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Baffling EMF Reports

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The debate on the health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) rages as contradictory reports call for different standards. A draft report of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) calls for exposure limits to minimize potential health hazards associated with EMFs, but it’s unclear whether the prematurely publicized recommendation will survive peer review. Meanwhile, on October 9 in Sweden, government researchers offered a somewhat different assessment of the EMF problem, saying health risks don’t warrant exposure limits.

According to the unofficial NCRP report, new day-care centers, schools, playgrounds, houses, and other structures should not be built in areas where ambient or “background” EMFs exceed the two-milligauss (mG) level. Furthermore, the report says, ambient EMFs near existing structures should be reduced to the 2-mG level, or at least “as low as reasonably achievable” (ALARA), within the next 10 years.

“Though not unanimous, the predominant view of the committee is to recommend the ALARA approach,” the draft report states, adding that research findings “are sufficiently consistent . . . to suggest plausible connections between [extremely low-frequency] EMF exposures and disruption of normal biological processes, in ways meriting detailed examination of potential implications in human health.”

NCRP President Charles B. Meinhold is urging policy makers to disregard the draft EMF report, which was leaked to the news media before clearing peer review. Chartered by Congress in 1964, the private, nonprofit group convenes committees of volunteer scientists to review existing literature and advise government agencies on various radiation issues, explains James Spahn, a senior staff scientist at the NCRP. Like all NCRP documents, the EMF report will be subjected to an extensive peer-review process, Spahn adds.

While NCRP officials are scrambling to downplay the leaked report, it’s being praised by the U.S. EPA, which provided $235,000 worth of funding for the study. “This is the first comprehensive review of the world’s literature on extremely low-frequency EMFs,” claims EPA Project Officer Joe Elder.

But Elder can’t predict whether the report will influence U.S. policy because the EPA is no longer primarily responsible for EMF research. In October 1992, Congress shifted EMF research to the U.S. Department of Energy and the NIEHS, by establishing the Electric and Magnetic Fields Research and Public Information Dissemination (EMF RAPID) Program. Dan VanderMeer, NIEHS director of program planning and evaluation and manager of the EMF RAPID Program, says the NCRP draft report won’t grab his attention unless peer reviewers give it the green light. “We’re not going to do anything until we have a final document,” he says. “The NIEHS official position is that there are inadequate data to make any recommendations about EMF exposure levels.”

W. Ross Adey, chair of the 11-member NCRP committee, declines to say much about the draft report, although excerpts appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of Microwave News. “The report speaks for itself,” says Adey, a neurologist and chief of research at the Pettis Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.

In a 1993 interview with EHP, however, Adey said EMFs have clearly been shown to alter basic cellular activities. For example, he said, EMFs can disrupt the function of calcium ions, which carry signals to the interior of cells, where growth and metabolism are controlled. Also, EMFs may interfere with communication or “whispering” between cells, he said. Biological studies, Adey said, suggest that EMFs may co-promote tumor growth by working in tandem with chemical pollutants.

The draft NCRP report says numerous epidemiological studies in the United States and Europe “indicate a positive association between childhood cancers and exposure to magnetic fields” stronger than about 2 mG. Strong EMFs have also been statistically linked to increased rates of adult leukemia and brain cancer among workers in certain industries, the report says. Though biological studies have not yet revealed an “unequivocal link” between EMFs and cancer, the committee says, animal and tissue models “are consistent with an initiation-promotion (epigenetic) model of tumor formation.” In light of such findings, the committee concludes, EMF exposure should be drastically reduced.

Achieving a 2-mG goal could prove extremely challenging, however, since household appliances generate much stronger fields, at least on a periodic basis. An electric shaver, for example, may produce up to 600 mG of electromagnetic energy, according to public information prepared by the NIEHS. People living within 50 feet of a 115-kilovolt electrical transmission line might be subjected to a 6.5-mG field on a continuous basis, the NIEHS says, and a 500-kilovolt line could pump out 29.4 mG at the same distance.

Thomas S. Tenforde, a vice president for the NCRP and chief scientist in the health division of Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory, says a 2-mG ambient exposure limit “would really shut down some technologies,” such as electric trains. “There are limits to what one can consider for the sake of safety without going back to the Dark Ages,” adds Tenforde, who will help review the draft report on EMFs.

Nevertheless, Constantine J. Maletskos, an NCRP consultant and executive secretary for the report, believes the EMF report will ultimately be approved–perhaps within the first half of 1996. Because NCRP reports are scrutinized by 75 council members and other experts, however, the review process can result in “vast changes,” the NCRP’s Spahn cautions.

