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Electromagnetic Fields & Parental Panics:
A case study in how science can bring comfort

Radio waves hazard symbol (via Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Radio_waves_hazard_symbol.svg), with gradient and question mark added

I am a scientist in the field of evidence-based medicine and public health. Basically, I am a science translator and communicator. I help healthcare workers use current science when treating patients, and developing policies and programs. Much of what I do involves working with world experts on a wide variety of topics to determine answers to health-related science issues. We ask questions about effectiveness of medical treatments. Which treatment is better? What treatments might cause harms? What are the risk factors for disease? We analyze results of clinical studies to figure out exactly what the results mean, and what we should do with this information.

In addition to my career, I live the typical life of a working mother. I have two kids (a girl and a boy), a three-bedroom house in the suburbs, a two-car garage, a cat, a dog, two fish, and an amazing husband. Rarely does my profession and personal life interact, but a few years ago on my daughter’s first day of school in first grade my worlds collided. One day while the children were having fun on the playground after school, one of the other mothers threw me what I call a panic science bomb. It seems that her daughter has eye twitches, and she has concluded that they are caused by electromagnetic fields (EMF) emanating from a transformer outside of her daughter’s classroom. The transformer also happens to be in front of my daughter’s new classroom, so that got my attention. Oh, and EMF causes cancer in children, she continued, suggesting that our daughters’ lives are at stake!

I call this a panic bomb because, although I am a scientist, I knew little about the health effects of EMFs, so for a moment I began to panic! What exactly are EMFs? And what might they be doing to my daughter and the other children at the school? My heart started racing. This is, of course, a natural reaction, for as Dr. Daniel Kahneman describes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,1 people tend to react first with rapid intuition and emotion. But after a few moments my more thoughtful and critical thinking kicked in. I asked the mother what her daughter’s pediatrician or eye doctor had said about the eye twitches. Her response was completely unexpected. She had not taken her daughter to either a pediatrician or eye doctor. Presumably her medical information came from the Interweb. She said she has a very high standard of health for her family and was demanding that the school move the transformer.

That night, after my kids went to sleep, I spent hours online: PubMed, WHO, NIH, American Academy of Pediatrics, OSHA, Mayo Clinic. All of these organizations unequivocally stated that EMF is not associated with any health issue in adults, and there was certainly no evidence that it is associated with eye twitches. A 2002 report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, titled “EMF: Electric and Magnetic Fields Associated with the Use of Electric Power”, suggests that there may be a weak association between EMF and childhood leukemia.2 To those who do not have training in epidemiology and evidence-based medicine, this may sound alarming. But with a strong scientific background, I understood that association does not necessarily mean causality. The NIH document describes that the first report of an association between EMF and childhood leukemia was published in 1979,3 but that more recent, large scale studies did not find an association. I also came across a systematic review, which compiled the results of seven studies with more than 23,000 subjects, which concluded that “the association [between EMF and childhood leukemia] is weaker in the most recently conducted studies, but these studies are small and lack methodological improvements needed to resolve the apparent association.”4

At first glance, this systematic review seems to indicate that there might be a risk. But as a scientist, I do not rely solely on the authors’ conclusions of any study. I also look at the data, which in this case was presented as odds ratios,5 which is a measure of the strength of any association. A few things need to be known in order to correctly interpret odds ratios. The null value for an odds ratio, or number at which there is no difference between the exposed and unexposed groups, is 1. So any odds ratio greater than 1 represents an association. It is generally well known in the evidence-based medicine community that odds ratios between 1 and 3, especially for rare outcomes (like childhood leukemia), are not clinically significant. An assessment of statistical significances for an odds ratio is whether or not the 95% confidence interval crosses the null, in other words the entire interval must be greater than 1 in order for the results to be statistically significant. So, if there were an association between EMF and childhood leukemia, I would expect to see odds ratios greater than 3 (clinically significant) with corresponding confidence intervals all greater than 1 (statistically significant). But this is not what I found in the data! The odds ratio ranged from 1.07 to 1.44, with confidence intervals ranging from less than 1 to greater than 1. So the results of this systematic review were neither clinically significant nor statistically significant, and in the discussion section of the paper the authors noted “our results are compatible with no effect.”

