Manmade Electromagnetic Fields and Oxidative Stress—Biological Effects and Consequences for Health

Schuermann, D.; Mevissen, M. Manmade Electromagnetic Fields and Oxidative Stress—Biological Effects and Consequences for Health. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 202122, 3772.


Concomitant with the ever-expanding use of electrical appliances and mobile communication systems, public and occupational exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) in the extremely-low-frequency and radiofrequency range has become a widely debated environmental risk factor for health. Radiofrequency (RF) EMF and extremely-low-frequency (ELF) MF have been classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), potentially leading to cellular or systemic oxidative stress, was frequently found to be influenced by EMF exposure in animals and cells. In this review, we summarize key experimental findings on oxidative stress related to EMF exposure from animal and cell studies of the last decade. The observations are discussed in the context of molecular mechanisms and functionalities relevant to health such as neurological function, genome stability, immune response, and reproduction. Most animal and many cell studies showed increased oxidative stress caused by RF-EMF and ELF-MF. In order to estimate the risk for human health by manmade exposure, experimental studies in humans and epidemiological studies need to be considered as well.

Graphical Abstract


7. Conclusions

The majority of recent animal studies on increased ROS production and oxidative stress caused by EMF were aimed at investigations of the nervous system and reproduction. Analogously, in cell studies, neurons or neuron-like cells were most frequently used. Animal studies on oxidative stress and possible impairment of reproduction at different stages (sperm maturation, very early stages of pregnancy such as implantation, and effects in newborns and after a few weeks of EMF exposure to the mother animals during pregnancy) follow in second place. These animal studies were supported by some cell studies, mainly in mouse cell lines of the male reproductive system and in sperm. Overall, more cells than animal studies were published, using, in addition to the abovementioned cell types of the nervous and reproductive system, immune and cancer cells, as well as isolated cells from the skin and epithelia. For this report, animal and cell studies were included, according to their quality and research question, in order to give an informative overview of the available studies; however, this is not a systematic review. In summary, indications for increased oxidative stress caused by RF-EMF and ELF-MF were reported in the majority of the animal studies and in more than half of the cell studies. Investigations in Wistar and Sprague-Dawley rats provided consistent evidence for oxidative stress occurring after RF-EMF exposure in the brain and testes and some indication of oxidative stress in the heart. Observations in Sprague-Dawley rats also seem to provide consistent evidence for oxidative stress in the liver and kidneys. In mice, oxidative stress induced by RF-EMF was predominantly demonstrated in the brain and testes, as well as in liver, kidneys, and ovaries. These observations were made with a variety of cell types, exposure times, and dosages (SAR or field strengths), within the range of the regulatory limits and recommendations. Certainly, some studies were subject to methodological uncertainties or weaknesses or are not very comprehensive regarding exposure time, dose, number, and quantitative analysis of the biomarkers used, to name a few. A trend is emerging, which becomes clear even when taking these methodological weaknesses into account, i.e., that EMF exposure, even in the low dose range, may well lead to changes in cellular oxidative balance. Organisms and cells are able to react to oxidative stress, and many observations after EMF exposure point to an adaptation after a recovery phase. Adverse conditions, such as diseases (diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases), compromise the body’s defense mechanisms, including antioxidant protection mechanisms, and individuals with such pre-existing conditions are more likely to experience health effects. The studies show that very young or old individuals can react less efficiently to oxidative stress, which of course also applies to other stressors that cause oxidative stress. Further investigations under standardized conditions are necessary to better understand and confirm these phenomena and observations.

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