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09/06/2010 - SAGE recommends new EMF reduction measures

SAGE Second Interim Assessment sent to Government

The Stakeholder Advisory Group on Extremely Low Frequency Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMFs) (known as SAGE) is a UK group set up in 2004 to consider possible precautionary measures in relation to EMFs.

SAGE is made up from stakeholders representing a broad spectrum of views, including campaign groups, relevant industries, and the Government. It brings together many areas of expertise, including those with significant expertise in scientific and policy-making disciplines, as well as voices representing sections of the public. SAGE is funded equally by Government, the electricity industry, and the charity CHILDREN with LEUKAEMIA. Alasdair Philips represents Powerwatch on SAGE.

SAGE is concerned only with "extremely low frequency" EMFs, such as produced by electrical power. Well-understood effects, found at significantly higher exposure levels, are covered adequately by existing guidelines, which in the UK are set by Government on the recommendations of the Health Protection Agency. Childhood leukaemia has been repeatedly associated with low level EMF exposure in international studies. SAGE was formed in 2004 to consider possible practical precautionary measures to address the possibility of health effects at exposure levels well under current official guideline levels, and to give advice to Government.

The second phase of SAGE's work (from 2008 - 2010) covered EMFs caused by electricity distribution networks (e.g. 11 kV lines, underground street cables, substations, etc) and it also considered the difficult issue of how different people and groups approach and interpret the available scientific evidence. There is a wealth of useful, mostly technical, information about the causes of EMFs produced by electricity networks - a major source of elevated magnetic field in the home.


Powerwatch considers the SAGE-2 Report to be a significant step forward in the professional assessment and management of EMF exposure issues. Although the work can be tedious and take a considerable amount of time, it is important for all parties to work together on these complex and important issues. There has been really outstanding commitment and input from Industry and the Department of Health to the work of SAGE. SAGE-2 has delivered some very worthwhile, practical and achievable recommendations. Many members contributed greatly to this new report which is the result of a great team effort. Dr John Swanson, of National Grid, especially deserves thanking for working tirelessly on the documentation that enabled the SAGE group to produce this excellent report.

The SAGE-2 Report Second Interim Assessment (1 MB file) was released and sent to the Health Minister on the 8th June 2010. SAGE considers it should be realistic for Government to respond to the SAGE-2 recommendations within six months, i.e. by the end of November 2010, and urges them to do so as this would reflect the importance of the issues covered and the work that has gone into producing these recommendations.

SAGE makes the following recommendations for precautionary measures concerning distribution systems:

  • 12 measures which are already existing best practice for other reasons
  • 7 new measures
  • 11 measures which are available to consumers in specific circumstances
  • 5 measures where further investigation is required

Note: "DNOs" (below) are the Distribution Network Operators (the regional electricity network companies)

Some key SAGE-2 recommendations to help reduce EMF exposure

  • DNOs to investigate instances of high EMF exposures when notified of them
  • DNOs investigate and repair broken neutrals
  • Use plastic gas and water pipes for new build
  • Insert plastic sections in metal gas and water pipes when work is being done anyway
  • Develop awareness within DNOs, by training of relevant staff, of how elevated exposures can be an indication of system problems
  • Arrange components in the substation in the lowest-exposure layout reasonably practicable
  • Reasonably practicable efforts be made to site substations distant from homes etc
  • New and refurbished substations to have compact design where reasonably practicable
  • DNOs make reasonably practicable effort to balance loads on three-phase final distribution circuits
  • Site plant rooms away from occupied rooms
  • Use separate-neutral-and-earth cables for risers in high buildings
  • Use compact risers in high buildings
Further information can be found "here".

Also in the news

010 - Science Update

IET issues yet another denialist EMF/health effects report

Much of this section is taken from REVOLT's Newsletter No.299 - with thanks.

The IET's Biological Effects Policy Advisory Group (BEPAG) has produced its biennial report on low-level EMF exposure (ELF and RF). It was Press Released on the same day that the SAGE-2 Report was sent to the Government. After a review of new evidence, their conclusions are effectively unchanged from their 2008 report.

Professor Tony Barker, a Fellow of the IET and long-term Chairman of BEPAG, said: "There is still a huge amount of interest in whether exposure to mobile phones and electricity pylons has harmful health effects. However, over the years the conclusion of most scientific bodies, including the Institution of Engineering and Technology, has remained substantially the same - that there is no persuasive evidence of this. The absence of robust new evidence of harmful health effects in the past two years is reassuring and is consistent with findings over the last two decades."

We believe that there are serious structural problems with BEPAG:

  • There is no clear audit process of who is invited to join BEPAG
  • It is a small group of carefully selected people, some with obvious interests
  • It uses a literature review system which is directed rather than exploratory
  • It has a very long serving chairman with a outspokenly entrenched position
  • It works incrementally with an interest in defending previous positions

BEPAG's conclusions not actually as strong as the impression it can give to media and decision makers. Its Summary says "the balance of scientific evidence to date does not indicate that harmful effects occur in humans due to low-level exposure to EMFs".

They are entitled to their view: "does not indicate" - much depends on how "indicate" is defined, whether to mean, suggest or prove. The WHO through its evaluations does not assess the balance of evidence in that way, rather it recognises the rational possibility of harm. Whether the "balance" is for or against harm is not very relevant, though it makes a good spin for BEPAG and IET. The point should be that the evidence gives genuine grounds for concern. By contrast, BEPAG uses the word "reassuring", which speaks more of its motives.

Assertions such as "No generally accepted experimental demonstration of any biological effect, harmful or otherwise, due to such fields has been established" will perplex other scientists who are aware of many such experimental demonstrations at sub-ICNIRP levels, but again much depends on definitions of "generally accepted", "such fields" and "established", and of "environmental levels" in the previous sentence.

The section on SAGE at the end of BEPAG's report says "the UK does not have a policy of restrictions on the proximity of homes and powerlines, which was judged disproportionate". While that may be true, it gives a false impression that SAGE might have so judged it.

Two alternative views were recognised in SAGE. Only one of these two views judged the policy disproportionate, because that view only recognised the (rare) risk of childhood leukaemia and excluded other associated outcomes like Alzheimer's disease. SAGE-1 noted that the wider consideration would lead to about a hundred-fold larger impact.

That would make such precautionary policies proportionate.

IET BEPAG Report - The 2010 IET BEPAG Report

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