Perception of ELF electromagnetic fields: excitation thresholds and inter-individual variability

Health Phys. 2007 Jun;92(6):591-5. doi: 10.1097/01.HP.0000243128.29337.aa.


So far, in guidelines limiting exposure to electromagnetic fields, basic limits of intracorporal electric current densities have been recommended to prevent from nerve cell stimulation. They were based on experimental data and extrapolated to the general population with limited knowledge on the inter-individual variability. To assess the variability of cellular excitability the perception thresholds for directly applied electric currents were used as surrogate. However, until recently, the data on perception ability of electric currents were gained from small groups only and led to controversial results, differing by more than one order of magnitude. This paper discusses the results of our previous research comprising extensive measurements on 1,071 individuals (349 men and 359 women aging 16 to 60 y, 117 girls and 123 boys aging 9 to 16 years, and 123 individuals older than 60 y). Their electric current perception thresholds fit fairly well with a log-normal distribution. The electric 50 Hz current perception threshold was measured by directly applied pairs of electrodes at the lower forearms. It was found that the inter-individual variability comprises two orders of magnitudes which is one order of magnitude higher than assumed so far. Women were found to be significantly more sensitive than men. Depending on the level of probability p, the perception threshold for women was 0.77-fold (p = 50%) or even 0.45-fold (p = 0.5%) lower than for men. Surprisingly, children turned out to be considerably more sensitive than men but similar to women. The age dependence exhibited a decrease of perception thresholds with age from adult men to boys joining the values of girls at ages around 10 y. The results indicate that existing safety limits for touch currents need critical review. Apart from the inter-individual variability, it was estimated to which place within the distribution of perception levels the basic limits were related. Therefore, numerical simulations were made to calculate intracorporal electric current densities associated with the applied electric currents. The results confirm that the basic limits of intracorporal electric current densities as recommended by ICNIRP are conservative to prevent cellular excitation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Electric Stimulation*
  • Electricity*
  • Electromagnetic Fields*
  • Female
  • Forearm / innervation
  • Forearm / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Biological
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Radiation Dosage
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology*
  • Sex Factors