Health – Cancer

Leukaemia is a malignant disease of the blood system (“cancer of the blood”) in which the white blood corpuscles multiply in a diseased and pathological manner (see photo). Several forms of the disease are known. Leukaemia makes up 2.5% of all yearly diagnosed cancer cases. For ALL (acute lamphatic leukaemia), the incidence rates of the younger age groups are markedly increased (see graph). The causes of leukaemia are not yet clarified. Triggering factors under discussion include:  

  • Chemicals
  • Ionising radiation
  • Various viruses
  • Genetic defects

The influence of electromagnetic fields

Low frequency magnetic fields such as those emanating from power supply equipment and electrical devices have been under suspicion of increasing the risk of leukaemia in children for some thirty years. In some epidemiological studies a statistically significant connection between childhood leukaemia and the strength of the magnetic field in homes close to high tension power lines were found. According to these studies, children having a long term (several years) exposure above a critical field strength (approx. 0.4 microtesla) have possibly twice as high a risk of suffering leukaemia. This can be extrapolated as about one additional case of child leukaemia per year in Switzerland. Nothing is known about a possible biological mechanism. 

Concerning leukaemia in adults, the results are inconsistent with regard to both occupational and domestic exposure. The most recent data tend to point towards lower risks compared to older study results. The papers that show increased risks are heterogenuous regarding cancer type and exposure assessment. Overall, the data is not yet strong enough to draw firm conclusions.

Due to (i) the statistical associations between leukaemia - primarily childhood leukaemia - and powerlines, and (ii) the absence of any knowledge about potential mechanisms, WHO labelled ELF magnetic fields as a possible human carcinogen. Please keep in mind: Many substances that humans regularly consume or are exposed to belong to the WHO category "possibly carcinogenic to humans".

Individual studies also point to an increased risk of child leukaemia in the vicinity of radio and TV sets. These indications are however few and controversial, and involve individual items of equipment. Systematic analysis of many sets has, until now, found no connection to childhood leukaemia. These findings also apply to mobile communications. Currently there is no sound evidence that handsets, mobile communications base stations, or broadcasting antennas are a risk factor for leukaemia in children or adults.


Until now there is no scientific evidence of an increased risk of leukaemia due to low or high frequency electromagnetic fields. However there are indications of a possibly increased risk to children who live close to high tension power lines. If the correlation really exists, Switzerland has to calculate with about one additional case of childhood leukaemia per year.

Selected literature (overviews)

BioInitiative Working Group (2012). Health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. BioInitiative Report, www.bioinitiative.org. Section 12.

Bunch, K.J., Keegan, T.J., Swanson J., Cincence, T.J.. Murphy, M.F.G. (2014). Residential distance at birth from Overhead high-voltage powerlines: childhood cancer risk in Britain 1962-2008. British Journal of Cancer, doi: 10.1038/bjc.2014.15.

Bundesamt für Umwelt (BAFU) (2009). Niederfrequente Magnetfelder und Krebs. Bewertung von wissenschaftlichen Studien im Niedrigdosisbereich. Stand August 2008. Bern: BAFU.

Calvente, I., Fernandez,  M.F., Villalba, J., Olea, N., Nunez, M.I. (2010). Exposure to electromagnetic fields (non-ionizing radiation) and ist relationship with childhood leukemia: A systematic review. Sci Total Environ, 3062-3069.

Dürrenberger, G., Leuchtmann, P., Röösli, M., Siegrist, M., Sütterlin, B. (2015). Fachliteratur-Monitoring "EMF von Strom-Technologien". BFE, Bern. Publication 291030, section 3.3.1.

Hug, K., Röösli, M. (2013). Strahlung von Sendeanlagen und Gesundheit. Bewertung von wissenschaftlichen Studien im Niedrigdosisbereich. Stand: Dezember 2012. Umwelt-Wissen Nr. 1323. Bern: BAFU.

IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) (2002). Non-ionizing radiation, part 1: static and extremely low-frequency (ELF) electric and magnetic fields. IARC Monograph 80, Lyon.

Independent Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) (2012). Health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.  U.K. Health Protection Agency, Oxfordshire. Chapter, 278-280.

Kheifets, L., A. Ahlbom, C. M. Crespi, G. Draper, J. Hagihara, R. M. Lowenthal, G. Mezei, S. Oksuzyan, J. Schuz, J. Swanson, A. Tittarelli, M. Vinceti and V. Wunsch Filho (2010). Pooled analysis of recent studies on magnetic fields and childhood leukaemia. Br J Cancer, 103, 7, 1128-1135.

SCENIHR (Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks) (2015). Opinion on Potential Health Effects of Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (EMF). Brussels: European Commission. Section 3.8.1.

Schüz, J., Ahlbom, A. (2008). Exposure to electromagnetic fields and the risk of childhood leukaemia: a review. Radiat Prot Dosimetry, 132,2, 202-211.