Electromagnetic Biological Effects

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					Experimental studies on biological effects of radiofrequency EMF
   Isabelle Lagroye, Bernard Veyret
   Laboratoire PIOM, EPHE/ENSCPB, University of Bordeaux, France


    Laboratory research on biological and health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) has been driven
in the last few decades by public concerns about potential detrimental effects. This short article gives a
review of the scientific knowledge available on the biological and health effects of EMFs in the
radiofrequency (RF) range, mainly between 300 MHz and 3 GHz where most sources emit (Radio, TV,
mobile telephones, wireless networks, etc.).
    Explicit distinctions must be made between the concepts of interaction, biological effect, and health
hazard, consistent with the criteria used by international bodies when making health assessments:
biological effects occur when fields interact to produce responses that may or may not be experienced by
people. Deciding whether biological changes have health consequences depends, in part, on whether
they are reversible, are within the range for which the body has effective compensation mechanisms, or
are likely, taking into account the variability of response among individuals, to lead to unfavourable
changes in health.
    Not all biological effects are hazardous: some may be innocuously within the normal range of biological
variation and physiological compensation. Others may be beneficial under certain conditions, and the
health implications of others may be simply indeterminate. In this document a health hazard is defined as
a biological effect outside the normal range of physiological compensation and adverse to well-being.
    It is known that electromagnetic interference with electromedical devices, such as cardiac pacemakers,
leads to adverse health consequences, but in this review we are only concerned with direct effects of
EMFs on living tissues.

    Most of the RF research activity being devoted to the potential effects of mobile telephony equipment,
only experimental findings related to these signals will be given here.
    Mobile (or cellular) telephony has developed very rapidly over the past ten years. It is now part of the
basic equipment of modern life and over 1.3 billion phones are in use worldwide. Concerns about health
effects caused by exposure to the microwaves emitted by mobile telephones and base stations have
increased over the last few years becoming a major societal issue in some countries, or at least among
part of the population.

    In the laboratory, human volunteers, animals and cells in culture are exposed to specific mobile
telephony signals. In these exposure systems, the power absorption is expressed as specific absorption
rate (SAR) in W kg . Over the last ten years, major improvements have been achieved in the quality of
exposure systems and measuring the SAR in liquid phantoms and calculating power distribution in the
head using numerical phantoms.
    There is much scientific evidence, based on existing research, that warrants limiting exposure to high-
level RFR due to the “thermal effects” caused by heating of the tissues at SAR levels that correspond to a
temperature elevation of a few degrees. However, this does not occur with mobile telephones. The search
is thus for “non-thermal” effects and most of the research activity has been aimed at defining the
thresholds for these effects, with respect to existing exposure guidelines based on acute effects known to
be due to heating.
    Health risk assessment associated with RFR benefits from a database spanning over 50 years: the
WHO and IEEE databases list about 1,300 peer-reviewed publications, from biophysical theoretical
analyses to human epidemiological studies. Half of these studies relate to cancer and have been
overwhelming in finding no evidence that RFR exposure initiates or promotes cancer. More than 350
studies are specifically related to mobile telephony.

   Cellular models
    A number of replication studies that have addressed some positive findings on enzyme activity, gene
expression, and DNA alteration have all proven negative so far. Research is currently active investigating
possible alterations of heat shock proteins, seen as potential markers for RFR exposure and/or leading to
physiological alterations in cells.
    A wide range of short-term, low-level in vitro experiments have shown that exposure did not cause cell
death, implying that RFR is not a toxic agent. Furthermore, the weight of evidence available today
(induction of DNA strand breaks, chromosome aberrations, micronuclei formation, DNA repair synthesis,
sister chromatid exchange, and phenotypic mutation) supports the conclusion that RFR is not genotoxic.
However, the synergy of RFR with chemical agents or other physical agents still needs further

   Animal models

    A large number of animal experiments have been performed over the past forty years, using various
frequencies and modulations. It is clear from these data that the vast majority of the reported biological
effects are due to heating. These effects result either from a rise in tissue or body temperature exceeding
1°C or in physiological and behavioural responses aimed at minimising the total heat load.
    Major improvements in exposure system design have made it possible to better characterize the SAR
within the organism, and allow for either local exposure that mimics mobile telephone use (e.g. loop
antenna, carousel) or whole-body exposure related to base-stations (e.g. Ferry’s wheel, reverberation
chamber, circular waveguide).
    Results on most of the non-cancer endpoints have been negative (memory, EEG, hearing, etc.) except
for data on the permeability of the blood-brain-barrier, which was found to be increased by two research
groups but not by several others. Recently some further confirmation studies have yielded negative results
and it is most probable that the blood-brain-barrier is not affected by exposure to non-thermal RF EMF.
    Therefore, most of the major ongoing studies deal with cancer models. All of the long-term bioassays
or sensitized studies have given negative results except for one using transgenic mice, genetically
modified to increase the background incidence of lymphomas; an increased tumour incidence was found
following GSM exposure. No such finding emerged from a recent confirmation study, using a different
design. While awaiting the results of a further replication study performed in Italy, there is no convincing
evidence from animal investigations that the incidence of lymphomas and other types of tumours is
influenced by lifetime, daily exposure to mobile telephony RFR.

