When Bristol Professor Denis Henshaw began uncovering the first significant evidence of a link between power lines and childhood cancer, the UK's National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) referred to such evidence as implausible and purely speculative.
Then, when the Oxford Childhood Cancer Research Group (CCRG), the largest-ever publicly funded UK study into power lines and cancer in children, presented its first results linking exposure to high-voltage power lines with childhood leukaemia, the Department of Health (DoH) kept the evidence hidden from public view for more than four years.
It was the Environmental Action Campaign, an independent activist organization, that eventually forced the DoH's hand into making the findings public in 2004.
Although the NRPB has finally admitted to a likely relationship between power-frequency magnetic field exposure and cancer risk, the UK government is still unwilling to push for any law limiting exposure to power lines, mobile phones, WiFi and all other devices emitting EMFs.
Last year, a panel of 40 experts assembled to 'discuss' the government's request that they examine how to cut public exposure to power lines. That panel included a number of members of the industry, who continued to fight against the strongest measures, such as burying lines underground or creating an 'avoidance corridor' around power lines where new buildings cannot be erected.
In the US, the California Department of Health Sciences led a $7m initiative—the
California EMF Project—which analyzed all research and concluded that there was strong evidence that magnetic fields are a likely cause of leukaemia, brain cancer, spontaneous abortions and ALS.
Nevertheless, no body within the US government has rushed to do anything about it.
At the moment, virtually all standards are based on the assumption that the only concerns with such fields are to do with tissue-heating or induced electrical currents in the body; any other effects are still not understood.
Yet, in a 2007 BioInitiative Report, a team of 14 international scientists, arguing for a
public-exposure standard for EMFs, concluded that it is electromagnetic radiation (rather than heat) that causes biological changes.
As noted by the EMF Project, other environmental concerns that have smaller health risks are subject to tougher regulation, even when the mechanisms of the risk are not understood. We still don't know, for example, how smoking causes cancer; nevertheless, the restrictions on the tobacco industry continue to grow.
The reason for all the foot-dragging is clear. Electromagnetic fields are rather like the modern banking industry: since the discovery of electricity, they have underpinned our modern lifestyle. Any attempt to responsibly restrict the vast network of industry that creates, makes or uses EMFs would also severely limit new technologies (such as mobiles and WiFi ), which is tantamount to driving a stake into the very heart of our economic system.
Nevertheless, as the BioInitiative Report argues, admitting that there is problem and then defining new exposure standards is a very good place to start.
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