Whether or not the 2-mG recommendation makes it through review, the EMF debate is destined to continue as additional reports are made public. For instance, researchers at the National Institute for Working Life (NIWL) in Stockholm say studies reveal a “credible but weak” association between certain cancers and EMF exposure, reports Kjell Hansson Mild, an associate professor for NIWL in Umeå. Based on a 1995 literature review published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, Mild says, the advisory group endorses “prudent avoidance” of excessive EMFs, but steers clear of recommending exposure limits.

The National Research Council expects to release a status report on the EMF RAPID initiative within the next few weeks, reports John Zimbrick, director of the NRC’s Board on Radiation Effects. Another NRC report on potential EMF health effects should be distributed by January or February 1996, Zimbrick says.

Also in January, the EPA hopes to release an EMF report focusing on cancer risks. Robert McGaughy, a staff member at the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, says the report contains no recommendations, but conclusions about cancer risks are “similar” to the NCRP report.

Robert L. Park, a physicist and spokesperson for the American Physical Society (APS), is harshly critical of Adey and the draft NCRP report. Park, who dismissed EMF safety fears in an April 1995 statement prepared on behalf of the 45,000-member APS, lambasted the NCRP draft in a September 29 letter to the editors of Science. The NCRP document “was leaked by its authors,” Park charged, “precisely because they knew its prospects for adoption by [the NCRP] lie somewhere between slim and zero.”

Adey is angered by Park’s allegations, and he hotly denies any involvement in the news leak. Louis Slesin, editor and publisher of Microwave News, confirms that “Adey did not leak the report, nor did any member of the committee.” Described by VanderMeer as “highly respected” in his field, Adey insists that the biological evidence of EMF health effects can no longer be ignored by U.S. policy makers. Another NCRP committee member, David O. Carpenter, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Albany, agrees, saying “the evidence is sufficiently strong” to warrant regulatory action.

New legislation to limit EMF exposure seems unlikely, however. Congressman George Miller (D-California) had proposed legislation several years ago to ban new schools and day-care centers in areas where EMFs exceed 2 mG. But that proposal was abandoned, according to Daniel Weiss, a spokesperson for Miller. “We gave up on that issue,” Weiss says, citing “the inconclusiveness of the evidence.”

Nor does it seem likely that the EMF issue will be resolved in the courts. In California, Marie Covalt of Orange County is suing the San Diego Gas & Electric Company, charging that high EMF levels have made her home uninhabitable. Fifteen leading scientists, including at least nine physicists and six Nobel laureates, filed an opinion on behalf of the power company, arguing that “no serious danger to health due to exposure to normal intensities of low frequency electromagnetic fields has been established.” Epidemiological surveys have failed to rule out all potential risk factors, the scientists say, and biological effects aren’t consistently repeatable.

National Institute of Environmental Health Science (  )

Electric & Magnetic Fields


Electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) are invisible lines of force associated with the production, transmission, and use of electric power such as those associated with high-voltage transmission lines, secondary power lines, and home wiring and lighting. Electric and magnetic fields also arise from the motors and heating coils found in electronic equipment and appliances.


Because the use of electric power is so widespread, humans are constantly exposed to electric and magnetic fields. Studies conducted in the 1980s showed a link between magnetic field strength and the risk of childhood leukemia. After reviewing more than two decades of research in this area, NIEHS scientists have concluded that the overall pattern of results suggests a weak association between increasing exposure to EMFs and an increased risk of childhood leukemia. The few studies that have been conducted on adult exposures show no evidence of a link between residential EMF exposure and adult cancers, including leukemia, brain cancer, and breast cancer. Based on these reviews, the NIEHS recommends continued education on practical ways of reducing exposures to EMFs.

June 26, 1998 statement of the National Radiological Protection Board, sited in Microwave News, July/August 1998

An international blue ribbon panel assembled by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) designated power frequency electromagnetic fields (EMF) as “possible human carcinogens” on June 24, 1998. The panel’s decision was based largely on the results of epidemiological studies of children exposed at home and workers exposed on the job. The evaluation of the EMF literature followed procedures developed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), based in Lyon, France. The working group’s report will be the basis for the NIEHS report to Congress on the EMF Research and Public Information Dissemination program (EMF RAPID). The National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) of the United Kingdom noted that the views of its Advisory Group on Non-Ionizing Radiation are “consistent with those of the NIEHS expert panel.”

