Power lines and cancer
Everything that uses or carries electricity, from household appliances to power lines, produces an electromagnetic field (EMF). There is a lot of worry that EMFs produced by power lines can cause cancer, particularly leukaemia in children.
Power lines and childhood leukaemia
There is little strong evidence to link power lines to adult cancers. But some studies have suggested a statistical link between exposure to EMFs and a slightly higher risk of childhood leukaemia.
The UK has very low levels of EMF compared to countries like the USA. One study that looked at the existing evidence suggested that the average EMF levels in the UK do not increase the risk of any cancer.
But the very highest levels of EMF were associated with double the risk of childhood leukaemia. If this effect is real, it would mean one extra case per year for every 10,000 people living in affected homes. But bear in mind that only about 1 in 250 UK homes experience EMF levels that high.
Despite this association, we cannot say for sure that EMFs actually cause childhood leukaemia. The link could be explained by biases in the research or by something else that is common to homes with high EMF levels. And one of the largest studies – the UK Childhood Cancer Study (UKCSS) – found that even children from UK homes with the highest estimated EMF levels do not have higher risks of childhood leukaemia.
Because the evidence is limited and inconsistent, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified EMFs as a ‘possible’ cause of cancer. This means that there might be a risk but we cannot say for sure.
Even if future research shows that EMFs from power lines can cause childhood leukaemia, they are unlikely to be a major cause of this disease. Fewer than one in a hundred children in the UK who develop leukaemia live in homes with the highest EMF levels.
EMFs may not cause cancer directly
As with mobile phones, there is still no clear explanation for how EMFs could cause cancer. Although these fields do induce electric currents in our body, they are many times smaller than the currents that normally run through our bodies, like those that control our heartbeats.
Some scientists have suggested that electric fields could attract airborne particles and increase the chance of them being inhaled or deposited on the skin. This is called the ‘corona effect’. A report from the Health Protection Agency concluded that this effect is real, but is likely to be small and may only have minor effects. More research will tell us if the corona effect is large enough to cause health problems.
The World Health Organisation has recommended that some precautions could be taken but the current evidence is not strong enough to warrant anything beyond very low cost measures. These include more research and setting limits to EMF levels.
For more information about power lines, EMFs and cancer, visit the Health Protection Agency’s website.
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team