Possible health effects
Exposure to electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields (EMF), if they are strong enough, can lead to short term health effects. Exposure to low frequency fields that are strong enough can lead to dizziness, seeing light flashes and feeling tingling or pain through stimulation of nerves. Exposure to radiofrequency fields that are strong enough can lead to heating of body tissue, and result in damage to tissues and organs. For both low frequency and radiofrequency fields exposure limits have been set below which these acute effects do not occur.
Long-term health effects are not well understood. Research into possible long-term health effects of (long-lasting) exposure to EMF below the exposure limits is still ongoing. Scientific studies that compare groups of children who live near and far away from an overhead power line have indicated that the children exposed to magnetic fields above 0.3 to 0.4 microtesla may have a greater chance of getting leukaemia. The magnetic field due to the power line possibly plays a role in this greater chance, but there is no proof for a causal relationship. There is also no proof for a causal relationship between exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic field from cell phones and occurrence of cancer in the head such as glioma. There is ongoing research on possible non-specific health effects such as fatigue, loss of concentration, sleep disturbance, headache and 'electrohypersensitivity'. However, a causal relationship with EMF exposure has not been established.
Summary of RIVMNational Institute for Public Health and the Environment activities
RIVM has performed research on the following topics: sources of electromagnetic fields and exposure of people; research into exposure and effects on people (in the Programme Electromagnetic Fields and Health of the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw)); Comparison of international EMF policies.
Sources of exposure
Exposure limits to prevent health effects have been derived for the level of heating or the strength of the electric field generated inside the body by EMF (basic restrictions). Since these are not easily measured, reference levels in terms of the strength electromagnetic fields outside the body have been derived from these basic restrictions. When the reference levels outside the body are exceeded, a more detailed assessment is necessary to determine whether the basic restrictions are exceeded. RIVM has conducted literature studies into the sources and strength of exposure of members of the general population to EMF. For the majority of these sources, the relevant reference levels are not exceeded. In certain circumstances, near some devices the reference levels can be exceeded. Examples are devices with a strong electric motor that are used close to the body, such as kitchen appliances or electric drills. These findings are an indication that for some devices the basic restrictions may be exceeded as well. Only further research into these specific devices can clarify this.
Levels of exposure
RIVM has also conducted research on everyday exposure. For radiofrequency sources, such as radio, television and telecommunication, the exposure was assessed in 39 different microenvironments or activities in the Netherlands. Volunteers wore a measurement set on the body consisting of a time-activity diary, an exposimeter for radiofrequency fields measuring in 12 frequency bands, a broadband exposimeter for low frequency magnetic fields (40-1000 hertz) and a GPS-logger. The averaged individual arithmetic mean exposure over 24 hours was 0.18 milliwatt per square metre with a range of 0.015 to 2.37 milliwatt per square metre. Based on a questionnaire on the activities and these measurements, the exposure of large groups of people was predicted. This modelled exposure was applied in epidemiological research to investigate whether an association exists between certain types of exposure and health effects. Repeated measurements by, among others, the Radiocommunications Agency Netherlands and Utrecht University, show that due to increased usage of new types of communication devices the exposure has increased as well, though it remains below the reference levels.
Exposure from sources of low frequency magnetic fields was assessed in a similar way. Daily activities leading to the highest exposure were: sleeping, electric ironing, and cooking with electric appliances. The highest contribution during sleeping was from electric alarm clocks and chargers for mobile phones. The individual averaged daily exposure under 96 volunteers ranged from 0.013 to 2.03 microtesla. The arithmetic mean exposure of the volunteers was 0.132 microtesla. The exposure seemed to be constant over the past five years or decreased in some cases. Apart from measurement surveys on individual exposure, RIVM and the Radiocommunications Agency also cooperated on calibration of measurement devices and on the development of new innovative measurement methods. For instance, we used car-mounted mobile measurements in city streets and main motorways, used for radio-frequency spectrum regulation, for exposure assessments in epidemiological studies. In this way the temporal trend in exposure level or frequencies can be monitored for a particular area. It also provides the means to compare differences in exposure with differences in occurrence of health effects between areas. RIVM also validates exposure models with measurements for low frequency magnetic fields near powerlines and radiofrequency fields from transmitters and broadcasting in daily life.
