In keeping with his personal style when engaging with members of the public, Mr Rabbitte issues this template answer whenever concerns are expressed by worried parents about the impact of overhead power lines on the health of their children:
“My Department has no responsibility in respect of the matter of potential health effects of Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) which became the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government from 1 May 2007. Accordingly, the electro-magnetic fields (EMF) issue will not fall under the remit of the expert panel.
I am, however, aware that Ireland has taken a precautionary approach on this issue and adopted international guidelines for exposure to electromagnetic radiation developed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. These guidelines are set at levels which are many times less than the experimental levels at which no adverse effects have been established. Ireland has also participated in the work of the International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety, which sets standards in this area.
The Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government has agreed that he will engage expert assistance to review and report on international developments in the scientific literature on potential health effects of EMF emanating from transmission grid infrastructure. The study will serve as an update on a report, “Health Effects of Electromagnetic Fields”, which was produced by my Department in 2007.”
Let us look at the first paragraph a little more carefully:
“My Department has no responsibility in respect of the matter of potential health effects of Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) which became the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government from 1 May 2007. Accordingly, the electro-magnetic fields (EMF) issue will not fall under the remit of the expert panel.”
I struggle to find the logical connection between the premise and the conclusion in this paragraph. Why is it necessary for the Minister’s Department to have responsibility for something before it can be examined by the expert panel? Should the fact that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has done absolutely nothing for seven years with regard to further investigation of this area inspire confidence in their ability or their willingness to do so now?
In any event, I would remind the Minister that the Terms of Reference of the Expert Panel includes “assessments of potential environmental impacts, technical efficacy and cost factors.” However, the Terms exclude “Electro Magnetic Field (EMF) issues”. This would seem to be contradictory as the latter is clearly an aspect of the former.
The Minister is quick to point out that the current statutory authority with respect to environmental effects of the project lies with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. This has been the position since 1st May 2007. The 2007 Report referred to by the Minister clearly states that there is an established increased risk of childhood leukaemia near to very high voltage lines. The conclusion reached by that report, which was commissioned by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (the Minister’s current department) was that:
“Epidemiological studies suggest that ELF magnetic fields above 0.3 to 0.4 µT are associated with an increased incidence of childhood leukaemia. …However we have no understanding of how, or even if, ELF magnetic fields might be associated with leukaemogenesis”.
Accordingly, it is this government’s official position, in line with their latest expert report, that there is an association of increased incidence of childhood leukaemia with the position of the lines and that there are mechanisms other than ELF magnetic fields which may be responsible for this accepted association of risk. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has recently confirmed that it has no new view on this subject since the report and that the report remains the view of the department.
Similarly, a (recently discredited – see Quotations and References) report by the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser commissioned by the government in 2010 entitled “A review of recent investigations into the Possible Health Effects of Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) from Power Lines” details a calculation of the number of cases of childhood leukaemia expected to occur due to the network of high voltage overhead power lines in the state at that time and also discusses the concept that the risk will be present only at the higher voltage lines. The document discusses in detail the mechanisms other than EMF or ELF which could be the cause of the demonstrated risk. Such mechanisms include the corona drift effect (an airborne charged particle mechanism) and the melatonin effect (a hormonal effect).
As previously noted, the terms of reference of the Panel must include an assessment of potential environmental impacts which are not EMF effects. The above-mentioned reports commissioned by the government of the day are clear that there is an established correlation between the increased rates of childhood leukaemia and overhead lines. However, they are not sure whether these are EMF related or from some other cause. Accordingly, the terms of reference allow the expert panel to consider evidence, whether documentary or oral, from medical experts, on the statistical association of childhood leukaemia and power lines, given that the government accept that the statistical association (that’s ‘risk’ to you and me) may be due to factors other than the EMF. The “corona ion airborne effect” is one such mechanism accepted to exist by the government documents and associated with overhead power lines.
In other words, on the government’s own version there may be other causes of childhood leukaemia associated with power lines that are not EMF related. If that is so, the expert panel is not precluded from considering these other causes as they are only excluded from considering EMF.
The other gaping chasm in the Minister’s argument is that the expert panel is empowered to consider the economic / financial implications of ‘overhead versus undergrounding’. It is worth noting that the very influential underwriting firm, Swiss Re, published a widely read report entitled “Swiss Re SONAR Emerging Risks Insights” (August, 2013).
