Health – Cancer

Cancer is one of the most frequent causes of illness and death worldwide. The term “cancer” includes about 200 different diseases whose common characteristic is an uncontrolled, malignant cell growth. The precise causes for the formation and development of tumours (carcinogens) are not sufficiently clarified. The risk of becoming ill with cancer increases considerably with age. Other known risk factors are unhealthy habits such as an unwholesome diet, tobacco or alcohol abuse, viruses, certain chemical substances, ionising radiation or genetic predisposition.

EMFs and cancer

The cancer inducing effects of ionising radiation (ultra-violet, X-ray and gamma radiation) has been documented for a long time. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified ionising radiation as “demonstrated carcinogenic for humans”. EMFs have much energy than ionising radiation. They cannot directly damage the chemical bonds in our tissues and thereby trigger a possible cancer or promote its growth. A possible indirect connection between cancer and EMFs, in particular through interference in the DNA repair mechanism, is scientifically conceivable and is under investigation in all areas of the electromagnetic spectrum.

There are diverse studies on the topic of “EMF and cancer”. 

Tests on animals (so-called in vivo studies) and laboratory experiments with cell cultures (so-called in vitro studies) as well as surveys and statistical investigations with persons / populations (so-called epidemiological studies) have been carried out.

It is unclear whether low frequency EMFs (focussing here on the magnetic fields from high tension power lines in particular) and high frequency EMFs (concentrating here in particular on the radio fields from mobile telephones) increase the risk of cancer or not. No mechanisms are known and the statistical indications for a possible higher risk from long term exposure in respect of these fields are scientifically controversial. As a result, the International Cancer Agency IARC (see above) has classified electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic for humans” (amongst the 250 substances in Group 2b including DDT, coffee, pickled vegetables, car exhaust emissions). The IARC classification means that there is a suspicion, which, in IARC formulation is less than a strong indication and far removed from evidence of a carcinogenic effect.

Precautionary recommendations

National and international committees recommend that the radiation exposure from low and high frequency fields should be kept low as a precaution. This is taken into account in the Swiss Ordinance relating to Protection from Non-Ionising Radiation (ONIR). Against that background the Swiss Research Foundation for Electricity and Mobile Communication, and the Swiss League against Cancer have prepared recommendations on low emission use of mobile telephones.

Selected literature (overviews)

Literature List 2019 on RF Exposure and Cancer (without Brain Tumours)

BioInitiative Working Group (2012). Health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. BioInitiative Report, www.bioinitiative.org. Sections 11-14.

International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection ICNIRP (2009). Exposure to high frequency electromagnetic fields, bilogical effects and health consequences (100 kHz-300 GHz). Chapters II.4.2, 161-182, III.5 - III.7, 327-335.

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.

IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) (2013). Non-ionizing radiation, part 2: radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. IARC Monograph 102, Lyon.

Independent Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) (2012). Health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.  U.K. Health Protection Agency, Oxfordshire. Chapters 3.2, 87-94, 4.5, 157-173, 8, 266-316.

SCENIHR (Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks) (2013). Preliminary Opinion on Potential Health Effects of Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields. European Commission, Brussels. Sections 3.5.1 and 3.7.1.

SSM (Swedish Radiation Safety Authority) (2013). Eighth Report of the Scientific Council on Electromagnetic Fields. Stockholm: SSM.

Strahlenschutzkommission (SSK) (2011). Vergleichende Bewertung der Evidenz von Krebsrisiken durch elektromagnetische Felder und Strahlungen Stellungnahme der Strahlenschutzkommission  mit wissenschaftlicher Begründung. Bonn: Strahlenschutzkommission.