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Electromagnetic Fields 2015 Update

1. Introduction to electromagnetic fields

  • 1.1 What are electromagnetic fields?
  • 1.2 How have the health risks of electromagnetic fields been reassessed?
  • 1.3 What was the aim and outcome of the public consultation organised on the 2014 preliminary draft of Opinion on EMF?

1.1 What are electromagnetic fields?

In this summary, the term electromagnetic field is used as a generic term comprising static magnetic and electric fields, low frequency alternating electric and magnetic fields and radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic fields. While up to the RF range electric and magnetic fields can be considered independently from each other, in the RF range, like the links of a chain they are tightly coupled together. They may be of natural origin such as the earth’s magnetostatic field or friction-generated electric fields (which may be experienced as micro shocks when touching objects), or broad-band electromagnetic fields caused by lightning strokes or solar activity. The technical use of electricity mainly causes sinusoidally alternating fields which may be generated in the low frequency range (e.g. household appliances, power lines), intermediate frequency range (e.g. energy saving lamps, electronic article surveillance systems) as well as in the radio frequency range (e.g. broadcasting antennas, mobile telecommunication, microwave ovens).

Static magnetic fields of technical origin are generated by permanent magnets such as used in magnetic clasps or closures (e.g. in necklets, underwear, handbags or holders) or by direct currents such as in battery appliances while extremely high magnetostatic fields are applied at some workplaces and in medical imaging.

1.2 How have the health risks of electromagnetic fields been reassessed?

As part of its mandate, the SCENIHR is asked to continuously monitor new scientific evidence that may influence the assessment of risks to human health in the area of electromagnetic fields (EMF) and to provide regular updates to the Commission. The purpose of this Opinion was to update the SCENIHR Opinion of 2009 in light of newly available information and to give special consideration to areas where important knowledge gaps were identified in the previous Opinions. In addition, biophysical interaction mechanisms and the potential role of co-exposures to environmental stressors have been addressed.

The review of relevant scientific publications was undertaken. Studies used in SCENIHR opinions are obtained primarily from original research papers published in international peer-reviewed scientific journals and weighted according to criteria established by the SCENIHR Memorandum 'Use of the scientific literature for risk assessment purposes – a weight of evidence approach. The Committee has reviewed more than 700 studies published mainly after 2009 (when the previous Opinion was published) up to June 2014. Areas where the literature is particularly scarce are pointed out, and an explanation is given when studies are not included because their results do not add useful information to the database. This assessment evaluates both potential effects on groups of people who have been exposed to electromagnetic fields in their daily lives (epidemiological evidence) and potential effects observed in laboratory experiments carried out on human volunteers, animals, and cell cultures (experimental evidence).

Based on this combined evidence, the assessment estimates whether a causal link exists between exposure to electromagnetic fields and reported adverse health effects. The answer to this question is not necessarily a definitive yes or no, but reflects the weight of the evidence for or against a causal link between EMF exposure and effect. If such a link is found, the risk assessment estimates how strong the health effect is and how great the health risk would be for different exposure levels and exposure patterns (dose-response relationship). The nature and the extent of uncertainties are highlighted and the way in which electromagnetic fields might cause effects (plausible mechanism) are evaluated.

1.3 What was the aim and outcome of the public consultation organised on the 2014 preliminary draft of Opinion on EMF?

In the process of preparing their Opinions, the Scientific Committee conducts open public consultations by presenting the preliminary Opinion and gathering specific comments and contributions. In the case of the Opinion on EMF, a public consultation was open on the website of the Scientific Committees from 4 February to 16 April 2014. In addition, a public hearing was held in Athens, on 27 March 2014. Fifty-seven organisations and individuals participated in the public consultation providing 186 comments to different chapters and sections of the Opinion. Each submission was carefully considered by the SCENIHR and the scientific Opinion has been revised to take account of relevant comments.

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