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Electromagnetic fields and cancer risks

Electric and magnetic fields are invisible areas of energy (also called radiation) that are produced by electricity, which is the movement of electrons, or current, through a wire.

An electric field is produced by voltage, which is the pressure used to push the electrons through the wire, much like water being pushed through a pipe. As the voltage increases, the electric field increases in strength. Electric fields are measured in volts per meter (V/m).

A magnetic field results from the flow of current through wires or electrical devices and increases in strength as the current increases. The strength of a magnetic field decreases rapidly with increasing distance from its source. Magnetic fields are measured in microteslas (μT, or millionths of a tesla).

Electric fields are produced whether or not a device is turned on, whereas magnetic fields are produced only when current is flowing, which usually requires a device to be turned on. Power lines produce magnetic fields continuously because current is always flowing through them. Electric fields are easily shielded or weakened by walls and other objects, whereas magnetic fields can pass through buildings, living things, and most other materials.

Electric and magnetic fields together are referred to as electromagnetic fields, or EMFs. The electric and magnetic forces in EMFs are caused by electromagnetic radiation. There are two main categories of EMFs:

  • Higher-frequency EMFs, which include x-rays and gamma rays. These EMFs are in the ionizing radiation part of the electromagnetic spectrum and can damage DNA or cells directly.

  • Low- to mid-frequency EMFs, which include static fields (electric or magnetic fields that do not vary with time), magnetic fields from electric power lines and appliances, radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, and visible light. These EMFs are in the non-ionizing radiation part of the electromagnetic spectrum and are not known to damage DNA or cells directly. Low- to mid-frequency EMFs include extremely low frequency EMFs (ELF-EMFs) and radiofrequency EMFs. ELF-EMFs have frequencies of up to 300 cycles per second, or hertz (Hz), and radiofrequency EMFs range from 3 kilohertz (3 kHz, or 3,000 Hz) to 300 gigahertz (300 GHz, or 300 billion Hz). Radiofrequency radiation is measured in watts per meter squared (W/m2).

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Cancer was first associated with exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) in 1979 when Wertheimer and Leeper reported that children dying from cancer resided more often in homes believed to be exposed to higher EMF than did healthy control children. The risks were as high as 2.23 (1.56-3.18) 3.09 (1.68-5.71) for all cancers, 2.98 (1.72-5.15) for leukemia and 2.40 (1.08-5.36) for brain cancers. Wire configuration around houses was used as a surrogate for direct EMF exposure measurements. Wertheimer's finding of an association between cancer and wire configuration around houses has been replicated in two recent studies. However, direct measurement of EMF fields in houses of cancer children have not yielded the same results as the wire configuration around houses, thereby jeopardizing the hypothesis of an association between EMF and cancer. To comprehend the putative association between residential exposure to EMF and childhood cancer, one would have to understand what is hidden behind the notion of 'wire configuration' around the house. In parallel with residential studies, scores of studies were conducted among workers occupationally exposed to EMF. What have we learned from these occupational studies? Hypotheses generating and case control studies have revealed the existence of an excess risk of leukemia among electrical workers. Pooled results have estimated the risk for all leukemia to be 1.18 (1.09-1.29) and for acute myeloid leukemia 1.46 (1.27-1.64). An increased risk of leukemia among electrical workers does not necessarily mean that EMF is a causal agent, other chemicals such as benzene, creosote, solvent, could possibly account for it but this has yet to be confirmed.

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This epidemiologic investigation comprised separate studies of the risk of cancer, cause-specific mortality rates, risks for neurodegenerative diseases, and the risk of arrhythmia-related heart disease among employees exposed to extremely low-frequency (50-Hz) electromagnetic fields (EMF) in the Danish utility industry. All the employees in this industry were followed-up in several registers. The risk of disease was analyzed in relation to occupational exposure to EMF, latency, and duration of employment. A specific job-exposure matrix was developed and validated by comparison with direct measurements of EMF during a workday. Linkage with the Danish Cancer Register did not identify increased risks for the cancers suggested a priori to be associated with exposure to EMF, including leukemia, brain tumors, and breast cancer. Significantly increased risks for lung cancer and mesothelioma were identified for workers highly exposed to asbestos. Linkage with the National Mortality Register revealed a significantly increased overall mortality rate from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), with an increasing trend with duration of employment and EMF exposure. In addition, a significantly increased mortality rate from electric accidents was observed. It was hypothesized that the observation of increased mortality from ALS was associated with exposure to EMF or electric shocks. No increased mortality rate from cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease was observed. Linkage with the National Hospital Register also revealed an increased risk of ALS and, thereby confirmed the finding of an increased mortality rate for this disease in the previous study. Linkage of the cohort with the Multiple Sclerosis Register revealed an increased risk of multiple sclerosis, which was not, however, significant. Linkage with the Pacemaker Register showed no increased risk of severe arrhythmia-related heart disease. The second part of the study included the establishment of a large, nationwide cohort of mobile phone subscribers comprising some 420 000 persons. No increased risk was observed for the cancers considered a priori to be possibly associated with the radiofrequency fields emitted by mobile phones, which were brain tumors, including acoustic neuroma, salivary gland tumors, and leukemia. The data were analyzed by duration of phone use, latency, system used (NMT, GSM or both) and age at first subscription. A study of the incidence of ocular malignant melanoma in comparison with the annual increase among the mobile phone subscribers showed a highly stable incidence rate for this rare cancer in Denmark over close to 50 years of registration. On the basis of these studies and the scientific literature, it is concluded that occupational exposure to 50-Hz EMF is not associated with an increased risk of cancer, but that these fields, electric shocks, or some other unknown factor related to alternating current electricity may be associated with the risk of ALS. There is no clear evidence that 50-Hz EMF is associated with other neurodegenerative or cardiovascular diseases. At present, there is little, if any, evidence that the use of mobile phones is associated with cancer in adults, including brain tumors, acoustic neuroma, cancer of the salivary glands, leukemia, or malignant melanoma of the eye.

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