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17/11/2009 - Government undermines SAGE advice

Eventually, after 2.5 years delay, on 16th October 2009, the UK Department of Health finally issued a response to the first interim assessment of the Stakeholder Advisory Group on extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF EMFs). We have been thinking about how best to respond, hence the delay in the timing of this news report.

When the original assessment was released back in April 2007, we covered it in some detail, reporting its content and the progress it made on assessing various areas of the science. However, half a year later the UK Health Protection Agency published a rather surprising response to the health minister, with a one-sided and scientifically unsupportable position that made a mockery of some of the discussions that had taken place in the stakeholder group work that SAGE had laboured over for two years. This was particularly disappointing when the HPA were already a stakeholder within the SAGE group, and had made their position statement clear enough already within the text of the assessment. Adding a second "bite of the cherry" was unnecessary, when they could have explained that their view was already held within the assessment along with the collaborative work of the stakeholder group. The detailed further response to the health minister meant that she could take what was effectively just one view within the process, which undermines the whole purpose of SAGE.

This Government response effectively managed to turn down, or sidestep, almost all of the practical advice produced by SAGE. It is yet another example of the UK Government asking for expert advice and then ignoring it and following their own opinions as usual. There are virtually no trained scientists or engineers in the extended Cabinet of Gordon Brown. What a ridiculous way to try to run a modern technological society - especially when they ignore the scientific and technical advice they ask for.

SAGE members had spent 2.5 years (from 2004) and many weeks of actual work each working hard (often with no pay) to produce well considered advice that could be taken forward positively by Government. Powerwatch was a member of SAGE. It was a good balance, produced by a mix or industry, academic, NGO and some individual members. It was far from extreme.

Save Our Valley

Save our valley

Image courtesy of the Save Our Valley campaign in North Somerset, currently fighting a new National Grid transmission line.

The Government then effectively "sat on this report" for another 2.5 years. It was "too difficult to move quickly as three different Departments and Ministers are involved", they said. During this period they changed the names and responsibilities of the various Departments several times and changed the Ministers responsible even more often. Certainly EMF health effects were very low on their various agendas.

This year they have greatly diminished the powers of the unit in the Department of Health (DH) that is responsible for these matters. It was called the "Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards" unit and had a Head who reported directly to the Minister. Both the key people have now gone and the section subsumed under the "Strategy & Legislation" unit and a new person appointed with a different background.

The latest (and two years overdue!) response from the DH is, in many ways, even more depressing: It is very clear that there is no intention to adopt any of the measures suggested by SAGE in any form of governmental policy. Not only that, but their recommendations imply a misunderstanding of the science behind the recommendations. Adherence to ICNIRP "as all that was necessary" was never endorsed by SAGE - indeed, all of the SAGE recommendations were based on a nominal figure of 0.4 microtesla (the level associated with a doubling of childhood leukaemia), some 400 times lower than ICNIRP's 100 microtesla figure.

One of the least contentious (or so we thought) recommendations was for radial final circuits in houses rather than the traditional UK ring final circuits which can give rise to high magnetic fields. This was agreed and supported by the academic, industry, IET and NGO members of SAGE - everyone thought it was a good idea. The Wiring Regulations did not need changing, just a recommendation to generally use radials to be put in the IET "On Site Guide" for wiring practices. The Government managed to squash even this by referring it to the wider IET Wiring Regulations Committee without arranging for them to have a presentation by SAGE members of the rationale for the suggested changes.

Their Government suggestions for better testing of ring circuits to sort this problem is a nonsense. To test them properly the wires need to be disconnected at the consumer box and a series of measurements made. This is virtually never done correctly even when new wiring is first installed, let along later at periodic inspections due to the practical difficulties of disconnecting the wires and making the tests.

In particular, some of the sections of the latest response we feel were worthy of highlighting, and the sections with our responses are as follows:

a) Consider with industry and local authorities how to incorporate the 1998 ICNIRP guidelines in terms of 1999 European Recommendation (EC/519/1999), into the planning system with regard to proposed developments near to high voltage power lines.

Powerwatch Comments This will make matters worse as ICNIRP levels will then be specified in law and why should the industry and planners worry? This will mean homes and schools can be built right under some lines and right next to all lines and substations. It will remove any flexibility to use more precautionary guidance. Some councils are currently insisting on a maximum of 0.4 microtesla in new build to go along with SAGE recommendations. If the Government changes legislation to specify ICNIRP levels, this will be forced to rise to 100 microtesla and be useless to prevent any of the reported low-level health effects.

b) Incorporate Government policy on EMF levels in terms of the EC Recommendation and industry compliance with ICNIRP standards for new overhead power lines of 132 kV and above into the Electricity Networks Infrastructure National Policy Statement for use by the Infrastructure Planning Commission when determining consent. Reference ICNIRP and industry compliance in guidance on the section 37 process produced by DECC in April 2009 for England and Wales and furthermore into any related documents produced by the Devolved Administrations.

