Electromagnetic fields (EMF)

Research agenda

Process for determining research needs

The criteria used to evaluate health risks by the International EMF Project are adapted from those used by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (Repacholi and Cardis, 1997). Research needs are identified when the evidence for a health risk is judged suggestive, but insufficient to meet the criteria for assessing health risk. Research needs are established on the basis of unconfirmed effects having implications for health, and replication of key studies to confirm important positive or negative effects. Thus, the overall goal is to promote studies which demonstrate a reproducible effect of EMF exposure that has the likelihood to occur in humans and has a potential adverse health effect.

The research needs cover several different types of studies, including epidemiology, laboratory studies and dosimetry. All of these play important individual and collective roles in identifying possible adverse effects on health and in providing information on the need for, and appropriate levels of, protection. While in vitro studies can provide important insights into fundamental mechanisms for biological effects from exposure to low-level EMF, in vivo studies, whether on animals or human beings, provide more convincing evidence of adverse health consequences. Epidemiological studies provide the most direct information on risks of adverse effects in human beings. However, these studies have limitations, especially when low relative risks are found.

In both the scientific reviews and the Environmental Health Criteria, WHO endeavors to be inclusive of scientific literature published worldwide when identifying gaps in knowledge. It endeavors to review studies from countries such as Russia and China where publication is sometimes less accessible to English speakers and therefore tends to be less frequently cited in many EMF reviews.

Priority should be given to studies designed to investigate health hazards of concern to the general public, hazards of potential public health importance (based on the size of the populations potentially exposed, the extent of their exposure, and the seriousness of the hypothesized adverse effect), and studies of scientific importance (e.g., testing the relevance of effects observed or mechanisms postulated on the basis of in vitro or in vivo results).