There is presently an intense discussion if electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure has consequences for human health. This include exposure to structures and appliances that emit in the extremely low frequency (ELF) range of the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as emission coming from communication devices using the radiofrequency part of the spectrum. Biological effects of such exposures have been noted frequently, although the implication for specific health effects is not that clear. The basic interaction mechanism(s) between such fields and living matter is unknown. Numerous hypotheses have been suggested, although none is convincingly supported by experimental data. Various cellular components, processes, and systems can be affected by EMF exposure. Since it is unlikely that EMF can induce DNA damage directly, most studies have examined EMF effects on the cell membrane level, general and specific gene expression, and signal transduction pathways. In addition, a large number of studies have been performed regarding cell proliferation, cell cycle regulation, cell differentiation, metabolism, and various physiological characteristics of cells. Although 50/60 Hz EMF do not directly lead to genotoxic effects, it is possible that certain cellular processes altered by exposure to EMF indirectly affect the structure of DNA causing strand breaks and other chromosomal aberrations. The aim of this article is to present a hypothesis of a possible initial cellular event affected by exposure to ELF EMF, an event which is compatible with the multitude of effects observed after exposure. Based on an extensive literature review, we suggest that ELF EMF exposure is able to perform such activation by means of increasing levels of free radicals. Such a general activation is compatible with the diverse nature of observed effects. Free radicals are intermediates in natural processes like mitochondrial metabolism and are also a key feature of phagocytosis. Free radical release is inducible by ionizing radiation or phorbol ester treatment, both leading to genomic instability. EMF might be a stimulus to induce an "activated state" of the cell such as phagocytosis, which then enhances the release of free radicals, in turn leading to genotoxic events. We envisage that EMF exposure can cause both acute and chronic effects that are mediated by increased free radical levels: (1) Direct activation of, for example macrophages (or other cells) by short-term exposure to EMF leads to phagocytosis (or other cell specific responses) and consequently, free radical production. This pathway may be utilized to positively influence certain aspects of the immune response, and could be useful for specific therapeutic applications. (2) EMF-induced macrophage (cell) activation includes direct stimulation of free radical production. (3) An increase in the lifetime of free radicals by EMF leads to persistently elevated free radical concentrations. In general, reactions in which radicals are involved become more frequent, increasing the possibility of DNA damage. (4) Long-term EMF exposure leads to a chronically increased level of free radicals, subsequently causing an inhibition of the effects of the pineal gland hormone melatonin. Taken together, these EMF induced reactions could lead to a higher incidence of DNA damage and therefore, to an increased risk of tumour development. While the effects on melatonin and the extension of the lifetime of radicals can explain the link between EMF exposure and the incidence of for example leukaemia, the two additional mechanisms described here specifically for mouse macrophages, can explain the possible correlation between immune cell system stimulation and EMF exposure.
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