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18/07/2007 - MPs Inquiry backs building ban near power lines

Following the SAGE report in April 2007, the Cross-Party Inquiry into Childhood Leukaemia and ELF EMF report has just reported[16].

The Inquiry agreed the following terms of reference:

  • To consider an overview of the scientific evidence linking EMF exposure with an increased risk of childhood leukaemia.
  • To consider the legal framework related to human proximity to EMF and what the rights and responsibilities of the various stakeholders should be.
  • To consider deliberative opinion research exploring public attitudes to precaution in this matter and a quantitative study examining the extent to which these attitudes are held generally.
  • To encourage SAGE members to consider public opinion on the subject and how this should inform the actions of Government.
  • To make recommendations regarding the appropriateness of precautionary measures to protect the public from EMF exposure and to communicate these widely to Government, parliamentarians, SAGE members and all relevant stakeholders.

The Inquiry fully understood that childhood leukaemia is not the only disease or condition that may be linked to EMF and that there are many possible causes of childhood leukaemia. However, it was felt that the topic of childhood leukaemia would not be examined fully in the Inquiry sessions if there were a broad range of diseases and conditions to consider in the time available. The aim has been for this process to contribute to any positive action the Government undertakes in the future to reduce exposure to EMF. This work would then be of benefit not only to children at risk of leukaemia but also to many other people whose health may be affected by EMF exposure.

The Cross-Party Inquiry into Childhood Leukaemia and EMF was set up to allow the five Members (Dr Howard Stoate MP, Michael Connarty MP, Dr Ian Gibson MP, Sandra Gidley MP and Nick Hurd MP) to consider in detail the evidence for an association between Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMF) from High Voltage Overhead Transmission Lines (HVOTL) and an increased risk of childhood leukaemia and determine what should be done. The members of the Inquiry held 5 meetings during 2006 and 2007, taking oral and written evidence from a broad range of witnesses. Having examined the case for taking precautionary action on exposure to EMF, we make the following recommendations for Government to consider.

The Cross-Part Inquiry recommends that Government:-

  • Recognise the potential risks to children's health caused by exposure to EMF and introduce a moratorium on the building of new homes and schools within at least 60 metres of existing High Voltage Overhead Transmission Lines (HVOTL) of 275 kV and 400 kV and on the building of new HVOTL within 60 metres of existing homes and schools and the same within 30 metres from 132 kV, 110 kV and 66 kV lines. The Inquiry also recommends that the Government consider the case for extending this distance to 200 metres for the highest voltage lines and pro-rata for lower voltages.
  • Channel increased funds into research into the association between childhood leukaemia and EMF, to elucidate possible biological mechanisms by increasing the budget of the Department of Health's Radiation Research Programme (managed by the Health Protection Agency).
  • Immediately implement SAGE's recommendation to provide more information to the public on the potential risks of EMF exposure, disseminate the SAGE report and the findings of the Cross-Party Inquiry widely in Parliament, enabling the relevant Select Committees (Health, Science and Technology and Trade and Industry) to decide whether to examine in detail Government policy on EMF exposure and public health. Communicate the findings and recommendations of SAGE and this Inquiry to devolved authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to help inform debate and policy making across the UK.
  • Protect homeowners by allowing them access to information on either i) the proximity of a property (of 60 metres or less) to HVOTL or planned HVOTL or ii) EMF levels inside a property for sale and to implement the measures recommended by the SAGE Report to reduce EMF in the home from household wiring and appliances.
  • Consider the potential health risks of EMF exposure as part of the Government's Energy Review and give full consideration to alternative options, such as local generation, which could contribute to a reduced future need for new HVOTL.
  • Introduce new conditions on licences for electricity transmission and distribution, (granted by the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, GEMA) requiring new and current licence holders to take steps to protect the public from possible adverse health effects caused by EMF exposure.

And the evidence?

