Fact sheet No 184: Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health - Public Perception of EMF Risks - Reviewed May 1998
Technological progress in the broadest sense of the word has always been associated with various hazards and risks, both perceived and real. The industrial, commercial and household application of electromagnetic fields (EMF) is no exception.
Throughout the world, the general public is concerned that exposure to EMF from such sources as high voltage power lines, radars, mobile telephones and their base stations could lead to adverse health consequences, especially in children. As a result, the construction of new power lines and mobile telephone networks has met with considerable opposition in some countries.
In response to these public concerns shared by many governments, the World Health Organization (WHO) has established the International EMF Project to evaluate the biological effects and assess possible health risks from EMF exposure. Over 40 countries and 6 international organizations are currently involved in the Project.
Recent history has shown that lack of knowledge about health consequences of technological advances may not be the sole reason for social opposition to innovations. Disregard for differences in risk perception that are not adequately reflected in communications among scientists, governments, industry and the public, is also to blame. It is for this reason that risk perception and risk communication in relation to EMF are also covered by the International EMF Project.
Health Hazard and Risk: In trying to understand people’s perception of risk, it is important to distinguish between a health hazard and a health risk. A hazard can be an object or a set of circumstances that can potentially harm a person’s health. Risk is the likelihood (or probability) that a person will be harmed by a particular hazard.
* Every activity you can think of has an associated risk. Travelling may result in a car accident, or a plane or train crash. Staying at home may not protect you from an earthquake. Living in general is associated with many risks. There is no such thing as a zero risk.
Perception of risk: A number of factors influence a person’s decision to take a risk or reject it. People usually perceive risks as negligible, acceptable, tolerable, or unacceptable, and compare them with the benefits, which should outweigh the risk by a significant margin. These perceptions can depend on people’s age, sex, cultural and educational backgrounds.
* Many young people, for example, find the risk of sky diving as acceptable. Many older people do not since they perceive it as too dangerous and, therefore, unacceptable.
The nature of the risk can lead to different perceptions. Surveys have found that the following pairs of characteristics of a situation generally affect risk perception. The first member of the pair tends to increase while the second one decreases the magnitude of the perceived risk:
* Involuntary vs. voluntary exposure. This is an important factor in risk perception, especially for EMF-emitting sources. People who do not use mobile telephones perceive the risk as high from the relatively low radio-frequency (RF) fields emitted from mobile telephone base stations. However, mobile telephone users generally perceive as low the risk from the much more intense RF fields from their voluntarily-chosen handsets.
In the case of people who do not own a mobile telephone, for example, exposure to RF fields from mobile telephone base stations may be perceived as a high risk for the following reasons:
* people are faced with an involuntary exposure to RF fields;
Communities feel they have a right to know what is proposed and planned with respect to the construction of EMF facilities that might affect their health. They want to have some control and be part of the decision-making process.
Unless an effective system of public information and communications among scientists, governments, the industry and the public is established, new EMF technologies will be mistrusted and feared.
The development of EMF technologies should be matched by appropriate and coordinated research into their potential consequences for health. This is one of the most important objectives of the International EMF Project established by WHO.
For further information, please contact Health Communications and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (41 22) 791 2532. Fax (41 22) 791 4858.
All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features as well as other information on this subject can be obtained on Internet on the WHO home page http://www.who.ch/
© WHO/OMS, 1998
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