Photo of a powerline, taken by Liz Ainsbury



There is a growing body of epidemiological evidence linking electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) from the electricity supply to an increased risk of ill health. The link between childhood leukaemia and magnetic fields (MFs) has been well publicised but other health problems have been linked to EMFs, principally adult leukaemia, adult brain cancer, miscarriage and amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS or motor neurone disease), but also depression, suicide and heart conditions.

Please click here for more information on EMFs

Our team is researching two possible mechanisms by which EMFs could be causing these ill health effects. Since most research that has been carried out in the world has concerned the magnetic field components of EMFs, we have a programme of research of magnetic field measurements and of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the existing body of published research. Our aim is to understand the mechanisms by which power frequency magnetic fields may increase the risk of adverse health effects, one particular mechanism being melatonin production in the body.

Separately, there are various reports specifically linking electric field exposures to ill health. We are looking at one aspect of this which does not concern the direct effects of electric fields, rather indirect effects especially associated with high voltage powerlines. Such powerlines can and frequently do ionise the air producing so-called corona ions which are emitted into the atmosphere.

Possible causes of ill health from EMF:

Corona ions.

The primary way in which electrical power is transmitted and distributed around the country is by means of cables suspended between pylons. These cables usually carry a very high voltage, for example in Britain, 132,000 or 400,000 volts.

The high voltage carried by these cables is sufficient to break up the air, separating electrons from individual air molecules. This is the buzzing noise that is often heard from powerline cables. This process is known as ionisation, and it results in the creation of electrically charged particles or small ions (also known as corona ions).

We are investigating the way in which powerlines emit small ions, how they attach themselves to particles of air pollution and the level of increased amount of air pollution that is trapped in the lung of people living near powerlines. We are then investigating the consequences of this increased exposure to air pollution. Given that a number of illnesses are known to be linked to air pollution, people living near powerlines might be at greater risk of these illnesses.

Click for more information on corona ions, spectrometers, Increased lung deposition of charged particles.

Magnetic fields and Melatonin disruption

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland. It is produced mostly at night and its production has been shown to be disrupted by the presence of light at night. Magnetic fields have also been shown to disrupt melatonin production in a similar way. Melatonin is known to act as a natural anti-cancer agent and reduced levels in the body have also been linked to increased risk of depression.

It has been hypothesised that the various illnesses linked to magnetic fields could be caused by melatonin disruption.

Click for more information on melatonin.