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Keywords:

  • Mobile phones;
  • policy;
  • power lines;
  • risk analysis;
  • risk governance

Power-frequency electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) have been present in industrialized countries since the late 19th century and a considerable amount of knowledge has been accumulated as to potential health effects. The mainstream scientific view is that even if there is a risk, it is unlikely to be of major public-health significance. EMFs from cellular communications and other radio-frequency technologies have increased rapidly in the last decade. This technology is constantly changing, which makes continued research both more urgent and more challenging. While there are no persuasive data suggesting a health risk, research and particularly exposure assessment is still immature. The principal risk-governance issue with power frequencies is how to respond to weak and uncertain scientific evidence that nonetheless causes public concern. For radio-frequency electromagnetic fields, the issue is how to respond to large potential consequences and large public concern where only limited scientific evidence exists. We survey these issues and identify deficits in risk governance. Deficits in problem framing include both overstatement and understatement of the scientific evidence and of the consequences of taking protective measures, limited ability to detect early warnings of risk, and attempted reassurance that has sometimes been counterproductive. Other deficits relate to the limited public involvement mechanisms, and flaws in the identification and evaluation of tradeoffs in the selection of appropriate management strategies. We conclude that risk management of EMFs has certainly not been perfect, but for power frequencies it has evolved and now displays many successful features. Lessons from the power-frequency experience can benefit risk governance of the radio-frequency EMFs and other emerging technologies.