Since 1950, the global request for electricity has multiplied. In Belgium, electricity consumption increased by 80 % between 1960 and 1995 (Bastard et al., 2000).
Electricity facilitates our everyday life. It is an essential partner of technological development in our modern society. Nevertheless, its use generates electric and magnetic fields in which we continuously bathe. Exposure to such fields occurs when using electrical household appliances, working in front of computer screens, being in the presence of security systems in supermarkets or airports, as well as being in the vicinity of power lines, radio and television stations, portable telephones or their transmission stations.
While the public recognises the advantages electricity brings, over the past 20 years however, it has expressed an increasing apprehension of electromagnetic fields’effects on health.
At the end of the 1960’s in the Soviet Union, the first studies devoted to the health effects of electric and magnetic fields appeared. Several reports concerning the health of workmen responsible for the installation and maintenance of high-tension lines mentioned a deterioration of their psychological and physical well-being. These results have not been confirmed in Europe, in Canada or the United States, but the debate is not resolved yet (Hendee & Boteler, 1994).
This question was revived in the United States by the publication of the study of Wertheimer & Leeper (1979). Their results suggested an association between the residential exposure to magnetic fields of an electrical supply network and the incidence of cancers, specifically leukaemia in children in Colorado.
Three years later, Milham (1982) published a letter in the “New England Journal of Medicine” reporting an increase in mortality from leukaemia among workers of an electricity sector exposed to electric and magnetic fields during their professional activities (State of Washington).
These two studies constituted the starting point of research work carried out internationally. Since then, many epidemiological studies have been published. When a study shows an increased incidence of diseases within the population living near power lines or working in an electricity sector, it is particularly publicised. Many reports that conclude an absence of health effects often remain unknown to the public (Moulder, 2003).
Epidemiological approach provides contradictory results; experimental, cellular or animal studies have led to irreproducible results or the studies have not been repeated and do not allow elucidation of mechanisms of interaction between extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields and living beings.
Several groups of experts from WHO, NIEHS, NAS and HPA have published summaries related to the effects of electric and magnetic fields of 50-60 Hz on health and, in particular, on cancer. To date, the scientists and doctors agree that the risk, if it exists, is weak and difficult to detect (WHO, 2007).
Important research programs are still being conducted in research centres throughout the world. The objectives of international research planned for the next decade favour epidemiological studies devoted to the possible association between the exposure to the electric and magnetic fields of 50-60 Hz and the incidence of cancers or pathologies of the nervous system. The experimental studies aim to determine the mechanism of action and the effects of these fields on the biological functioning of cells and animals.