Electromagnetic fields (EMF)

What are electromagnetic fields?

Precautionary approaches

With more and more research data available, it has become increasingly unlikely that exposure to electromagnetic fields constitutes a serious health hazard, nevertheless, some uncertainty remains. The original scientific discussion about the interpretation of controversial results has shifted to become a societal as well as political issue.

The public debate over electromagnetic fields focuses on the potential detriments of electromagnetic fields but often ignores the benefits associated with electromagnetic field technology. Without electricity, society would come to a standstill. Similarly, broadcasting and telecommunications have become a simple fact of modern life. An analysis of the balance between cost and potential hazards is essential.

Protection of public health

International guidelines and national safety standards for electromagnetic fields are developed on the basis of the current scientific knowledge to ensure that the fields humans encounter are not harmful to health. To compensate uncertainties in knowledge (due, for example, to experimental errors, extrapolation from animals to humans, or statistical uncertainty), large safety factors are incorporated into the exposure limits. The guidelines are regularly reviewed and updated if necessary. It has been suggested that taking additional precautions to cope with remaining uncertainties may be a useful policy to adopt while science improves knowledge on health consequences. However, the type and extent of the cautionary policy chosen critically depends on the strength of evidence for a health risk and the scale and nature of the potential consequences. The cautionary response should be proportional to the potential risk. For more information, see the WHO Backgrounder on Cautionary Policies.

Several policies promoting caution have been developed to address concerns about public, occupational and environmental health and safety issues connected with chemical and physical agents.

What should be done while research continues?

One of the objectives of the International EMF Project is to help national authorities weigh the benefits of using electromagnetic field technologies against the possibility that a health risk might be discovered. Furthermore, the WHO will issue recommendations on protective measures, if they may be needed. It will take some years for the required research to be completed, evaluated and published. In the meantime, the World Health Organization has issued a series of recommendations:

  • Strict adherence to existing national or international safety standards: such standards, based on current knowledge, are developed to protect everyone in the population with a large safety factor.
  • Simple protective measures: barriers around strong electromagnetic field sources help preclude unauthorized access to areas where exposure limits may be exceeded.
  • Consultation with local authorities and the public in siting new power lines or mobile phone base stations: siting decisions are often required to take into account aesthetics and public sensitivities. Open communication during the planning stages can help create public understanding and greater acceptance of a new facility.
  • Communication: an effective system of health information and communication among scientists, governments, industry and the public can help raise general awareness of programmes dealing with exposure to electromagnetic fields and reduce any mistrust and fears.

For further information, see the WHO Fact Sheets on Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health