Prioritizing health outcomes when assessing the effects of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields: A survey among experts

Jos Verbeek, Gunnhild Oftedal, Maria Feychting, Eric van Rongen, Maria Rosaria Scarfì, Simon Mann, Rachel Wong, Emilie van Deventer,
Prioritizing health outcomes when assessing the effects of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields: A survey among experts, Environment International, Volume 146, 2021, 106300, ISSN 0160-4120,
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412020322558?via%3Dihub
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412020322558

Abstract

Exposure to radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields (EMF) (frequencies of 100 kHz to 300 GHz) has been steadily increasing. In addition to heat-related effects of RF EMF, other yet-unspecified biological effects, might exist which could possibly lead to health effects. Given the large number of health endpoints that have been studied, we wanted to prioritize those that would merit systematic reviews.

We developed a survey listing of all health endpoints reported in the literature and we asked 300 RF EMF experts and researchers to prioritize these health effects for systematic review as critical, important or unimportant. We also asked the experts to provide the rationale for their prioritization.

Of the 300 RF EMF experts queried, 164 (54%) responded. They rated cancer, heat-related effects, adverse birth outcomes, electromagnetic hypersensitivity, cognitive impairment, adverse pregnancy outcomes and oxidative stress as outcomes most critical regarding RF EMF exposure. For these outcomes, systematic reviews are needed. For heat-related outcomes, the experts based their ranking of the critical outcomes on what is known from human or animal studies, and for cancer and other outcomes, they based their rating also on public concern.

To assess health risks of an exposure in a robust manner, it is important to prioritize the health outcomes that should be systematically reviewed. Here we have shown that it feasible to do so in an inclusive and transparent way.

Excerpt

4. Discussion

RF EMF experts rated cancer, heat-related effects, adverse birth outcomes, electromagnetic hypersensitivity, cognitive impairment, adverse pregnancy outcomes and oxidative stress as outcomes most critical regarding RF EMF exposure. For these outcomes, systematic reviews will be performed. For heat-related outcomes, the experts based their rating of the critical outcomes on their knowledge of human or animal studies, and for cancer and other outcomes, they based their rating also on public concern.

4.3. Implications

Given the many health outcomes studied in relation to RF EMF exposure, the survey showed that not all outcomes are considered equally important by RF experts. We decided at the outset of this survey that systematic reviews will be needed for those topics that are rated as critical by a large proportion of the RF experts. As part of the WHO health risk assessment on RF EMF exposure, WHO has recently commissioned those reviews through an open call for expressions of interest. A selection committee convened by WHO ranked the teams based on the criteria related to qualifications and skills mentioned in the calls, including expertise in systematic review methodology, RF EMF expertise and expertise in the outcome of interest. All team members were assessed for conflicts of interest, as per WHO’s requirements. The protocols for the systematic reviews will soon be published in Environment International.

To assess health risks of an exposure in a robust manner, it is important to prioritize the health outcomes that should be systematically reviewed. Here we have shown that it feasible to do so in an inclusive and transparent way.

Funding

This work was sponsored by the World Health Organization

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