Powerwatch Comments This will make no difference to current practice - just to legal requirements and status.

c) Work pro-actively with the electricity industry to consider the implementation of optimal phasing for overhead power lines, through development of a voluntary code of practice,

Powerwatch Comments This might make a small difference to some (mainly 132 kV) lines depending on the code of practice. If done (as the document suggests) on a cost / benefit basis then, as all lines already comply with ICNIRP, it is difficult to see how any benefit value could ever be greater than the cost.

d) Ask the regulator to monitor the installation of rotating disc meters particularly in the light of developments in the roll out of smart metering,

Powerwatch Comments This is already being done as all UK homes are to have smart meters by 2020. I can't see it being done any faster. Most mechanical meters are already being phased out and replaced by new simple electronic meters on routine (20 year) calibration maintenance and have been for the past ten years.

e) keep under review the case for incorporating EMF measurement techniques into building condition reports as part of the home buying/selling process ... international standards on EMF measuring procedures are currently being developed. Until such time as these standards have been adopted, we do not consider it appropriate to incorporate measurement techniques into standard practices and procedures.

Powerwatch Comments This is an odd statement as there are existing international standards for measuring electric and magnetic fields. Elsewhere they state that ICNIRP compliance is all that is ever required, so this step (e) really is pointless.

f) work with the Health Protection Agency to develop clear information for the public on the risks of exposure to ELF EMF and the steps that can be taken to reduce exposure,

Powerwatch Comments They deny that there are any risks below ICNIRP levels, so what will this include?

g) ask the Health Protection Agency to keep under review the possible relationship between childhood leukaemia and other causes of ill-health and exposure and report back to Government any new scientific developments as they emerge.

Powerwatch Comments This is already meant to happen, but it is in a totally ineffective manner. The HPA seem to ignore most of the international literature that shows reason for concern.

h) continue to explore the range of precautionary options through a forum such as SAGE. This is especially relevant to the exposures from lower voltage distribution, substations and transport not hitherto considered by SAGE.

Powerwatch Comments Given this response to SAGE1, will anyone be prepared to do this (especially without pay)? Distribution cables and substations do not exposure the public to levels above (or even close to) ICNIRP. There are some concerns about EMF exposures from railways, trains and electric cars, though the HPA have already indicated in writing that they consider levels of 9 kV/m and 360 uT can be assumed to comply with ICNIRP "basic restrictions for induced currents", even though the ICNIRP maximum public Guidance levels of 5 kV/m and 100 µT are exceeded. These factors mean that it is pointless to continue with such dialogue as it will result in no meaningful change in protection.


SAGE First Report (April 2007) - SAGE First Interim Report (2007) (2 MB)
CwL Press Statement (27 April 2007) - CHILDREN with LEUKAEMIA Press Response to the SAGE Report (27 April 2007)
Powerwatch response to SAGE Interim Assessment - Powerwatch response to SAGE Interim Assessment
Powerwatch response to HPA Response - Powerwatch response to HPA Response
Powerwatch Legal Issues (April 2007)- Powerwatch Legal Issues Paper by Brenda Short
RICS Press Statement (27 April 2007) - Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) calls for new legislation (27 April 2007)

Also in the news

EEA sees increased evidence of brain tumour risk from phone use

Officials from the European Environment Agency (EEA) believe scientific evidence is now more strongly in favour of a link between long-term use of mobile phones and brain cancer risk. The Agency first issued an "early warning" about the hazard in September 2007, spurred by the findings of the BioInitiative Report.

"The evidence for a head tumour risk from mobile phones, although still very limited, and much contested, is, unfortunately, stronger than two years ago when we first issued our early warning," said Jacquie McGlade, EEA's Executive Director, last week in a statement prepared for the Conference on Cell Phones and Health in Washington, DC, USA.

Daily Mail reports increased tumour risk from phones

Mobile phones, just how did we live without them? At about 80 million, there are now more mobiles than people in the UK. But since the Nineties, when their use became more widespread, there have been nagging doubts about their safety.

For many people these were resolved two years ago with a report from the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme. The programme, jointly funded by the Government and the industry, concluded that mobile phones, base stations and masts 'have not been found to be associated with any biological or adverse health effects'.

However, according to a decade-long study, due out in the coming weeks, people who used mobiles for a decade or more had a 'significantly increased risk' of developing some types of brain tumours.

Read the full story on the Daily Mail.

Devra Davis writes in Networker about mobile phone health risks

This issue of the Networker features an exclusive article by Devra Davis, the scientist who has been instrumental in ramping up public attention to health risks associated with cell phones.

Reports of the September conference and Senate hearings Davis organized tell the story: "Cell Phones: Precautions Recommended," was the Science News headline. "We just don't know if cell phone use causes cancer and other medical problems, and until we find out with more certainty we better apply what is called the precautionary principle," wrote Herb Denenberg, a Philadelphia columnist.

Read the full story on the Science and Environmental Health Network, October / November 2009 Issue.

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