Electric and magnetic fields at power frequencies

Chronic Dis Can. 2010;29 Suppl 1:69-83.


Exposures to electric and magnetic fields are among the most ubiquitous exposures that the Canadian population experiences. Sources of electric and magnetic field exposures may be occupational or residential and include proximity to certain types of electrical equipment, transmission and distribution power lines as well as appliance use. The early studies of children tended toward a consistent association between risks for leukemia and brain cancer and residential proximity to power lines having high wire configuration. More recent studies-and studies which have attempted to improve upon the measurement of exposure by using calculated fields, point-in-time or personal monitoring-have been inconsistent, with some suggesting increased risk and others not. Occupational exposures have suggested an increase in risk for leukemia, and to a lesser extent brain cancer and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, studies of residential exposures and cancer in adults generally have suggested no effect. Laboratory work has been unable to demonstrate a biological mechanism which might explain the epidemiological findings. In spite of extensive efforts over the past 20 years and many expert reviews, it has been difficult to reach consensus regarding the carcinogenic effects of electric and magnetic fields. Exposure assessment has proven to be complex, and agreement on the relevant exposure metric has not yet been obtained. There is justification to question whether point-in-time measures in homes are appropriate indices of the relevant etiological exposure, as they fail to account for changes over time, peak exposures or time-varying fields. Nevertheless, it is probably desirable to err on the side of caution in not placing too much weight on the inconsistencies. The IARC has classified EMF as a "possible carcinogen" which refers to the circumstances where there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and inadequate evidence in experimental animals. The IARC review indicated limited evidence for the carcinogenicity of extremely low-frequency magnetic fields in relation to childhood leukemia at high level exposure in the residential environment (average residential magnetic field strength >0.4 μT). Even higher levels of exposure in the occupational environment may increase the risk of leukemia in adults.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Causality
  • Electromagnetic Fields / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Environmental Monitoring / standards
  • Epidemiological Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Leukemia / epidemiology*
  • Leukemia / etiology*
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology
  • Risk Assessment / methods
  • Risk Assessment / standards