole animal experiments (many of them lifetime exposures) and did not find evidence to support magnetic fields as carcinogenic for any cancer studied (including leukemia). The panel was also unable to identify a mechanism through which magnetic fields at everyday levels interact with living bodies to produce biologicaleffects.

When examining the epidemiologic literature, the panel determined that for all childhood and adult cancers with one exception, there was inadequate evidence with which to conclude that power frequency magnetic fields were carcinogenic. That exception was childhood leukemia for which there was “limited” evidence that the reported association with power frequency magnetic fields represented a cause-and-effect relationship. On this basis, IARC classified power frequency magnetic fields into Group 2B, or an exposure ‘Possibly carcinogenic to humans’. The Group 2B designation reflects the panel’s conclusion that uncertainties remain, but does not assert that evidence of an adverse health effect has been identified at a high level of confidence.

The IARC panel also determined that there was no adequate evidence with which to conclude that power frequency electric fields are carcinogenic in children or adults.

In addition, IARC reviewed the pregnancy outcome literature concluding: “Taken as a whole, the results of human studies do not establish an association of adverse reproductive outcomes with exposure to ELF electric and magnetic fields.” Also, “[p]renatal exposure to ELF [extremely-low-frequency] magnetic fields generally does not result in adverse effects on reproduction and development in mammals.”

Since the NIEHS Q&A booklet was published in 2002 other governmental agencies and risk assessment organizations around the world have reviewed the EMF health literature:

WHO, 2007: In 2005 the World Health Organization (WHO) followed up IARC’s review of EMF and cancer with a review of all health outcomes, convening an expert scientific panel at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2007, WHO published its report as part of its ongoing series of Environmental Health Criteria. The WHO report agreed with IARC that the epidemiologic evidence for childhood leukemia was ‘limited’, concluding :

…the epidemiological evidence [regarding childhood leukemia] is weakened by methodological problems, such as potential selection bias. In addition, there are no accepted biophysical mechanisms that would suggest that low-level exposures are involved in cancer development. Thus, if there were any effects from exposures to these low-level fields, it would have to be through a biological mechanism that is as yet unknown. Additionally, animal studies have been largely negative. Thus, on balance, the evidence related to childhood leukaemia [British spelling of leukemia] is not strong enough to be considered causal. A number of other adverse health effects have been studied for possible association with ELF magnetic field exposure. These include other childhood cancers, cancers in adults, depression, suicide, cardiovascular disorders, reproductive dysfunction, developmental disorders, immunological modifications, neurobehavioral effects and neurodegenerative disease. The WHO Task Group concluded that scientific evidence supporting an association between ELF magnetic field exposure and all of these health effects is much weaker than for childhood leukaemia. In some instances (i.e., for cardiovascular disease or breast cancer) the evidence suggests that these fields do not cause them.

Health Canada, 2019, along with the World Health Organization, monitors scientific research on EMFs and human health as part of its mission to help Canadians maintain and improve their health.” The Health Canada website states:

There have been many studies on the possible health effects from exposure to EMFs at ELFs. While it is known that EMFs can cause weak electric currents to flow through the human body, the intensity of these currents is too low to cause any known health effects. Some studies have suggested a possible link between exposure to ELF magnetic fields and certain types of childhood cancer, but at present this association is not established.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified ELF magnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The IARC classification of ELF magnetic fields reflects the fact that some limited evidence exists that ELF magnetic fields might be a risk factor for childhood leukemia. However, the vast majority of scientific research to date does not support a link between ELF magnetic field exposure and human cancers. At present, the evidence of a possible link between ELF magnetic field exposure and cancer risk is far from conclusive and more research is needed to clarify this “possible” link.

Health Canada is in agreement with both the World Health Organization and IARC that additional research in this area is warranted.

Health Canada does not consider that any precautionary measures are needed regarding daily exposures to EMFs at ELFs. There is no conclusive evidence of any harm caused by exposures at levels found in Canadian homes and schools, including those located just outside the boundaries of power line corridors.

EFHRAN (2012): The European Commission funded EFHRAN (European Health Risk Assessment Network on Electromagnetic Fields Exposure) with the “specific aim of establishing a wide-ranging network of recognized experts in relevant disciplines that interact and cooperate to perform a health risk assessment of exposure to EMF across the frequency spectrum.” EFHRAN released a report in 2012 that reviewed a full range of health outcomes across the spectrum. EFHRAN was consistent with the preceding reviews regarding childhood leukemia. For all other outcomes the report stated:

There is inadequate evidence for Alzheimer’s disease, childhood brain tumors, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis…further studies on these outcomes would be useful. For all other cancers, other neurodegenerative diseases and for non-specific symptoms, evidence is also inadequate, but there appears to be no justification to conduct further studies. There is evidence suggesting a lack of effect for breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and for EHS [electromagnetic hypersensitivity].

PHE: Public Health England (formerly the Health Protection Agency) provides information on all matters related to health and wellness to the citizens of the United Kingdom. PHE’s responsibilities include, “making the public healthier by encouraging discussions, advising government and supporting action by local government, the NHS [National Health Service] and other people and organizations,” and “researching, collecting and analyzing data to improve our understanding of health and come up with answers to public health problems.”

With reference to EMF, PHE website states:

The results of some studies of human populations have suggested that there may be an increase in risk of childhood leukaemia at higher than usual magnetic field exposures in homes, some of which are near to large power lines. Studies have also looked at whether exposure is linked to the risk of other illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Although there have been some results suggesting a link, the overall balance of evidence is towards no effect and much weaker than that for childhood leukaemia.

The types of studies that investigate these risks face many difficulties, including the possibility of chance, bias and the presence of confounding factors that may confuse the findings. Importantly there is no known mechanism or clear experimental evidence to explain how these effects might happen.

PHE offers the following three reasons for why evidence weighs against magnetic fields as a cause of leukemia:

  • “Magnetic fields don’t have sufficient energy to damage cells and thereby cause cancer.

  • At present there is no clear biological explanation for the possible increase in childhood leukaemia from exposure to magnetic fields.

  • The evidence that exposure to magnetic fields causes any other type of illness in children or adults is far weaker.”

SCENIHR, 2015: The Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) serves the European Commission and “deals with questions related to emerging or newly identified health and environmental risks.” Similar to two other committees that serve the commission, SCENIHR provides it “with the scientific advice it needs when preparing policy and proposals relating to consumer safety, public health and the environment.” In 2014 this committee prepared an update to its previous 2007 and 2009 reports on EMF, entitled “Opinion on Potential Health Effects of Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (EMF).” The report concluded,

The new epidemiological studies are consistent with earlier findings of an increased risk of childhood leukaemia with estimated daily average exposures above 0.3 to 0.4 μT [3 to 4 mG]. As stated in the previous opinions, no mechanisms have been identified and no support is existing from experimental studies that could explain these findings, which, together with shortcomings of the epidemiological studies prevent a causal interpretation.

Epidemiological studies do not provide convincing evidence of an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia, related to ELF MF exposure. Furthermore, they show no evidence for adverse pregnancy outcomes in relation to ELF MF. The studies concerning childhood health outcomes in relation to maternal residential ELF MF exposure during pregnancy involve some methodological issues that need to be addressed. They suggest implausible effects and need to be replicated independently before they can be used for risk assessment.

Recent results do not show that ELF fields have any effect on the reproductive function in humans.