Dr. Magda Havas, PhD Environmental Studies Research Papers

Biological Effects of ELF Fields, Chapter London

Posted on October 8, 2009

Havas, M. 2004. Chapter 10. Biological Effects of Low Frequency Electromagnetic Fields. pp 207-232. In: D. Clements-Croome (Ed.). Electromagnetic Environments and Health in Buildings. Spon Press, London, 535 pp.


The biological effects of low frequency electric and magnetic fields2 (EMF) have become a topic of considerable scientific scrutiny during the past two decades. The flurry of research in this area has contributed greatly to our understanding of the complex electromagnetic environment to which we are exposed but it has not abated the controversy associated with the harmful effects of electromagnetic fields. If anything it has polarized scientists into two camps, those who think exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields causes health effects and those who do not. Those who believe there is a causal association are trying to find the mechanism responsible and those who question the concept of causality think this research is a waste of time and money.

Controversy is the norm when complex environmental issues with substantial economic and health consequences are scientifically scrutinized. Asbestos, lead, acid rain, tobacco smoke, DDT, PCBs (and more recently estrogen mimics) were all contentious issues and were debated for decades in scientific publications and in the popular press before their health effects and the mechanisms responsible were understood. In some cases the debate was scientifically legitimate, while in others interested parties deliberately confuse the issue to delay legislation (Havas et al 1984). The public, uncomfortable with scientific controversy and unable to determine the legitimacy of a scientific debate, wants a clear answer to the question, "Are low frequency electric and magnetic fields harmful?"

As a direct response to public concern three major reports, with multiple contributors with diverse expertise, have been published recently on the health effects of low frequency electric and magnetic fields: one by the U.S. National Research Council (1997), another by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Portier and Wolfe, 1998), and the most recent, still in draft form, by the California EMF Program (2001). These influential reports attempt to make sense of the many, and sometimes contradictory, documents from different fields of study, related to the health effects of power-line frequency fields.

The purpose of the present paper is three-fold:

(1) To characterize human exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields;
(2) To identify key biological markers and possible mechanisms linked to EMF exposure;
(3) To comment on the concept of scientific consistency and bias.

The question "Are low frequency electric and magnetic fields harmful?" is valid and timely. The answer is likely to have far reaching consequences, considering our growing dependence on electric power, computer technology, and wireless communication, and it is likely to be of interest to a large population using, manufacturing, selling, and regulating this technology.

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