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Electromagnetic exposure and childhood leukaemia

An EU-funded project has assessed the risks of childhood leukaemia in association with exposure to extremely-low-frequency magnetic fields (ELF-MFs).
Electromagnetic exposure and childhood leukaemia
ELF-MFs, associated with the use and transmission of electric power, have been classified as potentially carcinogenic to humans. Epidemiological data support an association between residential exposure to ELF-MFs and childhood leukaemia.

Up to now, studies on animal and cell models have not provided strong support for a causal relationship between ELF-MFs and cancer. In the EU-funded project ARIMMORA (Advanced research on interaction mechanisms of electromagnetic exposures with organisms for risk assessment) the underlying biophysical mechanisms to verify a possible causal relationship between ELF-MF exposure and cancer were scrutinised.

The ARIMMORA project comprised a multidisciplinary team of 10 world-leading experts in relevant fields. These included epigenetics, ERK signalling cascades, leukaemia in vivo models, in vivo toxicology and EMF-sensitive animal models, as well as in exposure assessment, biophysical modelling and risk assessment.

Research was performed with multiple exposure models, including genetic, in vitro, in silico, and animal studies. Foetal exposure to uniform magnetic fields at 50 Hz was analysed in silico in pregnant models at three gestational ages and with different foetal postures. A new transgenic mouse model that carries the human gene associated with the most common childhood leukaemia (B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, B-ALL) was developed. Various sources of ELF-MFs, including underground power lines and transformer stations, were evaluated with numerical dosimetry. A novel instrument was developed to determine the magnitude and spatial gradient of the incident magnetic fields simultaneously.

Exposure studies in Italy and Switzerland showed that the mean exposure for children is below 0.1 microtesla(μT) but a small proportion – up to 4 % of children – are exposed to more than 0.3 μT. One out of the 30 ELF-MF-exposed mice developed B-ALL compared to none among the 65 control animals.

Decreases of cytotoxic T cells related to ELF-MF exposure were detected. Small differences in epigenetic modifications were observed in human haematopoietic stem cells exposed to ELF-MF. The radical pair mechanism is the most likely candidate for the observed ELF-MF effects on signalling pathways.

The ARIMMORA results were reported together with other recent findings from outside the ARIMMORA project as a risk assessment in the style of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The findings are consistent with continuation of the Group 2B classification (i.e., that exposure to ELF-MFs is possibly carcinogenic to humans). However, the mechanistic insight achieved by this project could point the way to new research pathways in future assessments.

Related information


Electromagnetic exposure, childhood leukaemia, carcinogenic, International Agency for Research on Cancer
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