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Does electromagnetic energy cause cancer?

Electromagnetic energy is produced by electricity cables, overhead power cables, and by mobile phones. On this page you can read about

 

Electricity and cancer

Research has looked into the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) produced by electricity in the home and from overhead power lines as a possible cause of cancer. No conclusive link has been found so far. The most recent research studies seem to show that this type of electromagnetic energy does not increase the risk of cancer.

Studies have mainly looked at

Electromagnetic fields and risk of leukaemia

A report in 2001 from the National Radiation Protection Board (NRPB) said that there may be a very slight increased risk for leukaemia in children. The electromagnetic radiation talked about in this report was mostly from domestic use of electricity. Some homes had a high level of magnetic fields produced by electricity. 20 out of every 100 homes (20%) with high level magnetic fields were close to pylons or overhead power cables. The high levels in the other 80 out of every 100 homes (80%) were the result of the electricity supply in the home. The researchers said that out of 500 cases of childhood leukaemia, the risk from electromagnetic fields might add another 2 cases a year. Over two years, 1 of the 4 extra cases would be related to overhead power lines.

A study in 2005 looked at how close children lived to high voltage power lines when they were born. The aim of the study was to find out if this affected their chance of getting leukaemia. It found that children who lived within 200 metres from these lines had an increased risk of getting leukaemia. It also showed a smaller increase in risk for children living between 200 and 600 metres from these lines. This would mean that up to 5 cases of childhood leukaemia per year could be related to overhead power lines. But these results are not straightforward. The researchers said that these results could be due to other factors or chance.

A Danish review of studies published in 2008 looked at electromagnetic fields and childhood leukaemia. The review stated that children exposed over a long time to electromagnetic fields do seem to have a slightly increased risk of leukaemia. But the scientists could not explain why and said that it could be due to chance. Some studies in Australia and Italy have reported childhood leukaemia clusters close to high power radio and television broadcast transmitters. But recent, large, well designed studies in Korea and Germany show no such effect.

A UK report in February 2014 found that children who live near overhead power lines in early life do not have a greater risk of developing childhood leukaemia. The report is from the Childhood Cancer Research Group at the University of Oxford. The researchers looked at nearly 16,500 children diagnosed with leukaemia since the 1990s who lived within a kilometre of overhead power lines. They say that there is no direct biological effect of power lines on leukaemia risk.

Research is likely to continue but it seems unlikely that electromagnetic fields cause cancer. If there were strong links, they are likely to have shown up in the research that has been done so far.

Electromagnetic fields and breast cancer

In 2005, the NRPB became part of the Health Protection Agency, as the radiation safety division. In 2006 their Advisory Group on Non Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) looked into the evidence on electromagnetic radiation and breast cancer risk. The theory was that exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF's) could lower the levels of a hormone called melatonin and that this could increase the risk of breast cancer. After looking at all the available evidence, the group said that exposure to EMFs did not appear to increase the risk of breast cancer. They also said that EMF exposure didn't appear to affect melatonin levels.

 

Mobile phones and cancer

Mobile phones give off radiofrequency energy. Radiofrequency energy is a form of non ionizing electromagnetic radiation. Currently, there is no consistent evidence that non ionizing radiation from mobile phones increases the risk of cancer. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that the electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly a carcinogen in humans. They also say that studies are ongoing to fully assess the potential long term effects of mobile phone use. 

The WHO also says that a large number of studies have been done over the past twenty years to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. So far no adverse health effects have been found. Mobile phones were not used widely until the early 1990s and so longer term effects are not yet known. But animal studies of long term exposure to electromagnetic fields have not shown any increased cancer risk.

 

More information about electromagnetic fields

The Health Protection Agency has more information about electricity and magnetic fields and have published a report on the health effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.

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Updated: 11 February 2014