The public exposure to EMF depends on where people are and what they do. It is therefore not easy to make a statement about the strength of the fields to which an individual is exposed. RIVM performed several (inter)national studies, in which the strength of the fields was measured or calculated for certain types of sites (also called micro-environments) and for daily activities. Based on the time people spend on an activity or are in a micro-environment, an average exposure can be determined. The measurements showed that the highest exposure to low frequency magnetic fields (50 hertz) occurred near overhead power lines and near equipment with motors, such as shavers and chargers for laptops or mobile phones. For radiofrequency electromagnetic fields the personal use of a mobile phone was the largest contributor to the exposure, followed by the contribution of people using mobile phones in the area, cordless DECT phones and base stations for mobile telecommunications. The highest exposure occurred where many people are together, such as in public transport, railway stations, shopping malls and cafes.
High-voltage power lines
Given the scientific uncertainty on induction of childhood leukaemia and the public concern on possible health effects, the Dutch ministry for Infrastructure and the Environment has issued policy advice on overhead power lines for local governments and grid companies. Aim of the advice is to prevent new situations where children stay for a long time in the area near overhead power lines where the magnetic field exceeds 0.4 microtesla (annual average). This recommendation was based on RIVM research and on the scientific evaluation conducted by the Health Council of the Netherlands (in Dutch).
RIVM supports the implementation of this policy advice by managing a guideline for calculating the extent of the magnetic field zone in a specific situation and a website with a map (in Dutch) showing an indication of the width of the magnetic field zone for the Dutch high voltage power grid. RIVM also has a signalling function for new scientific evidence on health effects from overhead power lines.
RIVM also maintains a database of international EMF legislation and guidelines. RIVM participated in the working group of the International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) on general radiation protection principles. RIVM occasionally contributes to ad hoc risk assessment projects such as those of the World Health Organization and the Royal Society of Canada (2013) and for the Irish Government.
RIVM actively contributes to the public information on the risks of electromagnetic fields by participating in the Dutch Knowledge Platform on Electromagnetic Fields and Health. In this Platform seven organisations collaborate in assessing scientific information on its merits and relevance for society.
Areas of expertise
Exposure assessment; newly emerging risks; epidemiology; international policy.
[Updated: 1 August 2017]
- Aerts, S., Joseph, W., Maslanyj, M., Addison, D., Mee, T., Colussi, L., Kamer, J. & Bolte, J. (2016) Prediction of RF-EMF exposure levels in large outdoor areas through car-mounted measurements on the enveloping roads. Environment International, 94, 482-488.
- Baliatsas, C., Bolte, J., Yzermans, J., Kelfkens, G., Hooiveld, M., Lebret, E. & van Kamp, I. (2015) Actual and perceived exposure to electromagnetic fields and non-specific physical symptoms: An epidemiological study based on self-reported data and electronic medical records. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 218, 331-344.
- Baliatsas, C., van Kamp, I., Bolte, J., Kelfkens, G., van Dijk, C., Spreeuwenberg, P., Hooiveld, M., Lebret, E. & Yzermans, J. (2016) Clinically defined non-specific symptoms in the vicinity of mobile phone base stations: A retrospective before-after study. Science of the Total Environment, 565, 714-720.
- Baliatsas, C., Van Kamp, I., Bolte, J., Schipper, M., Yzermans, J. & Lebret, E. (2012) Non-specific physical symptoms and electromagnetic field exposure in the general population: Can we get more specific? A systematic review. Environment International, 41, 15-28.
- Baliatsas, C., Van Kamp, I., Hooiveld, M., Yzermans, J. & Lebret, E. (2014) Comparing non-specific physical symptoms in environmentally sensitive patients: Prevalence, duration, functional status and illness behavior. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 76, 405-413.