There is a fair chance that this will be countered with the fairly typical "there is no conclusive / limited evidence that this recommendation is appropriate or warranted". However, as SAGE found earlier this year, this is not really true:

Childhood Leukaemia

As far back as 2001, Anders Ahlbom found that there was a doubling in incidence for childhood leukaemia at power frequency magnetic fields of 0.4 µT and above. For those wondering how this relates to the 60 metre recommendation above, this is approximately the field strength one would expect 60 metres away from a 400 kV overhead tranmission line. Ahlbom's research was not a stand alone paper either, it was a meta-analysis based on a number of previous pieces of peer-reviewed literature [1]. It is also supported by a 2007 paper from the HPA showing that 43% of homes with magnetic fields of over 0.4 µT are associated with overground or underground circuits of 132 kV and above. [2]

However, doubting the likelihood of Ahlbom's finding, Gerald Draper, John Swanson and Mary Kroll set about producing the 2005 Draper report, which again found a 70 percent increase in childhood leukaemia for those living within 200 metres of 275 and 400 kV powerlines [3]. Interestingly, it also found an increase of 23% in childhood leukaemia for those living between 200 and 600 metres from the powerlines, and Bristol University have come up with some published theoretical support for the mechanism by which this could happen (as magnetic fields are unlikely at this distance) [4][5]. From the result of this report, the SAGE stakeholder group was set up to assess whether the overall scientific literature really supported these findings, whether there were other aspects of the science to be concerned about, and to make recommendations as to what could be done about it. Their recommendations were as follows:

"The first interim assessment of this group was released in April 2007, and found that the link between proximity to powerlines and Childhood Leukemia was sufficient to involve a precautionary recommendation, including an option to underground new build powerlines where possible and to prevent the building of new residential buildings within 60m of existing powerlines." (our emphasis)[6].

Counting the costs?

Before any recommendations can be brought into play, a cost-benefit analysis has to be performed. Aside from the fact there is a very real increase in risk to children's health from living near powerlines, this has to be costed against the ability to do anything about it. In the case of the UK, about 500 children develop leukaemia each year. The official view from the World Health Organisation and IARC is that around 1 or 2 extra cases per year will be caused by proximity to powerlines, but this is based on a threshold effect (i.e. absolutely no effect below 0.4 µT and an exact doubling above), whereas there is strong scientific support for a linear no-threshold model - this would account for at least 20 (and maybe up to 50) cases per year. The SAGE figure used was a compromise of about 1 or 2 deaths only assumed to be as a result of proximity to powerlines. Some members of the SAGE group felt that this was too little to be worth a change in building legislation, and thus the output of SAGE mentioned the moratorium proposal as an option that would make a difference if the government wanted to take action, but was not a firm SAGE recommendation as such.

However, aside from the obvious balancing of people's lives against cost of doing anything about it, there is also a very positive side to the cost implications. If a building moratorium is imposed on new houses around powerlines, then the cost of undergrounding lines becomes relatively far lower. In fact, the value of the land under powerlines that goes from being "unbuildable on" to valuable building land will often exceed the cost of undergrounding the powerlines themselves (especially the 132kV ones which are often close to or over homes). So whilst this would have no effect on whether or not the moratorium was put in place in the first place, it will give the power companies and the Government to find a way of paying for the solution. Any actual increased costs should be able to be passed on in a very slight increase in the cost of electricity. This increase will be very small compared with the continual rises in energy costs.

Other health implications

However, also looked at as part of the same process was the other health effects implicated in proximity to powerlines and similar exposure to power frequency magnetic fields of a similar level. The findings showed a number of studies finding serious and significant effects for adult leukaemia[7], breast cancer[8], Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS - Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) [9][10][11] and miscarriage[12][13][14].

The California Department of Health looked at the literature in 2002 and concluded that "EMFs were responsible for an increase in childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, and miscarriage". They also concluded that "they did not find there was a strong enough association between EMFs and birth defects and low birth weight, and were divided on the evidence for suicide and adult leukemia" [15]. This disagrees with the 2001 IARC review that classified EMFs as only "possible carcinogens", giving the following reason:

"there were reasons why animal and test tube experiments might have failed to pick up a mechanism or a health problem; hence, the absence of much support from such animal and test tube studies did not reduce their confidence much or lead them to strongly distrust epidemiological evidence from statistical studies in human populations. They therefore had more faith in the quality of the epidemiological studies in human populations and hence gave more credence to them."

