What limits apply in the UK?
For public exposure, 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, however, the occupational exposure limits have been 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 Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016 implement the EU Directive 2013 in the UK and are based on the values from ICNIRP 2010.
How did the UK get to this position?
The following diagram shows the evolution of exposure limits in the UK - which limits used to apply and when they were replaced. Many of the limits mentioned have their own page which you can get to from our table of specific limits.
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 prior to 2016
Occupational exposure limits were the province of the HSE. They stated:
"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 did not have legal force in themselves but they were the standard used to judge compliance with the general duty for health and safety.
The situation from 2016 onwards
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 has been done by HSE, by introducing the Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016.
What are the numbers?
See under ICNIRP, the EU Recommendation , and the Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations for the details. But the "headline" figures are:
|Public exposure||magnetic||360 µT|
|Occupational exposure (High Action Level)||magnetic||6000 µT|
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."
On 1 July 2016, the ICNIRP 2010 values effectively came into force in the UK through the Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016. Until then, it is very unlikely anyone would get into trouble through following either the old or the new - it wass frankly a bit ambiguous which applied!
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.
The component countries of the UK
Basically, the same provisions apply across the UK. But there are some differences in which documents apply in which countries and we try to disentangle these differences.