Review of the epidemiologic literature on EMF and Health

Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Dec;109 Suppl 6(Suppl 6):911-33. doi: 10.1289/ehp.109-1240626.


Exposures to extremely low-frequency electric and magnetic fields (EMF) emanating from the generation, transmission, and use of electricity are a ubiquitous part of modern life. Concern about potential adverse health effects was initially brought to prominence by an epidemiologic report two decades ago from Denver on childhood cancer. We reviewed the now voluminous epidemiologic literature on EMF and risks of chronic disease and conclude the following: a) The quality of epidemiologic studies on this topic has improved over time and several of the recent studies on childhood leukemia and on cancer associated with occupational exposure are close to the limit of what can realistically be achieved in terms of size of study and methodological rigor. b) Exposure assessment is a particular difficulty of EMF epidemiology, in several respects: i) The exposure is imperceptible, ubiquitous, has multiple sources, and can vary greatly over time and short distances. ii) The exposure period of relevance is before the date at which measurements can realistically be obtained and of unknown duration and induction period. iii) The appropriate exposure metric is not known and there are no biological data from which to impute it. c) In the absence of experimental evidence and given the methodological uncertainties in the epidemiologic literature, there is no chronic disease for which an etiological relation to EMF can be regarded as established. d) There has been a large body of high quality data for childhood cancer, and also for adult leukemia and brain tumor in relation to occupational exposure. Among all the outcomes evaluated in epidemiologic studies of EMF, childhood leukemia in relation to postnatal exposures above 0.4 microT is the one for which there is most evidence of an association. The relative risk has been estimated at 2.0 (95% confidence limit: 1.27-3.13) in a large pooled analysis. This is unlikely to be due to chance but, may be, in part, due to bias. This is difficult to interpret in the absence of a known mechanism or reproducible experimental support. In the large pooled analysis only 0.8% of all children were exposed above 0.4 microT. Further studies need to be designed to test specific hypotheses such as aspects of selection bias or exposure. On the basis of epidemiologic findings, evidence shows an association of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis with occupational EMF exposure although confounding is a potential explanation. Breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and suicide and depression remain unresolved.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / etiology*
  • Brain Neoplasms / etiology
  • Breast Neoplasms / etiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / etiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Chronic Disease
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Depression / etiology
  • Electromagnetic Fields / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Leukemia / etiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Pregnancy
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design
  • Risk Assessment
  • Suicide