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The study by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), released on the 6 March, concludes that there is “some epidemiological evidence that prolonged exposure to higher levels of power frequency magnetic fields is associated with a small risk of leukaemia in children” and calls for further research to be conducted.

The study said that the power frequency electromagnetic fields that exist in the vast majority of homes i.e. all those which use electricity in any form “are not a cause of cancer in general” and that “such levels of exposure are seldom encountered by the general public in the UK”, but warned that high level electromagnetic fields are found in 0.5% of UK households in the UK, of which about 20% are close to electricity pylons. The NRPB says that while one in every 1,400 children under the age of 15 normally suffers from leukaemia, in households with higher levels of electromagnetic fields the figure is about one in every 700 children.

The Board said that, although further residential epidemiology studies in childhood leukaemia would be unable to provide better information in the UK, because “low levels of exposure generally in the UK do not provide a population that is large enough to detect any effect on leukaemia incidence”, it recommended study overseas. “More informative results may come from residential studies in other countries where exposures may be higher as a consequence of differences in the electricity supply and distribution systems,” it said.

A recent Michigan State University study concluded that extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields can cause a pre-malignant cell to develop into a malignant one (see related story), but last year’s UK Childhood Cancer Study (UKCCS), the world’s largest case control study on the causes of childhood cancer, found that none of more than 1,000 children with leukaemia lived near to high voltage power lines.

The Board, which was commissioned by the UK government to assess the potential risks of cancer from electromagnetic fields and to recommend action to protect public health, in its study examined detailed reviews of: the sources and measurements of electromagnetic fields, biological studies on cells relevant to cancer induction, animal and volunteer studies relevant to cancer induction, epidemiological studies on domestic exposure to electromagnetic fields and occupational exposures.

“This is an important study which was carried out by independent and highly respected scientists,” a spokesperson for the UK’s Department of Health commented. “The Government welcomes the recommendations in this report and will work with the NRPB to ensure that the findings of this report are made available to the general public as widely as possible in local areas.”

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