- Baliatsas, C., Van Kamp, I., Kelfkens, G., Schipper, M., Bolte, J., Yzermans, J. & Lebret, E. (2011) Non-specific physical symptoms in relation to actual and perceived proximity to mobile phone base stations and powerlines. BMC Public Health, 11, 421.
- Baliatsas, C., Van Kamp, I., Lebret, E. & Rubin, G. J. (2012) Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF): A systematic review of identifying criteria. BMC Public Health, 12, 643.
- Bogers, R. P., Bolte, J. F. B., Houtveen, J. H., Lebret, E., Van Strien, R. T., Schipper, C. M. A., Alkadhimi, M., Baliatsas, C. & Van Kamp, I. (2013) Design of an ecological momentary assessment study of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields and non-specific physical symptoms. BMJ Open, 3, e002933.
- Bolte, J. F., van der Zande, G. & Kamer, J. (2011) Calibration and uncertainties in personal exposure measurements of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. Bioelectromagnetics, 32, 652-663.
- Bolte, J. F. B. (2016) Lessons learnt on biases and uncertainties in personal exposure measurement surveys of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields with exposimeters. Environment International, 94, 724-735.
- Bolte, J. F. B., Baliatsas, C., Eikelboom, T. & Van Kamp, I. (2015) Everyday exposure to power frequency magnetic fields and associations with non-specific physical symptoms. Environmental Pollution, 196, 224-229.
- Bolte, J. F. B. & Eikelboom, T. (2012) Personal radiofrequency electromagnetic field measurements in the Netherlands: Exposure level and variability for everyday activities, times of day and types of area. Environment International, 48, 133-142.
- Bolte, J. F. B., Maslanyj, M., Addison, D., Mee, T., Kamer, J. & Colussi, L. (2016) Do car-mounted mobile measurements used for radio-frequency spectrum regulation have an application for exposure assessments in epidemiological studies? Environment International, 86, 75-83.
- Cucurachi, S., Tamis, W. L. M., Vijver, M. G., Peijnenburg, W. J. G. M., Bolte, J. F. B. & de Snoo, G. R. (2013) A review of the ecological effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF). Environment International, 51, 116-140.
- Demers, P., R. Findlay, K.R. Foster, B. Kolb, J. Moulder, A. Nicol, F., Stam R. (2014) A review of Safety Code 6 (2013): Health Canada’s safety limits for exposure to radiofrequency fields. Royal Society of Canada, Ottawa.
- Frei, P., Mohler, E., Neubauer, G., Theis, G., Bürgi, A., Fröhlich, J., Braun-Fahrländer, C., Bolte, J., Egger, M. & Röösli, M. (2009) Temporal and spatial variability of personal exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields. Environmental Research, 109, 779-785.
- Joseph, W., Frei, P., Roösli, M., Thuróczy, G., Gajsek, P., Trcek, T., Bolte, J., Vermeeren, G., Mohler, E., Juhász, P., Finta, V. & Martens, L. (2010) Comparison of personal radio frequency electromagnetic field exposure in different urban areas across Europe. Environmental Research, 110, 658-663.
- Joseph, W., Frei, P., Röösli, M., Vermeeren, G., Bolte, J., Thuróczy, G., Gajšek, P., Trček, T., Mohler, E., Juhász, P., Finta, V. & Martens, L. (2012) Between-country comparison of whole-body SAR from personal exposure data in Urban areas. Bioelectromagnetics, 33, 682-694.
- Martens, A. L., Bolte, J. F. B., Beekhuizen, J., Kromhout, H., Smid, T. & Vermeulen, R. C. H. (2015) Validity of at home model predictions as a proxy for personal exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from mobile phone base stations. Environmental Research, 142, 221-226.
- Martens, A. L., Slottje, P., Meima, M. Y., Beekhuizen, J., Timmermans, D., Kromhout, H., ... & Vermeulen, R. C. (2016) Residential exposure to RF-EMF from mobile phone base stations: Model predictions versus personal and home measurements. Science of the Total Environment, 550, 987-993.