World Health Organization; International Agency for Research on Cancer; IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans; Volume 80 Non-Ionizing Radiation, Part 1: Static and Extremely Low-Frequency (ELF) Electric and Magnetic Fields; 2002; 429 pages; ISBN 92 832 1280 0;  See  This IARC Monograph provides the rationale for its designation of ELF/EMF as a possible human carcinogen.  It states that:

A few studies on genetic effects have examined chromosomal aberrations and micronuclei in lymphocytes from workers exposed to ELF electric and magnetic fields. In these studies, confounding by genotoxic agents (tobacco, solvents) and comparability between the exposed and control groups are of concern. Thus, the studies reporting an increased frequency of chromosomal aberrations and micronuclei are difficult to interpret.

Many studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of ELF magnetic fields on various genetic end-points. Although increased DNA strand breaks have been reported in brain cells of exposed rodents, the results are inconclusive; most of the studies show no effects in mammalian cells exposed to magnetic fields alone at levels below 50 µT. However, extremely strong ELF magnetic fields have caused adverse genetic effects in some studies. In addition, several groups have reported that ELF magnetic fields enhance the effects of known DNA- and chromosome-damaging agents such as ionizing radiation.

The few animal studies on cancer-related non-genetic effects are inconclusive. Results on the effects on in-vitro cell proliferation and malignant transformation are inconsistent, but some studies suggest that ELF magnetic fields affect cell proliferation and modify cellular responses to other factors such as melatonin. An increase in apoptosis following exposure of various cell lines to ELF electric and magnetic fields has been reported in several studies with different exposure conditions. Numerous studies have investigated effects of ELF magnetic fields on cellular end-points associated with signal transduction, but the results are not consistent.

The European Union effort to address this issue is in the study Risk Evaluation of Potential Environmental Hazards from Low Energy Electromagnetic Field Exposure Using Sensitive in vitro Methods (REFLEX).

Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) in relation to health is a controversial topic throughout the industrial world.  So far epidemiological and animal studies have generated conflicting data and thus uncertainty regarding possible adverse health effects. This situation has triggered controversies in communities especially in Europe with its high density of population and industry and the omnipresence of EMF in infrastructures and consumer products.  These controversies are affecting the siting of facilities, leading people to relocate, schools to close or power lines to be re-sited, all at great expense.  The European Union believes that causality between EMF exposure and disease can never be regarded as proven without knowledge and understanding of the basic mechanisms possibly triggered by EMF.  To search for those basic mechanisms powerful technologies developed in toxicology and molecular biology were to be employed in the REFLEX project to investigate cellular and sub-cellular responses of living cells exposed to EMF in vitro.

The REFLEX data have made a substantial addition to the data base relating to genotoxic and phenotypic effects of both ELF-EMF and RF-EMF on in vitro cellular systems.  While the data neither precludes nor confirms a health risk due to EMF exposure nor was the project designed for this purpose, the value lies in providing new data that will enable mechanisms of EMF effects to be studied more effectively than in the past.  Furthermore, the REFLEX data provide new information that will be used for risk evaluation by WHO, IARC and ICNIRP.  For further information on REFLEX see:


Report of the European Union’s REFLEX Project (Risk Evaluation of Potential Environmental Hazards from Low Frequency Electromagnetic Field Exposure Using Sensitive in vitro Methods), November 2004.  The Project studied ELF and RF exposures to various animal cell types.  The report is found at:

From the Summary:  [t]he omnipresence of EMF’s in infrastructures and consumer products have become a topic of public concern.  This is due to the fear of people that based on the many conflicting research data a risk to their health cannot be excluded with some certainty.  Therefore, the overall objective of REFLEX was to find out whether or not the fundamental biological processes at the cellular and molecular level support such an assumption.  For this purpose, possible effects of EMF’s on cellular events controlling key functions, including those involved in carcinogenesis and in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative disorders, were studied through focused research.  Failure to observe the occurrence of such key critical events in living cells after EMF exposure would have suggested that further research efforts in this field could be suspended and financial resources be reallocated to the investigation of more important issues.  But as clearly demonstrated, the results of the REFLEX project show the way into the opposite direction.

On January 5, 2005, the EMF-Team Finland issued the Helsinki Appeal 2005 to members of the European Parliament.