Under the heading “Unforeseen consequences of electromagnetic fields” the Report says that “Anxiety over the potential risks related to EMF has risen”, and later “The WHO has classified extremely low-frequency magnetic fields and radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, such as radiation emitted by cell phones, as potentially carcinogenic to humans (Class 2B carcinogen)”. The Report concludes on this topic that “If a direct link between EMF and human health problems were established, it would open doors for new claims and could ultimately lead to large losses under product liability covers. Liability rates would likely rise.”
Accordingly, I would argue that in terms of their current competence, the expert panel is obliged to hear evidence concerning the economic / financial implications of overhead lines. A leading underwriting firm has predicted ‘new claims’ and ‘large losses under product liability covers’. Surely this is a financial implication that needs to be factored in when considering the cost of overhead lines, and indeed the cost of Grid 25 in toto?
And now, onto the Minister’s second paragraph:
“I am, however, aware that Ireland has taken a precautionary approach on this issue and adopted international guidelines for exposure to electromagnetic radiation developed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. These guidelines are set at levels which are many times less than the experimental levels at which no adverse effects have been established. Ireland has also participated in the work of the International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety, which sets standards in this area.”
The ‘precautionary principle’ is at best misunderstood, and at worst abused, by governments across Europe, who use it as an excuse to do nothing in situations where action is needed, but dismiss it rather than refraining from potentially harmful, but lucrative, practices.
The 1998 Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle summarizes the principle this way:
“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”
All statements of the Precautionary Principle contain a version of this formula, i.e. when the health of humans and the environment is at stake, it may not be necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action. In other words, it is a convoluted formulation of the old adage “Better safe than sorry”.
There is a clear legal basis for this Principle, found in the current EU Treaty:
Article 95: “The Commission, in its proposals… will take as a base a high level of protection ”.
Article 152: “A high level of human health protection shall be ensured in the definition and implementation of all Community activities and policies”.
Article 152 also provides for the adoption of recommendations by the Council “with a view to complement national policies for improving public health, preventing human illness and diseases, and obviating sources of danger to human health”.
Again, on the government’s own version there is a link between overhead lines and childhood leukaemia. Grid 25 is nevertheless going ahead. What happened to the precautionary principle?
As for the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. This august body was founded by Michael Repacholi, who became its first Chairman at its inception in 1992. In May 1996 he was honoured for his work by being elected Chairman Emeritus of ICNIRP. In this office he has the status of an observer at ICNIRP meetings with no voting rights, as such he is not required to fill in a declaration of personal interest; which is just as well as he is a consultant for various energy companies. Dr Carlos Sosa, a leading writer and researcher in the field of electrosensitivity, has repeatedly labelled Repacholi an ‘international criminal’ for his work with WHO and ICNIRP.
The Minister similarly claims that Ireland ‘has also participated in the work of the International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety, which sets standards in this area’. I am glad that the Minister phrases that in the past tense, (in fact the past perfect tense would be most appropriate as it signifies an historical completed action) as it is clear that Ireland has not participated in the work of that organization for a long time. The ICEMS recently released this statement:
“The ICEMS resolutions and those referred to dating to 1998 send a clear message of concern, that the exposure standards set by nations that conform to the International Commission for Nonionizing Radiation Protection, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or the Federal Communications Commission, are inadequate to protect health and environment, and that more safety precautions are needed, while the research continues that could result in the development of biologically based standards”
They also say “The non-ionizing radiation protection standards recommended by international standards organizations, and supported by the World Health Organization, are inadequate“.
That last-mentioned paragraph is profound, as it is these standards that the Minister and EirGrid trot out with metronomic regularity whenever they are challenged on the subject.
Finally, the Minister’s third paragraph:
“The Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government has agreed that he will engage expert assistance to review and report on international developments in the scientific literature on potential health effects of EMF emanating from transmission grid infrastructure. The study will serve as an update on a report, “Health Effects of Electromagnetic Fields”, which was produced by my Department in 2007.”
I’m puzzled. One of Minister Rabbitte’s favourite soundbites is as follows:
“In that regard, I want to emphasise that the best advice available to EirGrid and to me is that there have been no developments since 2007 which would give cause for concern regarding the health effects of EMF.”
If that is so, then why is it necessary for Minister Hogan to commission a new report?
I, for one, am sick and tired of being treated like some inane idiot by a Minister who, judging by his utterings, is clearly contemptuous of the Irish public, the very people he was elected to represent.