Collectively, the evidence on EMF does not meet the well-established Bradford-Hill criteria used to determine causality—whether or not the exposure in question actually causes a disease.6 There is no known biological mechanism for non-ionizing EMFs (i.e. power lines, cellphones, and wifi) to cause DNA damage, and thus cancer. Both the WHO and NIH state that any risks from EMF, if they exist at all, are extremely small. The most these organizations suggest is possibly using “no or low-cost” interventions to reduce exposure, for example not standing in front of a running microwave or fridge for long periods of time. They specifically advise to not move electrical wires, much less a transformer, because the known risks of electrical work—electrocution—greatly exceeds any potentially low risk of EMF exposure.

Despite this information, evidence in support of the parents’ fears continued to be presented to the community, including a World Health Organization report on EMF hypersensitivity.7 Ironically, the WHO report includes the following conclusions about EMF Hypersensitivity: large well controlled and conducted double-blind studies have shown that symptoms do not seem to be correlated with EMF exposure; these symptoms may be due to pre-existing psychiatric conditions as well as stress reactions as a result of worrying about believed EMF health effects, rather than the EMF exposure itself; and there is no scientific basis to link symptoms to EMF exposure. Recommendations for medical care of those claiming to be hypersensitive to EMF include a medical evaluation to identify undiagnosed conditions, assessment of home and workplace for other factors that might contribute to the symptoms, and assessment of psychiatric and psychological conditions that may be responsible for the symptoms.

Sharing all of the information that I had gathered with the community did relieve the fears of many, but not everyone. I was invited by the Board of Education to give a presentation at the school about EMFs and health concerns. Many parents were thankful. Some expressed shame at their own actions in falling for the panic science bomb before gathering more information. Other parents who understood and supported the science still indicated that I had a lot of guts to speak out, because there would be repercussions in the small town where we reside. They were right. Some parents, if they looked at me at all, shot me dirty looks, even refusing to let their children play with mine. This small cohort of parents continued to be alarmed, wanting absolute proof that there is no risk. As a scientist, we know that it is impossible to prove a negative, so the standards set by the parents would never be achievable.

The topic continued to be a significant part of Board of Education meetings for almost a year, where concerned parents voiced their panic over EMFs. It got ugly. People were yelling, calling each other names. Parents were crying in desperation, fearful that their children were at great risk while the school was doing nothing!

I sincerely could not understand why these parents were not relieved to learn that there was essentially no threat. What were they so scared of, and what was I missing? For awhile I began to question my own trust in science. Were they right, and could I be wrong? I understood that if I was wrong this could impact my daughter and the other children at the school. The stakes were high! So I went a bit overboard, sharing the evidence with every epidemiologist and statistician I encountered, not giving my opinion but rather waiting to see what their independent conclusion might be. I used my connections to speak with people at the CDC and public health researchers on this topic. And it turned out that I was wrong. I was wrong in questioning the science. Any concern about EMF was based on problematic study design, misunderstanding, randomly skewed results, and fear mongering. The risks were negligible, if they exist at all, and my message to parents should have been much stronger.

In the years since this event occurred, a pivotal case control study of over 53,000 cases of children with cancer from 1962–2008 was published in the British Journal of Cancer, which unequivocally conclude that EMF is not associated with cancer.8 Ironically, this study was published by the same group that had previously published results indicating that there was an association,9 but in this more recent study they concluded about cancer that “A risk declining over time is unlikely to arise from any physical effect of the powerlines and is more likely to be the result of changing population characteristics among those living near powerlines.” It turns out that there is an overall decline in risk documented in the larger body of evidence on EMF, and because of this many of the scientists who had originally raised the red flag on EMF have changed their opinion.10 In fact, David Savitz, an epidemiologist from Brown University who published one of the first rigorous studies demonstrating an association between EMF and cancer in children in 1988, now states “The likely impact of electromagnetic fields, if I had to pick a single number that is the most likely, it would be zero.”11

So how can science, and the opinion of scientists, change over time? This may be explained by the concept of regression to the mean12–14. When an extreme result is randomly derived from a study, subsequent studies have less extreme results, so over time the cumulative results tend to approach the mean. There are many examples of this in science, and this is another reason why the scientific method, including and especially repeating experiments, is so important, and also why it is critical to look at the whole body of research on a topic, not just those studies that confirm your pre-existing beliefs. The hallmark of critical thinking is being willing to change your opinion when faced with robust evidence, as was the case with these early EMF investigators.

The outcome of this story: My daughter’s classroom was moved by Halloween, and over the holiday break the transformer was moved. But not because of concerns about EMF. Rather, because of “small traces of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)” detected in the transformer that was previously noted to be “PCB free.”15

Since then, the dust has settled, and people talk little about the issue. But it turns out that my community was not unique in their fears of EMF. This situation has happened elsewhere and has been studied.16 Investigators have documented that the following circumstances can raise alarm regarding EMF or other perceived hazards:

  • Being unfamiliar with the nature of a perceived risk, and underlying sources of exposure.
  • Perceived lack of control about the exposure.
  • Perceived lack of personal benefit that compensates for the exposure.
  • Dreaded possible health effects.
  • Inadequate, conflicting, or incomplete information about scientific studies.
  • Lack of access to easily understood scientific information.
  • Media skewed to report the suspected health concern and ignore the studies that report no health effect.
  • Lack of a process for a fair hearing of all viewpoints within a community.

Throughout this journey, I realized that as scientists we deal with uncertainty all the time. We deal with statistics, p-values, risk ratios, odds ratios, and relative risks. This is part of our everyday vocabulary. But the general public does not think in this way. And to most parents the only acceptable risk is no risk. Science can say that the risks are likely to be very, very small, or likely nonexistent, but it cannot say with absolutely certainty that there are no risks. Scientists live in a world of statistics, probabilities, and likelihoods, but most people in the general public want absolutes.

I also realized that I had the privilege of having a level of comfort and reassurance that no other mother or father at the school had. Science was my comfort. It was then that I realized that science is not just what I do, it is who I am at heart. I see science all around me (in a glass of beer or wine, in the weather, in the process of cooking food). And I use science every day for my work and for my family (should we eat organic food? Should I be scared of GMOs? Should we get the flu vaccine?). Science is everywhere, and it is comforting and beautiful.

I also realized the importance of science communication. Everyone is a consumer of science, and needs to make decisions based on science. But as scientists we have not done the best job of making science accessible and clearly understood. We need to take the time to understand not only what people know and believe, but also why they perceive things as they do. We need to develop strategies for more effective communications so that the public can have the same comfort in and reliance on science as we do.

I also came away from the experience realizing that I need to make sure my children are critical thinkers so as adults they will make sound, rational decisions, and I have spent every day since helping to foster this. One Halloween my children asked me “Are ghosts real?” My response: “Well, what do you think?” My daughter’s reply: “All my friends say that they are real, but it doesn’t make sense. Where would they be, and what would they do? How could they exist? I do not think that ghosts are real.” With a proud smile on my face I said “You are correct. Ghosts are not real.” I took great pride in realizing that I am raising critical thinkers. My children may not choose science for their careers, but they will be critical thinkers at heart…as I am.

