DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES – Public Health Service
National Institutes of Health
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
P. O. Box 12233
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
May 4, 1999
In 1992, the U.S. Congress authorized the Electric and Magnetic Fields Research and Public Information Dissemination Program (EMF-RAPID Program) in the Energy Policy Act. The Congress instructed the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to direct and manage a program of research and analysis aimed at providing scientific evidence to clarify the potential for health risks from exposure to extremely low frequency electric and magnetic fields (ELF-EMF). The EMF-RAPID Program had three basic components: 1) a research program focusing on health effects research, 2) information compilation and public outreach and 3) a health assessment for evaluation of any potential hazards arising from exposure to ELF-EMF. The NIEHS was directed to oversee the health effects research and evaluation, and the DOE was given the responsibility for overall administration of funding and engineering research aimed at characterizing and mitigating these fields. The Director of the NIEHS was mandated upon completion of the Program to provide this report outlining the possible human health risks associated with exposure to ELF-EMF. The scientific evidence used in preparation of this report has undergone extensive scientific and public review. The entire process was open and transparent. Anyone who wanted “to have a say” was provided the opportunity.
The scientific evidence suggesting that ELF-EMF exposures pose any health risk is weak. The strongest evidence for health effects comes from associations observed in human populations with two forms of cancer: childhood leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia in occupationally exposed adults. While the support from individual studies is weak, the epidemiological studies demonstrate, for some methods of measuring exposure, a fairly consistent pattern of a small, increased risk with increasing exposure that is somewhat weaker for chrononic lymphocytic leukemia than for childhood leukemia. In contrast, the mechanistic studies and the animal toxicology literature fail to demonstrate any consistent pattern across studies although sporadic findings of biological effects have been reported. No indication of increased leukemias in experimental animals has been observed.
The lack of connection between the human data and the experimental data (animal and mechanistic) severely complicates the interpretation of these results. The human data are in the “right” species, are tied to “real life” exposures and show some consistency that is difficult to ignore. This assessment is tempered by the observation that given the weak magnitude of these increased risks, some other factor or common source of error could explain these findings. However, no consistent explanation other than exposure to ELF-EMF has been identified.
Epidemiological studies have serious limitations in their ability to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship whereas laboratory studies, by design, can clearly show that cause and effect are possible. Virtually all of the laboratory evidence in animals and humans and most of the mechanistic work done in cells fail to support a causal relationship between exposure to ELF-EMF at environmental levels and changes in biological function or disease status. The lack of consistent, positive findings in animal or mechanistic studies weakens the belief that this association is actually due to ELF-EMF, but it cannot completely discount the epidemiological findings.
The NIEHS concludes that ELF-EMF exposure cannot be recognized at this time as entirely safe because of weak scientific evidence that exposure may pose a leukemia hazard. In my opinion, the conclusion of this report is insufficient to warrant aggressive regulatory concern. However, because virtually everyone in the United States uses electricity and therefore is routinely exposed to ELF-EMF, passive regulatory action is warranted such as a continued emphasis on educating both the public and the regulated community on means aimed at reducing exposures. The NIEHS does not believe that other cancers or non-cancer health outcomes provide sufficient evidence of a risk to currently warrant concern.
The interaction of humans with ELF-EMF is complicated and will undoubtedly continue to be an area of public concern. The EMF-RAPID Program successfully contributed to the scientific knowledge on ELF-EMF through its support of high quality, hypothesis-based research. While some questions were answered, others remain. Building upon the knowledge base developed under the EMF-RAPID Program, meritorious research on ELF-EMF through carefully designed, hypothesis-driven studies should continue for areas warranting fundamental study including leukemia. Recent research in two areas, neurodegenerative diseases and cardiac diseases associated with heart rate variability, have identified some interesting and novel findings for which further study is ongoing.
Advocacy groups have opposing views concerning the health effects of ELF-EMF. Some advocacy groups want complete exoneration and others want a more serious indictment. Our conclusions are prudent and consistent with the scientific data. I am satisfied with the report and believe it provides a pragmatic, scientifically-driven basis for any further regulatory review.
I am pleased to transmit this report to the U.S. Congress.
Kenneth Olden, Ph.D.