   Human models

    In spite of the obvious limitations of human experiments in terms of endpoints and exposure
characterization, several investigations have been performed using various models. Findings have either
been negative or difficult to replicate (sleep, EEG, cognitive functions, etc.). Today, there is no conclusive
evidence from human studies of detrimental health effects of mobile telephones.
    However, a report from a Dutch laboratory has drawn a lot of attention from the media and the
scientific community as it reported minor effects on the well-being and cognitive functions of volunteers
exposed to weak base-station signals. This work, which is not yet published, has been heavily criticized
but its protocol is serving as the basis of some confirmation studies.
    Clearly, the main issue today is the potential greater sensitivity of children to mobile telephone RFR.
Their lifetime exposure, the fact that their CNS is still developing, and, possibly, increased RFR absorption
in the head, have led to concerns that cannot be easily resolved through laboratory investigations and
numerical modelling.

   Health risk assessment

   The process of health risk assessment by bodies such as ICNIRP, IEEE, IARC, and WHO relies
heavily on judging the quality of investigations. As stated above, the quality of exposure systems has
greatly improved and can now be considered adequate. The use of well-grounded experimental protocols
(sham-exposure, blinding of exposure and biological tests, positive controls) has become generalized.
Moreover, it is now common practice in the field of bioelectromagnetics to ascertain that any positive
results are replicated in at least one independent laboratory. In spite of these improvements, it should be
noted that only a few top-level biology laboratories have engaged in this type of research, partly due to
interferences created by societal and media pressure.
    Within its EMF International Programme, WHO has reviewed the science and issued research
recommendations. The main conclusion from these reviews of laboratory research is that EMF exposures
below the limits recommended in the ICNIRP guidelines do not appear to have any known impact on
health. However, there are still some key gaps in knowledge requiring further research to provide definitive
health risk assessments: IARC will issue a cancer classification of RFR in 2006 and WHO and ICNIRP’s
evaluations on RFR and health are due in 2007.


    Radiofrequency radiation (RFR) can cause biological effects when exposure is sufficiently intense:
possible injuries include cataracts, skin burns, deep burns, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. They are
mostly due to heating. There have been scattered reports of effects that do not appear to be due to
temperature elevation: the "non-thermal" effects. None of these effects have been independently
replicated, and most have no obvious consequence to human health. Furthermore, there are no known
biophysical mechanisms that suggest that such effects could occur.
    Following the very rapid development of mobile telephony, a major research effort has been carried out
worldwide (tens of millions of euros per year). Europe is most active (UK, Germany, Italy, and Finland, in
particular), but many research groups are contributing in Japan, US, and Australasia.
    Most governments have addressed the issue of mobile telephony and health and several international
and national expert committees have written accurate summaries of current knowledge (see the list of the
most recent reports in the reference section). Their conclusions converge towards an absence of health
effects related to mobile telephones, but all encourage continuing research in some areas.
    In answer to the question: “mobile telephony: is there evidence of harm?” one must conclude that the
weight of scientific evidence coming from the laboratory does not support health concerns or indicate any
health risk from mobile phones in normal use, nor that there is any accepted mechanism for potential
health effects at the low levels associated with these devices. Findings to date, including laboratory
studies of animals exposed both short-term and for their entire lifetimes, have not provided evidence that
exposure causes cancer, or affects biological tissues in a manner that might lead to, or augment, any
disease. However, there are still some issues pending, in particular those related to the potentially greater
sensitivity of children. The many ongoing research projects should help clarify these issues by the end of


    1. IARC Monography n°80 on ELF bioeffects at
    2. ICNIRP, International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection Statement. Guidelines for
       limiting exposure to time varying electric, magnetic, and electromagnetic fields (up to 300 GHz),
       Health Physics, Vol.(74), No.4, pp.494-522, 1998.
    3. ICNIRP: “ Exposure to Static and Low Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, Biological Effects and
       Health Consequences (0-100 kHz)- Review of the Scientific Evidence and Health
       Consequences » at
    4. IEGMP Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones and Health, c/o National Radiological
       Protection Board, Chilton, Didcot UK, (“Stewart Report” 2000.
    5. NIEHS. Niesh report on health effects of exposure to power-line frequency electric and magnetic
       field., 1998.
    6. Documents of the NRPB: Volume 15, No. 5, Mobile Phones and Health: Report by the Board of
       NRPB, 2004
    7. Health Protection Agency at
    8. WHO International EMF Project. Health and environmental effects of exposure to static and time
       varying electric and magnetic fields, peh-emf, 1996.
    9. WHO research agenda at