Exposure to extremely low-frequency magnetic fields and childhood cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Citation: Seomun G, Lee J, Park J (2021) Exposure to extremely low-frequency magnetic fields and childhood cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0251628. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251628



Extremely low frequency magnetic fields (ELF-MFs) are classified as a possible carcinogenic factor (Group 2B). This study assessed the association between ELF-MFs and childhood cancer through a systematic review and meta-analysis.


Three databases were searched in January 2020. We conducted a meta-analysis for the association between the ELF-MFs exposure level and childhood cancer.


A total of 33 studies were identified. Thirty studies with 186,223 participants were included in the meta-analysis. Children exposed to 0.2-, 0.3-, and 0.4-μT ELF-MFs had a 1.26 (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.06–1.49), 1.22 (95% CI 0.93–1.61), and 1.72 (95% CI 1.25–2.35) times higher odds of childhood leukemia. In childhood brain tumors, children exposed to 0.2-μT had a 0.95 (95% CI 0.59–1.56) times higher odds, and those exposed to 0.4-μT ELF-MFs had a 1.25 (95% CI 0.93–1.61). Children exposed to 0.2- and 0.4-μT ELF-MFs had a 1.10 (95% CI 0.70–1.75) and 2.01 (95% CI 0.89–4.52) times higher odds of any childhood cancers.


Significant associations were observed between exposure to ELF-MFs and childhood leukemia. Furthermore, a possible dose-response effect was also observed.




Although we identified three cohort studies that met the study eligibility criteria, these studies were not able to include in the meta-analysis. In the cohort study, the incident ratio of childhood leukemia was 1.6 and any childhood cancer was 1.5 in the group exposed to 0.2-μT, however, it was not statistically significant [38]. In the other two studies, the hazard ratio was 1.6 in the group exposed to 0.2-μT [50] and 1.9 in the group exposed to 0.3-μT [57], however, it was also not statistically significant. As the WHO recommends the conducting of cohort studies on EMF health effects, and several large-scale cohort studies are currently ongoing [62], we hope to derive an integrated value of cohort results through a systematic review in the future.

The ELF-MFs measurement variation was not considered in our meta-analysis. Although some studies used a long-term measurement, others used a spot measurement; however, no distinction has been made in our meta-analysis because of the limited number of studies. Nonetheless, our pooled results showed a non-significant heterogeneity among studies.

Another limitation is that all studies included in our study were case-control studies, which reduces the strength of the obtained results because case–control studies are subject to selection bias and other methodological problems. However, all studies that were included in this meta-analysis were the matched case-control studies except one, which had the case and control groups from the same registry. Therefore, it can be seen that the bias shown in case-control studies has diminished.


In this large pooled analysis of more than 36,000 children diagnosed with childhood leukemia, statistically significant associations were observed between exposure to ELF-MF and childhood leukemia. Furthermore, the intensity of the association between exposure to ELF-MFs and childhood leukemia was high, as indicated by the dose–response effect.

The risk of ELF-MFs, which have been classified as a possibly carcinogenic (Group 2B) factor based on limited evidence in humans, can be ascertained through precise evidence from the integrated results of this study.

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