What you may have heard
The U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) stated that the health risk from extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation poses a weak health risk: The radiation is not entirely safe yet it is still a potential carcinogen (ACS, NIEHS).
What science tells us
Radiation exists across a spectrum from very high energy to very low energy. High-energy radiation includes X-rays and UV rays. Both X-rays and UV rays have the potential to damage cell DNA, which can lead to cancer. Power lines produce low frequency non-ionizing radiation from electric and magnetic fields. There is limited evidence that exposure to this type of radiation is associated with cancer.
ELF radiation, such as what is found in power lines or household devices (like refrigerators and vacuum cleaners), does not have enough energy to damage DNA. According to the American Cancer Society, there is no evidence that exposure to ELF radiation causes cancer (ACS). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has similar findings, but they divided ELF radiation into two categories: electric and magnetic. IARC stated that there is not enough evidence to conclude whether extremely low frequency electric radiation in humans is carcinogenic, and that extremely low frequency magnetic radiation in humans is possibly carcinogenic (ACS, IARC). Children with the highest levels of exposure have a slight increase in risk for leukemia compared to children with the lowest levels of exposure (ACS, IARC).
Laboratory Evidence/Supporting Evidence
There are limited laboratory studies on power lines and the risk of cancer. More research is needed to further examine the relationship between the two.
IARC Carcinogen Classification: Not classified.
How to reduce your risk
It is not clear that exposure to ELF radiation is harmful, but there are steps you may take to decrease your exposure. The NIEHS recommends that people find out where their ELF exposure is coming from and limit the time spent near the sources. ELF radiation from power lines, for example, decreases significantly as distance from the power line increases. The farther away you are, the safer you are from the radiation.
It is not clear that extremely low-frequency radiation causes cancer, but it does pose somewhat of a health risk. People should take steps to decrease their exposure.
Learn More From These Trusted Sources
American Cancer Society (ACS): Power lines and Extremely Low Energy Radiation
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC): Extremely Low-Frequency (ELF) radiation
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS): Power lines and radiation exposure
Published: July 13, 2021
Verified/updated: August 22, 2022