Modeled and perceived RF-EMF, noise and air pollution and symptoms in a population cohort. Is perception key in predicting symptoms?

Astrid L. Martens, Marije Reedijk, Tjabe Smid, Anke Huss, Danielle Timmermans, Maciej Strak, Wim Swart, Virissa Lenters, Hans Kromhout, Robert Verheij, Pauline Slottje, Roel C.H. Vermeulen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Psychosocial research has shown that perceived exposure can influence symptom reporting, regardless of actual exposure. The impact of this phenomenon on the interpretation of results from epidemiological research on environmental determinants of symptoms is unclear. Objective: Our aim was to compare associations between modeled exposures, the perceived level of these exposures and reported symptoms (non-specific symptoms, sleep disturbances, and respiratory symptoms) for three different environmental exposures (radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF), noise, and air pollution). These environmental exposures vary in the degree to which they can be sensorially observed. Methods: Participant characteristics, perceived exposures, and self-reported health were assessed with a baseline (n = 14,829, 2011/2012) and follow-up (n = 7905, 2015) questionnaire in the Dutch population-based Occupational and Environmental Health Cohort (AMIGO). Environmental exposures were estimated at the home address using spatial models. Cross-sectional and longitudinal regression models were used to examine the associations between modeled and perceived exposures, and reported symptoms. Results: The extent to which exposure sources could be observed by participants likely influenced correlations between modeled and perceived exposure as correlations were moderate for air pollution (rSp = 0.34) and noise (rSp = 0.40), but less so for RF-EMF (rSp = 0.11). Perceived exposures were consistently associated with increased symptom scores (respiratory, sleep, non-specific). Modeled exposures, except RF-EMF, were associated with increased symptom scores, but these associations disappeared or strongly diminished when accounted for perceived exposure in the analyses. Discussion: Perceived exposure has an important role in symptom reporting. When environmental determinants of symptoms are studied without acknowledging the potential role of both modeled and perceived exposures, there is a risk of bias in health risk assessment. However, the etiological role of exposure perceptions in relation to symptom reporting requires further research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-83
Number of pages9
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2018

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