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Electromagnetic fields

  • Last modified date:
    16 October 2009
  • Gateway reference:

Radiation is a broad term encompassing x-rays and gamma rays (ionising), ultraviolet and other (non-ionising) electromagnetic fields (EMF). Public exposure to non-ionising electromagnetic fields such as those associated with radar, broadcast transmitters, mobile phones, power lines and domestic equipment comes under guidelines incorporated into a European Recommendation (EC/519/1999). This Recommendation sets a framework that deals with limiting public exposure, providing public information and undertaking research. In this country the Health Protection Agency (HPA) advises on risks from radiations including electromagnetic fields.

Government response to the SAGE report

Published: 16 October 2009

The Stakeholder Advisory Group on extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF EMFs), known as SAGE, was set up by the Department of Health to explore the implications and to make practical recommendations for a precautionary approach to power frequency electric and magnetic fields.  SAGE’s First Interim Assessment was published in 2007

HPA comments on the SAGE First Interim Assessment

Following the publication of the SAGE report, the Minister for Public Health wrote to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to ask for its 'considered view on the SAGE report and the implications of its recommendations for public health and provide advice to Government'.

New advice in this country

In March 2004, the NRPB (now HPA) published advice on limiting public exposure to electromagnetic fields following an extensive review of the science and a public consultation on its web site.  This advice recommends the adoption of the levels in the EMF guidelines published by the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection. The NRPB noted that there have been some population studies that point to the possibility of effects below the guidelines, in particular for power frequency magnetic fields.  It has therefore recommended that Government “consider the possible need for further precautionary measures.”

In response to the NRPB’s published advice, the then Parliamentary Under Secretary for Public Health (Melanie Johnson) wrote to the Chairman of the NRPB welcoming the new advice.  The letter included a 10 point annex (reproduced under "Interdepartmental response to NRPB Advice in March 2004" below ) briefly describing the way Government intends to implement the NRPB advice.  It points to the need for inter-departmental working and introduces the initial plans for a wider stakeholder process in order to consider the possible need for further precautionary measures in respect of extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields (EMF)

The Stakeholder Advisory Group on ELF EMFs (SAGE) has been set up by the Department of Health to explore the implications and to make practical recommendations for a precautionary approach to power frequency electric and magnetic fields. 

The first SAGE report can be found below:

Interdepartmental response to NRPB Advice in March 2004

  1. Government welcomes the publication of new EMF guidelines from the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB).  Previous NRPB guidelines were issued in 1993 and we note NRPB's acknowledgement of the continuing development of the scientific understanding of EMF effects.  The Guidelines apply to the EMF (electromagnetic fields) associated with power lines, mobile phones and a vast array of electrical and electronic equipment used in everyday life.
  2.  The NRPB draft guidelines were placed on its web site last year.  This provided an opportunity for interested individuals and groups to submit comments.  These responses included Government Departments, public concern groups and industrial interests.  The NRPB has given consideration to these responses and we welcome this approach.
  3.  The new NRPB guidelines are more restrictive for public exposure than for occupational exposure because of the wider range of susceptibilities of the general public and their less controlled environment.  This two-tier approach is similar to that of the International Commission on Non-ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) Guidelines published in 1998.  NRPB recommend using the ICNIRP levels in the interests of international harmonisation. The NRPB recognise that further reviews (eg WHO) and research programme results are expected over the next few years.
  4.  The NRPB guidelines incorporate a significant cautionary element but specifically do not take into account social or economic factors or the risks or disbenefits that may occur from action to limit exposure.
  5.  In 1999, Government agreed an EU Recommendation on public exposure (EC/519/1999) which advocated the use of ICNIRP levels but accepts the need for consideration of risks and benefits when implementing the guidelines.
  6.  Following publication of the Stewart Report on Mobile Phones and Health (2000), the mobile phone industry voluntarily adopted ICNIRP guidelines for public exposure to radio frequency fields.  All cellular radio base stations comply with ICNIRP public exposure guidelines.
  7.  For all other sources, the Government expects the NRPB guidelines to be implemented in line with the terms of the EU Recommendation, that is, taking account of the risks and benefits of action.  Preliminary discussions have already taken place to identify what reasonable actions might be taken.
  8.  The occupational exposure guidelines have recently been incorporated in an EU Directive that will have to be transposed into UK law in 2008.   The Government recommends that industry prepare for these new Regulations by adopting procedures to comply with the guidelines over the intervening period.   The Health and Safety Commission expects to undertake a consultative exercise on new Regulations in 2005/06.
  9.  At the start of the review process Government had asked the NRPB to consider where the scientific uncertainty might invoke the need for precautionary options appropriate for EMF protection.  A precautionary approach has already been adopted for mobile phones technology (radiofrequency) following the Stewart Report.  Government has recently engaged in preliminary stakeholder discussions to consider power lines and NRPB advice suggests that this process should be continued, focussing on the possible health effects of continuous low level exposure to power frequency electromagnetic fields.
  10.  The Government will be exploring further the practical applications of precautionary measures within a stakeholder engagement process. This will be the subject of wide consultation and will explore any risks and benefits arising in the same manner as a Regulatory Impact Assessment.





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