WHO Report on Low Frequency Fields & EMFs

World Health Organisation Report on Low Frequency Fields and EMFs - Update
(provided by the National Radiation Laboratory of the Ministry of Health)

In 2007, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published its report on the health effects of exposures to extremely low frequency (ELF) electric and magnetic fields (EMFs). For an information sheet, please click here. For a copy of the full report, please click here.

The National Radiation Laboratory (NRL) and Ministry of Health (MoH) believe the approach already taken in New Zealand through compliance with exposure guidelines such as those published by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), along with the adoption of very low cost measures to reduce exposures is appropriate. Looking forward, perhaps more can be done to raise awareness of the issues in the electrical industry, in particular the recommendation to take very low cost measures to reduce exposures where this can be done without compromising safety, reliability or cost-effectiveness. NRL do not see any need for additional Standards or regulatory actions, but rather better communications of the findings to interested parties and some discussion as to what actions may be relevant for them.

The following is a brief summary of the WHO findings and recommendations from their report.

Summary of findings:

  • There are established acute effects of exposure to ELF EMF, and compliance with existing international guidelines provides adequate protection.
  • Epidemiological studies suggest an increased risk of childhood leukemia for chronic exposures greater than 0.3 – 0.4 *T. Some aspects of the methodology of these studies introduce uncertainties in the hazard assessment. Laboratory evidence and mechanistic studies do not support a causal relationship, but the evidence is sufficiently strong to remain a concern.
  • If the relationship is causal, the global impact on public health, if any, is limited and uncertain.
  • Scientific data suggesting a linkage with other diseases (other childhood and adult cancers, depression, suicide, reproductive problems, developmental and immunological disorders, and neurological disease) is much weaker, and in some cases (eg. cardiovascular disease, breast cancer) sufficient to rule out a causal relationship.

Summary of recommendations:

  • Exposure limits such as those recommended by ICNIRP should be implemented to protect against the established acute effects of exposure to ELF EMF.
  • In view of the conclusions on childhood leukemia, the use of precautionary approaches is reasonable and warranted but exposure limits should not be reduced arbitrarily in the name of precaution.
  • Precautionary approaches should not compromise the health, social and economic benefits of electric power. Given the weakness of the link between exposures to ELF fields and childhood leukemia, and the limited impact on public health if the relationship is causal, the benefits of exposure reductions are unclear, so the cost of precautionary measures should be very low.
  • Very low cost measures should be implemented when constructing new facilities and designing new equipment.
  • When contemplating changes to existing ELF sources, ELF field reduction should be considered alongside safety, reliability and economic aspects.

NRL is presently revising their publication “Electric and magnetic fields and your health” (2001) and the new publication is expected to be available in August 2008 and we will advise as soon as the new publication is available. The EEA will continue to monitor EMF issues and is in regular liaison with the NRL. The EEA representative on the Ministry of Health - Interagency Committee on the Health effects of Non-Ionising Fields is Tim Chatterton from Vector.

If you have any comments or queries regarding the WHO report or ELF/EMF issue, please contact Martin Gledhill, Senior Science Advisor, National Radiation Laboratory on phone (03) 366 5059.