Addendum: Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

Since submitting this article to Skeptic, news reports of a study linking cell phones and cancer in rats have been published.17–19 These articles were based on a draft report of partial findings, which have not yet undergone peer review, based on an evaluation of 9 hours a day of total radiofrequency (RF) radiation to the whole body of rats, starting in utero, and found a statistically significant (1 or 2 cases) increased rate of brain gliomas and heart schwannomas in male rats only.20, 21

electromagnetic spectrum diagram

Click image to enlarge

Although several forms of non-ionizing radiation are frequently referred to as Electromagnetic fields (EMF), there are actually 3 different types of EMF, characterized by different frequencies. EMF produced by electrical systems, such appliances and powerlines, are known as extremely low frequency (ELF) fields (frequencies up to 300 Hz).22–24 This is the type of EMF that was of concern at the school in my article. Other types of EMF have higher frequencies: intermediate frequency (IF), sometimes referred to as very low frequency (VLF) fields (300 Hz to 10 MHz), and radio frequency (RF) fields (10 MHz to 300 GHz).22–24 Radio, television, radar, and cellular phones are the main sources of radio frequency (RF) fields. Thus, the reports of a possible link between radio frequency (RF) fields and cancer in rats is very distinct from the extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields (EMF) discussed in my article.

Nevertheless, for those seeking information about cancer risks from cell phone use, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has very useful and comprehensive information about the overall current state of the science.25 The NCI states that “A limited number of studies have shown some evidence of statistical association of cell phone use and brain tumor risks, but most studies have found no association” and goes on to lists possible reasons for the discrepancies, including recall bias, participant bias, and inaccurate reporting. Furthermore, the NCI lists several organizations that have released statements to the effect that current evidence does not demonstrate a causal relationship between radio frequency (RF) fields from cell phones and cancer, including the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences (an institute of the NIH), the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Communications Commission. Of note, however, the NCI does state that the preliminary results from the rat study “are being reviewed by NCI experts.” Furthermore, only preliminary and non-peer reviewed data about the rat study has been released thus far, with the full report anticipated to be released in fall 2017. Caution about drawing conclusions until experts are able to fully appraise all of the data from the rat study—after peer review—is warranted. END

About the Author

Dr. Julie Frantsve-Hawley is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Evidence-Based Practice for Dental Hygienists, and editor of the textbook Evidence-Based Dentistry for the Dental Hygienist, and is currently Executive Director of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry. She was the senior director of the American Dental Association’s Center for Evidence-based Dentistry for 10 years, and has been a research investigator on several grants from the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research, the National Library of Medicine, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. She is involved in dissemination and implementation research projects aimed at helping clinicians implement science into practice, is a member of the National Dental Practice-Based Research Network and is the secretary for the Evidence-Based Dentistry Network of the American Association for Dental Research. Dr. Hawley’s interests are in the area of science communication and the understanding and use of science by healthcare workers, policy makers, and the public. Dr. Hawley received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from Harvard University.

