A 40-year-old debate
Since 1950, the global request for electricity has multiplied. In Belgium, electricity consumption increased by 80 % between 1960 and 1995 (Bastard et al., 2000).
Electricity facilitates our everyday life. It is an essential partner of technological development in our modern society. Nevertheless, its use generates electric and magnetic fields in which we continuously bathe. Exposure to such fields occurs when using electrical household appliances, working in front of computer screens, being in the presence of security systems in supermarkets or airports, as well as being in the vicinity of power lines, radio and television stations, portable telephones or their transmission stations.
While the public recognises the advantages electricity brings, over the past 20 years however, it has expressed an increasing apprehension of electromagnetic fields'effects on health.
At the end of the 1960's in the Soviet Union, the first studies devoted to the health effects of electric and magnetic fields appeared. Several reports concerning the health of workmen responsible for the installation and maintenance of high-tension lines mentioned a deterioration of their psychological and physical well-being. These results have not been confirmed in Europe, in Canada or the United States, but the debate is not resolved yet (Hendee & Boteler, 1994).
This question was revived in the United States by the publication of the study of Wertheimer & Leeper (1979). Their results suggested an association between the residential exposure to magnetic fields of an electrical supply network and the incidence of cancers, specifically leukaemia in children in Colorado.
Three years later, Milham (1982) published a letter in the " New England Journal of Medicine " reporting an increase in mortality from leukaemia among workers of an electricity sector exposed to electric and magnetic fields during their professional activities (State of Washington).
These two studies constituted the starting point of research work carried out internationally. Since then, many epidemiological studies have been published. When a study shows an increased incidence of diseases within the population living near power lines or working in an electricity sector, it is particularly publicised. Many reports that conclude an absence of health effects often remain unknown to the public (Moulder, 2003).
Epidemiological approach provides contradictory results; experimental, cellular or animal studies have led to irreproducible results or the studies have not been repeated and do not allow elucidation of mechanisms of interaction between extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields and living beings.
Several groups of experts from WHO, NIEHS, NAS and HPA have published summaries related to the effects of electric and magnetic fields of 50-60 Hz on health and, in particular, on cancer. To date, the scientists and doctors agree that the risk, if it exists, is weak and difficult to detect (WHO, 2007).
Important research programs are still being conducted in research centres throughout the world. The objectives of international research planned for the next decade favour epidemiological studies devoted to the possible association between the exposure to the electric and magnetic fields of 50-60 Hz and the incidence of cancers or pathologies of the nervous system. The experimental studies aim to determine the mechanism of action and the effects of these fields on the biological functioning of cells and animals.
Situation in Belgium
In 1987, farmers in the south of Belgium complained of negative effects incurred by their cattle living near overhead power lines. As early as 1988, the Energy Secretariat charged a multi-field commission to give a progress report on this issue and concluded: "... in the current state of knowledge, it exists no proof of a harmful influence of the electric fields and magnetic induction generated by the air power lines " (Interdisciplinary Commission of experts, 1990).
Aware of the anxiety of the population towards the potential risk of electromagnetic fields, the Programming Department of Scientific Policy (PDSP) granted subsidies in 1990 intended for the development of scientific research in this public health field. Four teams of the University of Liège received a three-year credit for their research program "Effects of electromagnetic fields on health".
In 1994, the PDSP (recently renamed "Federal Services of the Scientific, Techniques and Cultural Affairs") did not renew the research contract. Wishing to continue and develop their work, the Liège teams decided to establish collaboration with other Belgian researchers.
In 1995, 8 teams of French- and Dutch-speaking scientists joined to create the Belgian BioElectroMagnetics Group (BBEMG). Accordingly, Belgium has a group of experts of different specialities at the Universities of Brussels (ULB), Gent (RUG), Leuven (KUL), Liège (ULG) and a research institute in Mol (VITO).
The BBEMG's multidisciplinary program aims to fulfil a double mission:
- To carry out research designed for a better understanding of the interactions between electromagnetic fields and biological activity;
- To contribute to the development and diffusion of scientific knowledge on the potential health effects of electric and magnetic fields. To create expertise and information centres accessible to the public, scientists, governing authorities and electricity companies.
Using a variety of compatible approaches, objectives, and methods, researchers collaborate efficiently in the advancement of knowledge in this field.
BBEMG research programs are carried out with the financial support of the company Elia under a statute that respects research teams' scientific freedom.
Bastard, P., Fargue, D., Laurier, P., Mathieu, B., Nicolas, M., & Roos, P. (2000). Electricité : Voyage au coeur du système. Paris : Eyrolles. (Book).
Commission interdisciplinaire d'experts (1990). Evaluation sur la santé humaine et animale des effets des lignes à haute et très haute tension : rapport de la commission interdisciplinaire d'experts [s.l.]. (Book).
Hendee, WR. & Boteler, JC. (1994). The question of health effects from exposure to electromagnetic fields (see comments): Health Physics, 66 (2), p. 127-136.
Milham, S. (1982). Mortality from leukemia in workers exposed to electrical and magnetic fields (letter) : NEJM., 307 :249.
Moulder, JE., Electromagnetic fields and human health. Power lines and Cancer FAQs., http://www.mcw.edu/radiationoncology/ourdepartment/radiationbiology/Power-Lines-and-Cancer-FAQs.htm (December 4, 2012).
Wertheimer, N. & Leeper, E. (1979). Electrical wiring configurations and childhood cancer : Am J Epidem, 109, p. 273-284.
World Health Organization (2007). Environmental Health Criteria 238 (2007): Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) Fields. WHO, Geneva, Switzerland, ISBN 978-92-4-157238-5