In it physicians and researchers call on the European Parliament to apply the Precautionary Principle to electromagnetic fields, especially in the radio- and microwave- frequency bands. They criticize the present RF/MW radiation safety standards that do not recognize the biological effects caused by non-thermal exposures to non-ionizing radiation [i.e., RF/MW  radiation.]  They also call for continued refunding of the REFLEX  EMF research program.  The text of the Helsinke Appeal 2005 is found at:

In 1997, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published an evaluation of the existing scientific information on possible health risks from exposure to the extremely low frequency (ELF) electric and magnetic fields (EMF) produced by the generation, transmission, and use of electricity.

As new research results became available, other national and international organizations convened scientific panels with expertise in various fields to conduct new evaluations. These organizations include the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the UK’s National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB; now the Radiation Protection Division of the Health Protection Agency), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the World Health Organization (WHO), which published the most recent EMF health risk evaluation in 2007. In addition, a group of epidemiologists at the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) reviewed the epidemiologic literature on EMF and health in 2001, and scientists at the California Department of Health Services (DHS) published the results of their health risk evaluation in 2002. Conclusions from the major health risk evaluations and reviews are summarized in the excerpts below:

World Health Organization, 2007

A comprehensive WHO EMF health risk assessment was published in the June 2007 Environmental Health Criteria monograph Extremely Low Frequency Fields. The main conclusions, quoted from the assessment, are the following:

Scientific evidence suggesting that everyday, chronic, low-intensity ELF magnetic field exposure poses a possible health risk is based on epidemiological studies demonstrating a consistent pattern of an increased risk of childhood Leukemia. Uncertainties in the hazard assessment include the role of control selection bias and exposure misclassification. In addition, virtually all of the laboratory evidence and the mechanistic evidence fail to support a relationship between low-level ELF magnetic field exposure and changes in biological function or disease status. Thus, on balance, the evidence is not strong enough to be considered causal and therefore ELF magnetic fields remain classified as possibly carcinogenic [IARC classified ELF magnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic in 2001; see below].

A number of other diseases have been investigated for possible association with ELF magnetic field exposure. These include other types of cancers in children and adults, depression, suicide, reproductive dysfunction, developmental disorders, immunological modifications, neurological disease and cardiovascular disease. The scientific evidence supporting a linkage between exposure to ELF magnetic fields and any of these diseases is weaker than for childhood leukemia and in some cases (for example, for cardiovascular disease or breast cancer) the evidence is sufficient to give confidence that magnetic fields do not cause the disease.

From: World Health Organization. Environmental Health Criteria 238. Extremely low frequency fields. World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 2007.

International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2002

In 2002, in its IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans series, IARC published the results of an EMF health risk evaluation conducted by an expert scientific working group that met in 2001. IARC stated at the conclusion of the working group’s review:

IARC has now concluded that ELF magnetic fields are possibly carcinogenic to humans, based on consistent statistical associations of high level residential magnetic fields with a doubling of risk of childhood leukemia. Children who are exposed to residential ELF magnetic fields less than 0.4 microTesla [4 milligauss] have no increased risk for leukemia. . . . no consistent evidence was found that childhood exposures to ELF electric or magnetic fields are associated with brain tumors or any other kinds of solid tumors. No consistent evidence was found that residential or occupational exposures of adults to ELF magnetic fields increase risk for any kind of cancer.

From: International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Finds Limited Evidence that Residential Magnetic

Fields Increase Risk of Childhood Leukemia. Press Release No. 136, 27 June 2001.

National Radiological Protection Board, 2001

The following paragraph summarizes the conclusions of the NRPB’s 2001 evaluation of health risks from EMF:

Laboratory experiments have provided no good evidence that extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields are capable of producing cancer, nor do human epidemiological studies suggest that they cause cancer in general. There is, however, some epidemiological evidence that prolonged exposure to higher levels of power frequency magnetic fields is associated with a small risk of leukemia in children. . . . In the absence of clear evidence of a carcinogenic effect in adults, or of a plausible explanation from experiments on animals or isolated cells, the epidemiological evidence is currently not strong enough to justify a firm conclusion that such fields cause leukemia in children. Unless, however, further research indicates that the finding is due to chance or some currently unrecognized artifact, the possibility remains that intense and prolonged exposures to magnetic fields can increase the risk of leukemia in children.

From: National Radiological Protection Board. ELF Electromagnetic Fields and the Risk of Cancer: Report of an

Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Documents of the NRPB Vol. 12, No. 1. National Radiological

Protection Board, Oxon, UK, 2001.

