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Health Effects

Electric and magnetic fields are complex physical agents whose potential health effects are the subject of much research. Particularly controversial are the biophysical mechanisms by which these RF fields may affect biological systems. General health effects reviews explore possible carcinogenic, reproductive and neurological effects. Health effects by exposure source are noted in radar traffic devices, wireless communications with cellular phones, radio transmission, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

General Health Effects Reviews
  • IARC Classifies Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans. WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), (2011, May 31). The WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.
  • The NCRP Releases Commentary No. 18, Biological Effects of Modulated Radiofrequency Fields. National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP). Examines the literature on biological effects of exposure to modulated radiofrequency (RF) energy to determine whether present exposure standards and guidelines need to be modified further to take modulation into account. Modulation occurs in a wide variety of forms specialized for radar, wireless communications, broadcast communications, and industrial processes.
  • 2003 WHO research agenda for radio frequency fields. World Health Organization (WHO). The RF Research Agenda defines high priority research whose results would contribute to the WHO health risk assessment for RF exposures. Researchers are encouraged to use the Research Agenda as a guide to studies that have high value for WHO health risk assessments.
  • Heynick LN, Johnston HA, et al. "Radio frequency electromagnetic fields: cancer, mutagenesis, and genotoxicity." Bioelectromagnetics Suppl 6(2003):S74-100. Presents critiques of epidemiologic studies and experimental investigations, published mostly in peer-reviewed journals, on cancer and related effects from exposure to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields in the nominal frequency range of 3 kHz to 300 GHz of interest to Subcommittee 4 (SC4) of the International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety (ICES). The preponderance of published epidemiologic and experimental findings do not support the supposition that in vivo or in vitro exposures to such fields are carcinogenic.
  • "Review of the Epidemiologic Literature on EMF and Health." International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) Standing Committee on Epidemiology. Environmental Health Perspectives 109.6(2001, December):911-34. Concludes that overall, despite 20 years of extensive epidemiologic investigation of the relation of EMF to risk of chronic disease, there are still epidemiologic questions that need to be resolved.
  • Questions and Answers About the Biological Effects and Potential Hazards of Radiofrequency Radiation (PDF). Federal Communication Commission, Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) Bulletin No. 56, (1999, August). Provides factual information to the public by answering some of the most commonly asked questions about this complex and often misunderstood topic.
  • Establishing a Dialogue on Risks from Electromagnetic Fields (PDF). World Health Organization (WHO), (2002). Supports decision-makers faced with a combination of public controversy, scientific uncertainty, and the need to operate existing facilities and/or the requirement to site new facilities appropriately. Its goal is to improve the decision-making process by reducing misunderstandings and improving trust through better dialogue.
  • EPA Letter Accepting FCC Limits. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), (1999). Provides a general EPA statement that people do not have to be concerned about RF radiation if they keep their exposures below the FCC standard.
  • Radio-Frequency and Microwave Radiation, Third Edition. American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), (2004). Provides a detailed look at the physical characteristics of radio-frequency and microwave radiation, its generation and sources, how it interacts with matter, and its biological effects. Existing standards and guidelines are discussed, as are instrumentation and controls. A handy glossary provides definitions of important terms, and an appendix presents a list of problems industrial hygienists and other health professionals might face.
  • Understanding Radiation. National Safety Council (NSC). Provides an overview of radiation and includes a section on non-ionizing radiation.
Health Effects by Exposure Source

Traffic Radar Devices

  • Occupational Exposure of Police Officers to Microwave Radiation from Traffic Radar Devices. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), National Technical Information Service (NTIS) Publication No. PB95-261350, (1995, June). Includes exposure assessments and an analysis of existing record sources for possible epidemiological studies.

RF Heaters and Sealers

  • Radiofrequency (RF) Sealers and Heaters. US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Publication No. 80-107, (1979, December). Reports that workers near RF sealers may be unaware of their exposure to RF emissions, because the RF energy from sealers and heaters can penetrate deeply into the body without activating the heat sensors located in the skin. The results of a NIOSH study indicate that the majority of the workers surveyed were exposed to RF energy at levels exceeding values citable by OSHA. An extensive list of occupations involving the use of RF sealers and heaters is presented in Section II of the Appendix.

Wireless Communications including Cellular Phones

  • Telecommunications: Research and Regulatory Efforts on Mobile Phone Health Issues (PDF). US General Accounting Office (GAO) Report to Congressional Requesters, (2001, May). Concludes that research to date does not show RF energy emitted from mobile phones to have adverse health effects but there is not enough information to conclude they pose no risk.
  • FDA Letter Regarding Cellular Phones. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), (1997, May 5). Letter to Congress from the Food and Drug Administration in response to questions regarding alleged health hazards associated with the use of cellular phones. The appendix includes brief summaries of six recent studies.
  • FDA Letter Regarding Wireless Communication. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), (1998, January 14). Letter to Congress regarding the status of the Food and Drug Administration's oversight and investigation of wireless communication health effects.
  • Cell Phones. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Radio Transmission

  • Radiofrequency Radiation-caused Burns. OSHA Hazard Information Bulletin (HIB), (1990, September 5). Describes induced-current grasping hazards and burns caused by spark-discharges found in longshoremen working on a pier in close proximity to AM radio transmitting towers. Suggested control methods are included.
  • Schilling CJ. "Effects of exposure to very high frequency radiofrequency radiation on six antenna engineers in two separate incidents." Occupational Medicine (London) 50.1(2000, January):49-56. Describes the health effects on six men exposed to high levels of RF radiation (100 MHz) while working on transmission masts. Symptoms included headache, paresthesia, diarrhea, malaise and lassitude. The condition of the four men with the highest exposure has shown no significant improvement. The incidents occurred in 1995 and 1996.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)


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