References
  1. Kahneman, D. 2013. Thinking Fast and Slow. Toronto: Anchor Canada.
  2. Sciences, N.I.o.E.H. 2002. “EMF: Electric and Magnetic Fields Associated with the Use of Electric Power.” National Institutes of Health: Washington, DC.
  3. Wertheimer, N. and E. Leeper. 1979. “Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer.” Am J Epidemiol. 109(3): p. 273–84.
  4. Kheifets, L., et al. 2010. “Pooled analysis of recent studies on magnetic fields and childhood leukaemia.” Br J Cancer. 103(7): p. 1128–35.
  5. Odds Ratio. May 15, 2016].
  6. Bradford-Hill Criteria. May 15, 2016].
  7. Mild, K., et al., “Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Proceedings of the International Workshop on EMF Hypersensitivity.” 2006, World Health Organization.
  8. Bunch, K.J., et al., “Residential distance at birth from overhead high-voltage powerlines: childhood cancer risk in Britain 1962–2008.” Br J Cancer, 2014. 110(5): p. 1402–8.
  9. Draper, G., et al., “Childhood cancer in relation to distance from high voltage power lines in England and Wales: a case-control study.” BMJ, 2005. 330(7503): p. 1290.
  10. Haberman, C. 2014. Retro Report: “Long After an ‘80’s Scare, Suspicion of Power Lines Prevail.” The New York Times.
  11. Savitz, D.A., et al. 1988. “Case-control study of childhood cancer and exposure to 60-Hz magnetic fields.” Am J Epidemiol. 128(1): p. 21–38.
  12. Regression Toward the Mean.” May 15, 2016].
  13. Bland, J.M. and D.G. Altman, “Some examples of regression towards the mean.” BMJ, 1994. 309(6957): p. 780.
  14. Bland, J.M. and D.G. Altman, “Regression towards the mean.” BMJ, 1994. 308(6942): p. 1499.
  15. Cox, B., “Kenilworth parents’ concerns lead to ComEd response at Sears School,” in Chicago Tribute. 2014. s
  16. Repacholi, M. 2012. “Concern that ‘EMF’ magnetic fields from power lines cause cancer”. Sci Total Environ, 2012. 426: p. 454–8.
  17. Alexandra Scifferlin. 2016. “Cell Phone-Cancer Link Seen in Rat Study.” Time.
  18. David Z. Morris. 2016. “That Cell-Phone Cancer Study isn’t Quite As Scary as it Seems.” Fortune.
  19. Dina Fine Maron. 2016. “Major Cell Phone Radiation Study Reignites Cancer Questions.” Scientific American.
  20. Steven Novella. 2016. “Underwhelming Cell Phone Rat Study.” Neurologica.
  21. US National Toxicology Program. 2016. “Report of Partial Findings from the National Toxicology Program Carcinogenesis Studies of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Radiation in Hsd: Sprague Dawley® SD rats (Whole Body Exposures).”
  22. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Electric and Magnetic Fields. May 30, 2016.
  23. Sciences NIoEH. 2002. “EMF: Electric and Magnetic Fields Associated with the Use of Electric Power.” Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health.
  24. World Health Organization What are electromagnetic fields? May 30, 2016.
  25. National Cancer Institute Cell Phones and Cancer Risk. May 30, 2016.

16 Comments

  1. Tito Estrada says:

    My congratulations for a very sound critical analysis of the EMF issue.
    I am not formally a scientist by education, but consider myself one by training after having spent the last 38 years of my life as a medical industry representative.
    From a very early age, due to excellent teachers, I learned to apply the Scientific Method to my decision making.
    As early as yesterday I was involved in a conversation with a dear friend of mine (who is a real scientist) on this EMF issue (he is very adamant about the negative effects of EMF exposure). This article confirms my initial reaction to his arguments (pretty convincing, but based on anecdotal observation and “urban lore”), that if you apply critical thinking to many of these issues, there is very little evidence of its negative effects… The very same ideas I have tried to inculcate on my children since they were of reasoning age…
    Thanks for a very well written and informative article…..

    Best regards,

    • DanVignau says:

      having ridden 4 wheelers along the trails under TVA power lines, and having lived next to a really big one, I noticed a possible reason for a correlation of EM radiation with cancers: About every month, gobs of weed killer are sprayed on the trail where we lived and rode, and where children played.

      Has any study even considered this? When I asked my TVA engineer ex-Dad, he said it was something TVA did not want studied.

  2. Rik Delaet says:

    Reading this article I wondered if there were no studies that showed a small positive effect on health by EMF. One would expect that if results were random.

    • Julie Frantsve-Hawley says:

      Excellent question!! The Kheifets 2010 systematic review reported on the cumulative individual studies looking at EMF and the risk of childhood leukemia. Some of the studies included in this analysis did in fact show an overall protective effect (odds ratio less than 1), and all of the studies demonstrated a protective effect for some of the subjects (95% Confidence Interval extending to less than 1).

    • Bob Pease says:

      your point seems to be that the results are NOT random.

      The obvious rhetorical trick here effect is to imply the “WHO’S COVER ING UP??”

      Sadly, this was the general belief among the UFO nuts of the
      ’50”s’

      It went so far as to have the charge made that anyone NOT sitting in a FARADAY cage was either a moral coward , or worse, already brainwashed by Aliens sending down EMF RAYS !!

      Sic Transit

      Dr S.

  3. Janice Muir says:

    Origins of the EMF/cancer association were discussed in Vol. 19 of Skeptic in Gary Smith’s article “How to Lie with Statistics”.

    Thank you for the addendum about cell phones and cancer. I work for a telco and still have coworkers who express concerns about EMF and cell phones causing cancer. I was very sad to see the recent media reports. I expect some fallout at work – sigh.

  4. Dennis M. Driscoll says:

    As a Ph.D. in Meteorology with extensive training in in epidemiology, I spent a professional lifetime examining relationships between weather and human health and well-being. I was not able to confirm some suspected relationships. As a corollary to Dr. F-H conclusion that

  5. Dennis M. Driscoll says:

    “We need to take the time to understand not only what people know and believe, but also why they perceive things as they do. We need to develop strategies for more effective communications so that the public can have the same comfort in and reliance on science as we do,” let me posit that if you search for something long enough, you’ll find it, whether it’s there or not. It’s as if the very act of looking for something makes it appear.

  6. Robin Reardon says:

    The article highlights beautifully the irrational reaction of the reptilian brain and the confabulation the neocortex goes through to justify actions taken.

    I would have enjoyed reading the article more if the style had been less hyperbolic, if it had been edited more carefully, and if it had been about half as long. Also, although I agree that science is paramount in situations like this, I found the harping on science to be repetitive to the point of annoyance.

    • Leon Vlug says:

      My thoughts exactly. The author wants the reader to know that she is a scientist and belongs to the elite in her class; a pat on the back well deserved. It is even contagious, one commenter considers himself a scientist by being a medical industry representative.

  7. Dr. Tom Blinn says:

    So, my take on the (not yet peer reviewed or published) research on the effect of cell phone (RF) radiation frequencies on rats is that if you irradiate rats continuously from before birth, some of them might show irregularities in various neural structures. It makes me worry about my cell phone use. I’m glad I don’t live inside a cell tower (but not for any reason related to the rat studies). If I had a problem with rats I’d almost consider this a justification for using an RF source to try to mitigate the problem, except that wouldn’t work very well. The Luddites will always be with us.

  8. Upendra Arya says:

    In 2100 century scientist believe that particle is end of physical existence, that’s why direction of science going in black hole.
    Scientist should realize that next physical reality after particle is electrostatics field and magneto statics filed, these are not imaginary force line on paper.

  9. Wil says:

    “As a scientist, we know that it is impossible to prove a negative, so the standards set by the parents would never be achievable.”

    I wish people I otherwise completely agreed with would stop repeating this line of nonsense. You can prove a negative. Here’s one syllogism that does just that:

    1. If it is Thursday, then it is not Friday.
    2. It is Thursday.
    3. Therefore, it is not Friday. (i.e. It is not the case that it is Friday)

    You can prove a negative. I think what you mean to say is that it is hard to prove a universal negative (i.e. Unicorns don’t exist)…

  10. Mary says:

    Great article. It’s good to keep reminding us [humans] of how our brains work and lead us down misguided paths.

  11. Taymor Rashidi says:

    Great scientific case study on adverse effect of Electromagnetic (EM) Radiation. It is worthy of noticing that there are scientific facts that contribute to the benefit of EM, examples are: (1) our beautiful earth has magnetic field that protect and shield us from the cosmic radiation, (2) our brain emits electric field that is measurable and used in diagnosing brain tumors and other clinical studies, (3) EM radiation has been used in reducing/stop pain, (4) we use lighting 24/7 that emits EM, but no evidence of people are being killed, and many more…

  12. BillG says:

    Metaphorically, cell phones do cause cancer and it’s not radiation. Cell phone use while driving is beyond annoying. It can be injurious and deadly.

    Ironically the fear of cancer by using cell phones may produce a benefit – keeping the roads safer for all of us.

    As once correctly named, “crackberry” impairment has overtook drinking/drugs causes in auto related accidents.
    (Sorry to digress)

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