This does have important implications from a cost benefit analysis however. If the increases found in these other conditions are confirmed to be real, it will impact a far greater proportion of the population and will have real costs in terms of the NHS expenditure required to deal with the issues. SAGE members estimated that the maybe slightly negative cost-benefit ratio transforms into a large positive benefit when the other health effects are taken into consideration. Taking this into account makes a more precautionary response make much more pragmatic sense with regards to safeguarding the British population.


[1] - Albohm, Anders; Elisabeth Cardis, Adele Green, Martha Linet, David Savitz, Anthony Swerdlow (December 2001). "Review of the Epidemiologic Literature on EMF and Health". Environ Health Perspect. 109 (S6) - [View abstract]

[2] - Maslanyj, Myron; Terry Mee, David Renew, J Simpson, P Ansell, Stuart Allen, Eve Roman (March 2007). "Investigation of the sources of residential power frequency magnetic field exposure in the UK Childhood Cancer Study". J. Radiol. Prot. 27 (1): 41-58. DOI:doi:10.1088/0952-4746/27/1/002. - [View Abstract]

[3] - Draper, Gerald; Tim Vincent, Mary E. Kroll, John Swanson (2005). "Childhood cancer in relation to distance from high voltage power lines in England and Wales: a case-control study". BMJ (330). DOI:10.1136/bmj.330.7503.1290. - [View Abstract]

[4] - Fews, Peter; Denis Henshaw, Paul Keitch, Julie Close, Richard Wilding (December 1999). "Increased exposure to pollutant aerosols under highvoltage power lines". Int J Radiat Biol. 75 (12): 1505-21. - [View Abstract]

[5] -Fews, Peter; Denis Henshaw, Richard Wilding, Paul Keitch (December 1999). "Corona ions from powerlines and increased exposure to pollutant aerosols". Int J Radiat Biol. 75 (12): 1523-31. - [View Abstract]

[6] - "SAGE first interim assessment: Power Lines and Property, Wiring in Homes, and Electrical Equipment in Homes" - [View report]

[7] - Tynes, Tore; L Klaeboe, T Haldorsen (May 2003). "Residential and occupational exposure to 50 Hz magnetic fields and malignant melanoma: a population based study". Occup Environ Med 60 (5): 343-7. - [View Abstract]

[8] - Hansen, J (January 2001). "Increased breast cancer risk among women who work predominantly at night". Epidemiology 12 (1): 74-7. - [View Abstract]

[9] - Feychting, Maria; Anders Ahlbom, F Jonsson, NL Pederson (July 2003). "Occupational magnetic field exposure and neurodegenerative disease". Epidemiology 14 (4): 413-9 - [View Abstract]

[10] - Hakansson, Niklas; P Gustavsson, Birgitte Floderus, Christof Johanen (July 2003). "Neurodegenerative diseases in welders and other workers exposed to high levels of magnetic fields". Epidemiology 14 (4): 420-6. - [View Abstract]

[11] - Albohm, Anders (2001). "Neurodegenerative diseases, suicide and depressive symptoms in relation to EMF.". Bioelectromagnetics (Suppl 5): S132-43. - [View Abstract]

[12] - Lee, GM; Michael Yost, RR Neutra, L Hristova, RA Hiatt (January 2002). "A nested case-control study of residential and personal magnetic field measures and miscarriages". Epidemiology 13 (1): 21-31. - [View Abstract]

[13] - Li, De-Kun; Roxana Odouli, S Wi, T Janevic, I Golditch, TD Bracken, R Senior, R Rankin, R Iriye (January 2002). "A population-based prospective cohort study of personal exposure to magnetic fields during pregnancy and the risk of miscarriage". Epidemiology 13 (1): 9-20. - [View Abstract]

[14] - Cao, YN; Y Zhang, Y Liu (August 2006). "Effects of exposure to extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields on reproduction of female mice and development of offsprings". Zhonghua Lao Dong Wei Sheng Zhi Ye Bing Za Zhi 24 (8): 468-70. - [View Abstract]

[15] - "An Evaluation of the Possible Risks From Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMFs) From Power Lines, Internal Wiring, Electrical Occupations andAppliances", California EMF Program - [View Report]

[16] - "Cross Party Inquiry into Childhood Leukaemia and EMF", UK Parliamentary Cross-Party Inquiry - [View Report]