Government response to SAGE First Interim Assessment

Also known as the "Written Ministerial Statement" of 2009.

SAGE is the Stakeholder Advisory Group on ELF EMFs.  See more on SAGE in general.

SAGE issued its First Interim Assessment in 2007.  That made several recommendations concerning power lines, house wiring, and domestic appliances. 

thumbnail of cover of written ministerial statementOn October 16 2009, Government formally responded to these recommendations. download the Government response here and see the Written Ministerial Statement that was the formal vehicle for presenting this response. 

This statement responded to SAGE's recommendations but in doing so it also became the most recent and definitive statement of Government policy on EMFs.

Summary of the response

Essentially, the Government supports the implementation of low-cost options.  This means it:

The Response also gives more details of how public exposure limits apply in the UK.

More details of particular issues

Overall approach to precaution

"The HPA advises that the EMF association with childhood leukaemia is weak and unproven and supports no cost/low cost options to reduce EMF exposure." (para 4)

"The Government acknowledges that research is continuing worldwide into the effects of exposure to ELF EMF and notes that other possible causes of leukaemia are also being explored." (para 6)

"... the scientific review bodies ... consider that, at present, the scientific evidence related to possible health effects from long-term, low-level exposure to extremely low frequency (ELF) fields is insufficient to justify setting lower exposure limits." (para 10)

See more on precaution and what various bodies have said about it.

"Corridors"

A key issue in SAGE was whether there should be planning "corridors" i.e. restrictions on buildings close to power lines.  See more on what SAGE said about this, and specifically the cost-benefit analysis.  The Government response says in summary:

"However SAGE's cost benefit analysis does not support the option of creating corridors around power lines on health grounds. The Government therefore considers this additional option to be disproportionate in the light of the evidence base on the potential health risks arising from exposure to ELF/EMF and has no plans to take forward this action." (para 4)

And in more detail:

"31. The Government has considered the HPA advice carefully in conjunction with the SAGE Assessment. We agree with both SAGE and the HPA that implementation of this option is not supported by the cost/benefit analysis. The high cost of implementing this approach (estimated by SAGE to be in the region of £1-2 billion in terms of loss of the value in land nationally) even assuming a causal link between exposure to ELF EMF and childhood leukaemia (which has not been proven), is not in line with the low-cost practical precautionary approach outlined by WHO. The 1999 European Council Recommendation that adopts the 1998 ICNIRP guidelines states that actions on limiting the exposure of the general public to electromagnetic fields should be balanced with the other health, safety and security benefits that devices emitting electromagnetic fields bring to the quality of life.

32. The Government, has to strike a fine balance when committing its future funding for the public benefit. Given the uncertainties of the scientific evidence, the Government believes that funding a high-cost option is not justified. Instead its approach to precautionary measures on EMFs will be to focus on low-cost or no-cost measures recommended by SAGE and supported by the Health Protection Agency and the WHO."

What this means for planning permission and local authorities

"The Government  ... acknowledge that the public, local planning authorities and the electricity industry need clarity and assurance about how electric and magnetic fields should be dealt with when new power lines or development near existing power lines is proposed." (para 37)

"It is central Government’s responsibility (rather than individual local authorities) to determine what national measures are necessary to protect public health. In the absence of established scientific advice on how to address these issues, Government will consider how to encourage decision makers to take a consistent approach in relation to ELF EMF issues when assessing planning applications for residential development near to power lines."  (para 38)

Optimum phasing of power lines

This is a technical matter to do with the design of power lines which can reduce the field.  The Government response says:

"The Government agrees with the SAGE recommendation and urges industry to optimal phase overhead lines wherever possible and reasonable. We will proactively work with industry to consider how best to take this forward. This might include developing a voluntary code of practice on phasing for voltages of 132kV and above." (para 50)

Appliances

"... the Government believes it is for the industry to note SAGE’s recommendation on this matter and the advice from the World Health Organization which is set out below and take action where they consider it is desirable to do so." (para 61)

more on the fields produced by appliances.

House wiring

SAGE made recommendations about several aspects of house wiring.  See also more on how house wiring can become a source of fields.

Electricity meters

"The Government believes that the transition to solid state meters is likely to be aided substantially by a roll-out of smart meters. The Government has already announced its intention to mandate smart meters together with an indicative timetable for completion of end 2020." (para 64)

Radial circuits instead of ring mains

"The Government asked the IET Wiring Regulations Policy Committee to consider this recommendation. The Committee has discussed the matter but does not consider that new guidance to electricians is justified. However, the Government will work with the HPA to highlight the importance of regular testing of wiring as part of guidance to householders on reducing the risk of exposure to electric and magnetic fields." (para 67)

RCDs in homes

"This change has been largely implemented for domestic properties." (para 69)

Measurements of EMFs in homes as part of house buying and selling

"SAGE itself noted that international standards on EMF measuring procedures are currently being developed. Until such time as these standards have been adopted, we do not consider it appropriate to incorporate measurement techniques into standard practices and procedures." (para 73)

Communications on EMFs

"The Government is supportive of the intention of this recommendation and we will work with the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to identify appropriate and proportionate guidance to householders and members of the public on this matter. However, we also note the HPA’s comment that advice and guidance should be evidence based, proportionate to the risks identified by authoritative bodies and should be presented in the context of other hazards in every day life. The HPA point out that raising awareness of a hazard without giving advice on how to reduce exposure could cause anxiety and attendant health detriment especially for those who currently live near to high voltage powerlines. This is an important consideration when viewing the potential public health benefits from the measures that SAGE has proposed." (para 79)

On this website we already have a section comparing the possible risks of EMFs with other risks

Compliance with exposure limits

Since 2004, the UK has followed the 1998 ICNIRP exposure limits in the terms of the 1999 EU Recommendation.  The Government response reaffirms this and provides a definition of exposure for "significant periods of time" that the limits apply to.

"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. ... In this regard, the UK Government considers that exposure for potentially significant periods of time might reasonably be regarded as referring to residential properties, and to properties where members of the public spend an appreciable proportion of their time. " (paras 40-42)

See also: