The WHO EMF Project: Legitimating the Imaginary of Global Harmonization of EMF Safety Standards

  • David Mercer University of Wollongong
Keywords: World Health Organization, safety standards, risk, electro-magnetic fields, scientific controversy


An important topic for studies of STS and globalization are the ways “global” institutions create and attempt to implement health guidelines and safety standards to address risks associated with new technologies. In the following discussion this topic is examined through a case study of the activities of the World Health Organization’s Electric and Magnetic Field Project (WHO EMF Project). EMF exposures are associated with telecommunications and electrical infrastructure, most notably high voltage power-lines, radio and cell towers and the use of mobile telephones. The controversy over setting international safety standards and health guidelines has simmered for a number of decades. The mainstream “regulatory science” position has been that it is unlikely EMF’s constitute a significant health risk and therefore minimal regulatory intervention or significant precautionary considerations are required. A small but persistent stream of scientific studies nevertheless have continued to raise significant health concerns and have led to calls for regulators to build stronger precautionary approaches into EMF standards and guidelines. The WHO EMF project was established in 1996 in an attempt to discourage this situation leading to different nation states adopting strong precautionary approaches and developing a diversity of national EMF safety standards and health guidelines. In the following discussion I will explore the history of the WHO EMF Project and the strategies it has used to pursue its goal of global harmonization of EMF science, safety standards and guidelines.  Three important strategies used by the WHO EMF Project have involved: appeals to technological determinism, developing bespoke models for sound science, and setting the boundaries between science and policy to attempt to exclude their opponents from the policy making arena.

Author Biography

David Mercer, University of Wollongong

Associate Professor in Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia, 2516

25 May 2016
Research Articles