Electricity provides us with a lot of comfort in our daily life. But the transport and use of electricity also generates electric and magnetic fields. Does the exposure to these fields imply a health risk?

Electrical or magnetic?

As soon as an electrical device is connected to the grid, as soon as the plug is in the outlet, there is an electric field present around the wires. When electricity flows through the wires, when electricity is being used (when a lamp is on or a vacuum cleaner is running, for example), there is also a magnetic field around the wire and the device.

The electricity grid current is alternating current, with a frequency of 50 hertz in Europe (50 cycles per second, 50Hz). The electric and magnetic fields generated are alternating fields, which alternate with the same frequency as the electrical current: 50 Hz. This means that the fields belong to the category of fields with extremely low frequencies (ELF): from 0 Hz to 300 Hz.

Exposure limits

Alternating fields with extremely low frequencies generate an electric current in the body. If the field is strong enough, the current generated in the body can disturb the working of nerves and muscles or cause flashes of light to be seen. According to the recommendation of the Council 1999/519/EC, the following threshold values must not be exceeded by the fields so that these effects do not occur:

• for the electric field, the limit is 5 kilovolts per metre (5,000 V/m or 5 kV/m);
• for the magnetic field, the limit is 100 microteslas (100 µT).

The fields that surround us in our everyday lives are usually not this strong. You can read more in the left menu about the exposure in daily life and how the recommendations of the Council were applied in the Belgian regulation.

Health risks

The purpose of the exposure limits is to prevent immediate harmful effects at the level of the nervous system. There are still not enough scientific data to tell us if other long-term (harmful) effects are possible. We are discussing here the most topical questions: about a possible connection with childhood leukaemia and electrical hypersensitivity.

Electricity and childhood leukaemia?

There are indications from epidemiological research that long-term exposure may be associated with a mildly elevated risk of leukaemia in children. For that reason, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified low-frequency magnetic fields (originating from the electric power grid) as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’ ‘Long-term exposure’ refers to a long-term stay in places where the average magnetic field over 24 hours is higher than 0.3 – 0.4 µT, which could be the case near high-voltage power transmission lines.

You can read more about this under “Electricity and childhood leukaemia”.

Electrical hypersensitivity?

Some people experience health problems in the area of high-voltage lines, electrical devices or when using mobile telephones, for field values at which most people do not experience any discomfort. This phenomenon is described in the section “Electromagnetic hypersensitivity”.

You can download all information of the section "Electricity" in its entirety as a PDF document (information sheet “Electricity and health”).