- Martens, A. L., Slottje, P., Timmermans, D. R., Kromhout, H., Reedijk, M., Vermeulen, R. C., Smid, T. (2017) Modeled and Perceived Exposure to Radio-Frequency Electromagnetic Fields From Mobile-Phone Base Stations and the Development of Symptoms Over Time in a General Population Cohort. American Journal of Epidemiology, 186, 210-219.
- Martens, A. L., Slottje, P., Timmermans, D. R. M., Kromhout, H., Vermeulen, R. C. H., Smid, T. (2016) Actual and perceived exposure to base stations and non-specific symptoms in a longitudinal studyEuropean Journal of Public Health, 26 (suppl.1), ckw171.
- Porsius, J. T., Claassen, L., Weijland, P. E. & Timmermans, D. R. M. (2016) “They give you lots of information, but ignore what it’s really about”: residents’ experiences with the planned introduction of a new high-voltage power line. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 59, 1495-1512.
- Porsius, J. T., Claassen, L., Woudenberg, F., Smid, T. & Timmermans, D. R. M. (2016) Nocebo responses to high-voltage power lines: Evidence from a prospective field study. Science of the Total Environment, 543, 432-438.
- Porsius, J. T., Claassen, L., Woudenberg, F., Smid, T. & Timmermans, D. R. M. (2017) "These Power Lines Make Me Ill": A Typology of Residents' Health Responses to a New High-Voltage Power Line. Risk Analysis, in press. DOI: 10.1111/risa.12786
- Röösli, M., Frei, P., Bolte, J., Neubauer, G., Cardis, E., Feychting, M., Gajsek, P., Heinrich, S., Joseph, W., Mann, S., Martens, L., Mohler, E., Parslow, R. C., Poulsen, A. H., Radon, K., Schüz, J., Thuroczy, G., Viel, J. F. & Vrijheid, M. (2010) Conduct of a personal radiofrequency electromagnetic field measurement study: Proposed study protocol. Environmental Health, 9, 23.
- Spruijt, P., Knol, A. B., Petersen, A. C. & Lebret, E. (2015) Different roles of electromagnetic field experts when giving policy advice: An expert consultation -No section. Environmental Health, 14, 7.
- Spruijt, P., Knol, A. B., Torenvlied, R. & Lebret, E. (2013) Different roles and viewpoints of scientific experts in advising on environmental health risks. Risk Analysis, 33, 1844-1857.
- Spruijt, P., Knol, A. B., Vasileiadou, E., Devilee, J., Lebret, E. & Petersen, A. C. (2014) Roles of scientists as policy advisers on complex issues: A literature review. Environmental Science and Policy, 40, 16-25.
- Stam, R. (2010) Electromagnetic fields and the blood-brain barrier. Brain Research Reviews, 65, 80-97.
- Van Dijk, H. F. G., Van Rongen, E., Eggermont, G., Lebret, E., Bijker, W. E. & Timmermans, D. R. M. (2011) The role of scientific advisory bodies in precaution-based risk governance illustrated with the issue of uncertain health effects of electromagnetic fields. Journal of Risk Research, 14, 451-466.
- Van Rhoon, G. C., Aleman, A., Kelfkens, G., Kromhout, H., Van Leeuwen, F. E., Savelkoul, H. F. J., Wadman, W. J., Van De Weerdt, R. D. H. J., Zwamborn, A. P. M. & Van Rongen, E. (2011) Health Council of the Netherlands: No need to change from SAR to time-temperature relation in electromagnetic fields exposure limits. International Journal of Hyperthermia, 27, 399-404.
- Vijver, M. G., Bolte, J. F. B., Evans, T. R., Tamis, W. L. M., Peijnenburg, W. J. G. M., Musters, C. J. M. & De Snoo, G. R. (2014) Investigating short-term exposure to electromagnetic fields on reproductive capacity of invertebrates in the field situation. Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, 33, 21-28.
These publications are specific to EMF in daily life. See also 'Documents & publications' in the left column for more RIVM publications about EMF?.