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07/03/2006 - Inconsistency of UK law regarding power lines

With a public smoking ban just around the corner, few now would argue against the dangers of passive smoking. Strangely, however, the research that has triggered this change in law has found a smaller increase in risk than that found for childhood leukaemia and powerlines, yet the decisions taken by the government regarding powerlines are inconsistent with their new policy on smoking. The following is an eloquent speech made in the Scottish Parliament from Mr. Brian Monteith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Ind):

"I congratulate Bruce Crawford on his motion. It is a worthwhile cause for members whose constituencies or regions are on the power line's route to discuss earnestly. I want to pick up on the epidemiology in the Draper report and the response that I have seen and expect to hear again from the minister.

"On March 26, as a result of a decision in Parliament, smoking in public places will be banned. Parliament's basis for that change in health policy resulted from epidemiological studies that showed that over 30 years the risk for a non-smoker who lives with a smoker of contracting lung cancer would increase from one chance in a thousand to 1.25 in a thousand. That resulted in a draconian change to the law. Some people have argued - including me, but also eminent scientists - that those findings could have been confounding or due to errors in statistics. Nevertheless, Parliament decided that the increase in risk required a change in law.

"The Draper report was based on a study of 66,000 children over 30 years. The study showed that risk increased to 1.7 in a thousand from a background figure of one in a thousand. In other words, the increase in the risk of contracting leukaemia from living in proximity to pylons was greater than the increase in the risk of contracting cancer from second-hand smoke. The Executive, however, says that that result is due to confounding or to chance and that it cannot necessarily act on the Draper report. The Executive's approach is therefore inconsistent.

"Parliament felt that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a smoking ban. Therefore, if we are to take a consistent line and apply the precautionary principle, we should accept the Draper study and, at the very least, reconsider how we construct and position pylons. We must consider undergrounding or using sea beds. Such things are possible and are worth investing in.

"It is said that no causal medical link exists between contracting lung cancer and second-hand smoke, but Parliament decided that the statistical link was great enough for Parliament to act. It is said that no causal medical link exists between contracting leukaemia and living in proximity to high-voltage pylons; but the statistical link is greater than that between second-hand smoke and lung cancer. That fact should be acknowledged by members who voted for a total ban on smoking in public places. They should lobby the Executive to apply the precautionary principle, act consistently, and help to save lives."

Powerwatch CommentsIt is of course worth bringing up the issue of how widespread the exposure is to the general population. For example, with the exception of existing no-smoking pubs and restaurants, it is not possible to go out for a meal or a drink without being exposed to some degree of cigarette smoke (even in the no-smoking areas of a pub with good air conditioning). However, the proportion of the general population exposed to magnetic fields above about 0.3 microtesla from powerlines is far smaller. It is reasonable to take into account the number of people exposed and the level of exposure and when assessing what increased risk is considered to be sufficient to warrant a change in public policy.

However, the reason given by the government is that the suggested increase in risk from EMFs is likely to be inaccurate as they claim to know of no mechanism that could cause such an increase in risk. Smoking was recognised as being harmful decades before a mechanism was known - indeed, there is still dispute about what the actual causal mechanism of lung cancer is, with some medical scientists saying that a virus also needs to be involved. The case with powerlines is likely to involve a number of factors which have not all yet been fully identified. Yet the epidemiological evidence is now very convincing that there is statistical association between powerlines and, at the very least, childhood leukaemia. Despite this, the government still chooses to allow houses to be built right next to high voltage powerlines.

However, there may be light on the horizon. Powerwatch is part of the formal government consultation process known as SAGE. This is looking at ways to advise the public regarding reducing their EMF exposure from mains electricity. This includes EMFs from powerlines, street cables, house wiring and the use of electrical equipment.