Low-level exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields: health effects and research needs

Bioelectromagnetics. 1998;19(1):1-19.


The World Health Organization (WHO), the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), and the German and Austrian Governments jointly sponsored an international seminar in November of 1996 on the biological effects of low-level radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields. For purposes of this seminar, RF fields having frequencies only in the range of about 10 MHz to 300 GHz were considered. This is one of a series of scientific review seminars held under the International Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Project to identify any health hazards from EMF exposure. The scientific literature was reviewed during the seminar and expert working groups formed to provide a status report on possible health effects from exposure to low-level RF fields and identify gaps in knowledge requiring more research to improve health risk assessments. It was concluded that, although hazards from exposure to high-level (thermal) RF fields were established, no known health hazards were associated with exposure to RF sources emitting fields too low to cause a significant temperature rise in tissue. Biological effects from low-level RF exposure were identified needing replication and further study. These included in vitro studies of cell kinetics and proliferation effects, effects on genes, signal transduction effects and alterations in membrane structure and function, and biophysical and biochemical mechanisms for RF field effects. In vivo studies should focus on the potential for cancer promotion, co-promotion and progression, as well as possible synergistic, genotoxic, immunological, and carcinogenic effects associated with chronic low-level RF exposure. Research is needed to determine whether low-level RF exposure causes DNA damage or influences central nervous system function, melatonin synthesis, permeability of the blood brain barrier (BBB), or reaction to neurotropic drugs. Reported RF-induced changes to eye structure and function should also be investigated. Epidemiological studies should investigate: the use of mobile telephones with hand-held antennae and incidence of various cancers; reports of headache, sleep disturbance, and other subjective effects that may arise from proximity to RF emitters, and laboratory studies should be conducted on people reporting these effects; cohorts with high occupational RF exposure for changes in cancer incidence; adverse pregnancy outcomes in various highly RF exposed occupational groups; and ocular pathologies in mobile telephone users and in highly RF exposed occupational groups. Studies of populations with residential exposure from point sources, such as broadcasting transmitters or mobile telephone base stations have caused widespread health concerns among the public, even though RF exposures are very low. Recent studies that may indicate an increased incidence of cancer in exposed populations should be investigated further.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Austria
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / drug effects
  • Cell Cycle / radiation effects
  • Cell Membrane / radiation effects
  • Clinical Protocols*
  • Electromagnetic Fields / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Genes / drug effects
  • Germany
  • Government Agencies
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / etiology
  • Occupational Exposure
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome
  • Radio Waves / adverse effects*
  • Risk Factors
  • Telephone
  • World Health Organization