What limits apply in the UK?
There are, so far, no statutory exposure limits in the UK. The limits that apply do so as a matter of Government policy. Some industries including the electricity industry have a policy of complying. Some do not, and it is doubtful if the limits could be legally enforced. From 2016, the occupational exposure limits will be legally enforceable.
In 2010, ICNIRP produced new guidelines. But these do not automatically take effect in the UK. The UK policy remains based on 1998 ICNIRP until Government decide otherwise - see below.
For occupational exposure, the current UK policy is to comply with the ICNIRP guidelines. Previously this has been with the 1998 guidelines, but the EU Directive 2013 will lead to the UK implementing the values from ICNIRP 2010. This will put into legally binding Regulations from 2016.
Where is the policy written down?
The policy stems from advice given by NRPB in 2004.
The National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) was the independent body charged by the UK Parliament with giving advice on EMFs, including advice on safe levels of exposure. On 1 April 2005, the NRPB joined the Health Protection Agency, becoming the Radiation Protection Division, and in 2013, it became part of Public Health England. Until 2004, the NRPB published its own exposure guidelines, last revised in 1993. In March 2004, it published new Advice on limiting exposures to EMFs. This Advice recommended that the UK adopts levels published internationally by ICNIRP, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (more detail on the 2004 NRPB Advice). This advice has been accepted by Government for both public and occupational exposure.
For public exposure
There are three tiers of documents that establish the public exposure limits in the UK:
- The Written Ministerial Statement of 2009 established the policy
- The Code of Practice of 2011 gives the practical details needed to apply the policy
- The National Policy Statement EN-5 of 2011 writes both of those into the regime for granting consent to power lines
The key statement in the Written Ministerial Statement is:
"In the absence of any practical precautionary low-cost measures for reducing the exposure to ELF EMF associated with high voltage overhead lines, the Government believes that the 1998 ICNIRP Guidelines on exposure to EMFs in the terms of the 1999 EU Recommendation, as recommended by the Health Protection Agency and in line with the view of the World Health Organization, remain relevant. ... We are therefore of the view that protection of the members of the public from the possible risks of long term exposure should be based on compliance with the ICNIRP guidelines." (paras 40 and 41)
The Written Ministerial Statement confirmed an existing policy. In August 2004, in response to the NRPB’s recommendation, the 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 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 key statement about implementation was:
“… 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.”
The limits apply where the time of exposure is significant - see more on what "significant" means
For occupational exposure
The situation up to now
Occupational exposure limits are the province of the HSE. They state:
"There is at present no UK legislation specific to EMFs. Control is exercised through the general duties in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and by reference to ICNIRP guidelines."
"[The ICNIRP and former NRPB guidelines] are currently used both by industry and HSE Inspectors when assessing risk from exposure to electromagnetic fields."
So, for occupational exposures, the ICNIRP limits do not have legal force in themselves but they are the standard used to judge compliance with the general duty for health and safety.
How this will change
The EU Directive on occupational exposure to EMFs was passed in 2013 and is based round the ICNIRP 2010 values. It gives three years for member states to implement the guidelines. In the UK, this will be done by HSE, by introducing Regulations. So, by 2016, these values will be legally binding.
What are the numbers?
|Public exposure||magnetic||360 µT|
|Occupational exposure (current)||magnetic||1800 µT|
The ICNIRP 2010 occupational limits, which will apply from 2016, are complicated with multiple levels - see details.
The public exposure figures apply only where the time of exposure is significant.
Do the new ICNIRP 2010 limits apply in the UK?
In 2010, ICNIRP, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Exposure, published new exposure guidelines. But the UK has adopted the specific document ICNIRP 1998, not whatever happens to be ICNIRP's latest pronouncement. So the new guidelines will not apply in the UK unless Government make a specific decision to introduce them.
This is spelled out in two different places:
Code of Practice
The Code of Practice on compliance with exposure guidelines says:
"As and when either ICNIRP issue new Guidelines or the EU revise the Recommendation, it will be for Government to consider those changes and to decide whether to adopt them or not. If Government policy changes, this Code of Practice will also be changed accordingly, but until that happens, the present policy as reflected in this Code of Practice remains in force."
On 14 March 2011, Charles Hendry, Energy Minister, said in a written answer:
"New guidance for 1 Hz to 100 kHz was published by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) in December 2010. However, Government policy remains that we apply the 1998 ICNIRP guidelines in terms of the 1999 European Union (EU) recommendation for public exposure levels to EMFs. If the EU decides to revise its recommendation to member states based on the new 2010 ICNIRP guidance, then at that time the Department of Health will consider how that affects UK policy. If this policy changes as a result of the recommendation we will then look to review EN-5 to ensure that it is still relevant."
From 2016, the ICNIRP 2010 values will come into force through the UK implementation of the EU Directive. Until then, it is very unlikely anyone would get into trouble through following either the old or the new - it is frankly a bit ambiguous which applies!
Limits for static fields in the UK
This site is about the 50 and 60 Hz fields produced by the power system. But the 1998 ICNIRP guidelines and the 1999 EU Recommendation that we describe here also apply to static fields.