The Daily Express has reported that there has been a “call for schools to ban mobiles in new cancer alert”. The newspaper said the Council of Europe Committee has said, “mobile phones could cause brain tumours and should be banned in all classrooms”, and called for a “dramatic reduction” in exposure to other wireless devices, such as baby monitors and cordless phones.
Other news sources have also picked up on this story, which is based on a draft report that will be presented to the Council of Europe for further consideration. The report was based on a principle of precaution, rather than definitive proof of danger from domestic exposure to electromagnetic fields, which are generated in various forms by electrical devices. It should be noted that the Council for Europe is not part of the EU Government.
Where is the news from?
These stories are based on a report by the Council of Europe Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs. This council examined the safety of electromagnetic fields. Numerous electrical devices and systems (including mobile phones, WiFi computer networks and power lines) generate electromagnetic fields, either as a by-product of their use of electricity or as a deliberate medium for wirelessly transmitting data and signals.
The draft report represents opinions the Committee, which will be debated by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, a group of several hundred members drawn from European states. However, these views do not necessarily represent those of the Committee of Ministers, the council’s decision-making body consisting of the foreign ministers of member states.
What is the background of this issue?
The committee reported that there is a lot of public debate and concern about the potential health effects of the very low frequency electromagnetic fields surrounding power lines and electrical devices, and that these effects are currently being studied.
It said that these electromagnetic fields are reported to be the most common and fastest-growing environmental influence on the population, and that levels of exposure will continue to increase as technology advances. The committee mentioned the use of mobile telephones as an example, noting that there are now over 1.4 million base stations that relay information worldwide, and pointed out the increasing use of wireless networks that use electromagnetic fields to facilitate high-speed wireless internet access.
What are the Committee’s conclusions?
The report presents and discusses the evidence and opinions raised by experts at two hearings the committee held in September 2010 and February 2011. The committee was of the opinion that:
- The potentially harmful effects of electromagnetic fields on the environment and human health ‘have not yet been fully understood’, and there are a number of scientific uncertainties remaining. It said there are concerns in wide sectors of the population about the health hazards associated with these fields.
- All economic, technological and social developments in society should be made in accordance with the principle of precaution and the right to a healthy environment, with particular consideration towards children and future generations.
- Based on an analysis of the scientific studies available to date, and expert opinions, the committee concluded that ‘there is sufficient evidence of potentially harmful effects of electromagnetic fields on fauna, flora and human health to react and to guard against potentially serious environmental and health hazards’.
- It said that resolutions made by the European Parliament in 1999 and 2009 uphold the precautionary principle and provide efficient preventive actions regarding the harmful effects of electromagnetic fields. In particular, the committee said these resolutions substantially lowered the exposure thresholds for workers and the public, restored genuine independence of research in the field, and a set a policy of enhanced information and transparency to the anxious populations.
- The EU Parliamentary Assembly could endorse the warnings and analyses issued by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in September 2007 and September 2009, concerning the health hazards of electromagnetic fields, mobile telephony and mobile phones. The EEA concluded that, “there are sufficient signs or levels of scientific evidence of harmful biological effects to invoke the application of the precautionary principle and of effective, urgent preventive measures’.
What are the Committee’s recommendations?
The resolution drafted for the Parliamentary Assembly includes a variety of recommendations for the member states of the Council of Europe. These resolutions will be considered and decided upon by the assembly. It should be noted that the views of the assembly are not necessarily those of the Committee of Ministers, the Council’s decision-making body.
Main general recommendations for member states:
- To take all reasonable measures to reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields, especially to radio frequencies from mobile phones, and particularly among children and young people, who seem to be most at risk from head tumours.
- To reconsider the present exposure standards from the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, which they say ‘have serious limitations’. Instead, they should apply ‘as low as reasonably achievable’ (ALARA) principles to the standards and threshold values for emissions of electromagnetic fields of all types and frequencies.
- To start information and awareness-raising campaigns explaining the risks of potentially harmful long-term biological effects on the environment and on human health. These should be particularly aimed at children, teenagers and young people of reproductive age.
- To pay particular attention to ‘electrosensitive’ persons suffering from a syndrome of intolerance to electromagnetic fields and introduce special measures to protect them, including the creation of wave-free areas not covered by the wireless network.
- Increase research on new types of antennas, mobile phones and other cordless communication devices, and encourage research to develop telecommunication based on other technologies. These should be just as efficient as existing devices but have less negative effects on the environment and health.
Recommendations regarding the private use of devices including mobile phones, WiFi for computers and other wireless devices such as baby monitors:
- As a precautionary principle set preventive thresholds for levels of long-term exposure to microwaves in all indoor areas. These should initially be no greater than 0.6 volts per metre, and in the medium-term, reduce to 0.2 volts per metre.
- Undertake appropriate risk-assessment procedures for all new types of device prior to licensing.
- Introduce clear labelling that includes an indication of the presence of microwaves or electromagnetic fields generated by the device and any health risks connected with its use.
- Raise awareness on potential health risks of digital cordless telephones, baby monitors and other domestic appliances that emit continuous pulse waves. The use of wired, fixed telephones at home or, failing that, models that do not permanently emit pulse waves was recommended.
Recommendations regarding the protection of children:
- Targeted information campaigns should be developed across different ministries (education, environment and health) in order to alert teachers, parents and children to the specific risks of ‘early, ill-considered and prolonged use of mobiles’ and other devices emitting microwaves.
- Ban all mobile phones, digital cordless phones, WiFi or WLAN systems from classrooms and schools, as advocated by some regional authorities, medical associations and civil society organisations.
Recommendations regarding the planning of electric power lines and relay antenna base stations:
- Introduce town planning measures to keep high-voltage power lines and other electric installations at a safe distance from dwellings.
- Apply strict safety standards to ensure new dwellings have sound electrical systems.
- Reduce threshold values for relay antennas in accordance with the ALARA principle and install systems for comprehensive and continuous monitoring of all antennas.
- The sites of any new GSM, UMTS, WiFi or WIMAX antennas should not be solely determined according to the operators’ interests but in consultation with local and regional government officials, local residents and associations of concerned citizens.
Recommendations regarding risk assessment and precautions:
- Make risk assessment more prevention-oriented.
- Improve risk-assessment standards and quality by creating a standard risk scale, making the indication of the risk level mandatory. This should consider compatibility with real life conditions.
- Listen to and protect ‘early warning’ scientists.
- Formulate a human rights-oriented definition of the precautionary and ALARA principles.
- Increase public funding of independent research through grants from industry and taxation of products that are the subject of public research studies to evaluate health risks.
- Make the transparency of lobby groups mandatory.
What do the recommendations signify?
These recommendations show the Council of Europe favours a cautious approach to regulating exposures to electromagnetic fields in the population.
These decisions have been based on the precautionary principle, which means that it is better to take a cautious approach to avoid any potential harms of these technologies, even if there is not yet concrete proof of these harms. The committee said it ‘waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof can lead to very high health and economic costs, as was the case in the past with asbestos, leaded petrol and tobacco’.
It should be noted that this does not suggest that the committee view electromagnetic fields to necessarily be as dangerous as cigarettes, but that in these cases applying precautionary action would have reduced their consequences and costs to human health.
What happens now?
This report appears to be at the draft resolution stage. It should now go on to be presented by the rapporteur, and debated at a plenary session of the assembly. At the end of the debate the draft report (which can be amended), is voted on and adopted or rejected by the assembly.
What do other organisations say about the risk?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has extensively examined the health implications of electromagnetic fields, particularly those generated by mobile phone signals. The WHO has stated that ‘despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health.’
It said, ‘In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.’