In a separate review of studies investigating possible associations between EMF and neurodegenerative disease, the NRPB concluded:

There is no good ground for thinking that exposure to extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields can cause Parkinson’s disease and only very weak evidence to suggest that it could cause Alzheimer’s disease. The evidence that people employed in electrical occupations have an increased risk of developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is substantially stronger, but this could be because they run an increased risk of having an electric shock rather than any effect of long-term exposure to the fields per se.

From: National Radiological Protection Board. ELF Electromagnetic Fields and Neurodegenerative Disease: Report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Documents of the NRPB Vol. 12, No. 4. National Radiological Protection Board, Oxon, UK, 2001.

International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, 2001

The ICNIRP Standing Committee on Epidemiology concluded in its review of the epidemiologic literature on EMF and health:

In the absence of evidence from cellular or animal studies, and given the methodological uncertainties and in many cases inconsistencies of the existing epidemiologic literature, there is no chronic disease outcome for which an etiological relation to EMF exposure can be regarded as established. . . . Among all the outcomes evaluated in epidemiologic studies of EMF, childhood leukemia in relation to postnatal exposures above 0.4 [microtesla] is the one for which there is most evidence of an association. . . . On the basis of epidemiologic findings, there is evidence for an association of ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease] with occupational EMF exposure although confounding is a potential explanation. Whether there are associations with breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and suicide and depression remains unresolved.

From: ICNIRP Standing Committee on Epidemiology: A. Ahlbom, E. Cardis, A Green, M Linet, D Savitz, and A Swerdlow. “Review of the Epidemiologic Literature on EMF and Health,” Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 109, Suppl. 6, p. 911.33 (2001).

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 1999

In 1999 the NIEHS submitted a report to the U.S. Congress that summarized the results of both a 6-year EMF research program and a health risk evaluation conducted by an international working group of 30 scientists in 1998. The report concluded:

The scientific evidence suggesting that ELF-EMF exposures pose any health risk is weak. The strongest evidence for health effects comes from associations observed in human populations with two forms of cancer: childhood leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia in occupationally exposed adults. . . . the associations reported for childhood leukemia and adult chronic lymphocytic leukemia cannot be dismissed easily as random or negative findings. The lack of positive findings in animals or in mechanistic studies weakens the belief that this association is actually due to ELF-EMF, but cannot completely discount the finding. . . . no other cancers or non-cancer health outcomes provide sufficient evidence of a risk to warrant concern. . . . 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.

The NIEHS concludes that ELF-EMF exposure cannot be recognized as entirely safe because of weak scientific evidence that exposure may pose a leukemia hazard. In our opinion, this finding is insufficient to warrant aggressive regulatory concern.

From: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. NIEHS Report on Health Effects from Exposure to Power-Line Frequency Electric and Magnetic Fields. NIH Publication No. 99-4493. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, NC, 1999.


USA, PG&E Website – EMF Frequently Asked Questions

What are electric and magnetic fields and are they harmful?

Electric and magnetic fields are invisible fields of force created by electric voltage (electric fields) and by electric current (magnetic fields). Wherever there is a flow of electricity, both electric and magnetic fields are present.

The California Public Utilities Commission and the California Department of Health Services have not concluded that exposure to magnetic fields from utility electric facilities is a health hazard. Pacific Gas and Electric Company, like other utilities, relies on information from the federal and state health agencies which conduct EMF research and monitor this issue to help evaluate potential risks.

Are there safe levels or standards for EMF?

There are no health-based standards for long-term human exposure to EMF in the United States. Agencies at the federal and state levels, including the California Department of Health Services, reviewed previously conducted studies to determine if adverse health effects were associated with EMF and have found no basis for setting health standards.

What actions have the Swedish Government taken about EMF exposure?

Five Swedish government agencies have jointly published a guidance document on how to implement their 1994 EMF policy of “precaution.” The brochure, entitled, “Low-Frequency Electrical and Magnetic Fields: The Precautionary Principle for National Authorities–Guidance for Decision-Makers,” was published in September of 1996.

The five agencies recommended that:

If measures to reduce exposure can be taken at reasonable expense and with reasonable consequences in all other aspects, an effort should be made to reduce fields radically deviating from what could be deemed normal in the environment. Where new electrical installations and buildings are concerned, efforts should be made … at the planning stage to design and position them in such way that exposure will be limited.

The brochure advises readers that numerical electric and magnetic field exposure limits are not warranted, based on the scientific information available to date.