A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

WHO EMF Project Rejects Stricter Exposure Limits To Reduce Childhood Leukemia Risk

November 2, 2004

The World Health Organizationís EMF Project is advising national governments against setting stricter exposure limits for exposures to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) to protect children from leukemia.

The recommendation is contained in its long-awaited draft report on how to apply the precautionary principle to uncertain health and environmental risks. The document, released on November 2, can be downloaded at no cost from the WHO EMF Project’s Web site.

The draft report comes close to two years after the project announced, in a previous draft report, that there was enough evidence to invoke the precautionary principle for both power-frequency EMFs and RF radiation (see MWN, M/A03). Soon afterwards, Mike Repacholi and Leeka Kheifets backed off saying that they had only been floating a trial balloon. The flip-flop caught many observers by surprise (see MWN, M/J03). Repacholi still runs the EMF project. Kheifets has left Geneva, though she continues to work for Repacholi from her new home at UCLA in Los Angeles.

The new report, Framework to Develop Precautionary Measures in Areas of Scientific Uncertainty, addresses how to formulate policy options for health and environmental risks. The framework is applied to power frequency EMFs and RF radiation in two case studies, which are presented in separate appendices.

This time around, the WHO does not offer its own verdict on whether the precautionary principle should or should not be invoked. Rather, it spells out possible options ófrom doing nothing to taking a number of specific actionsó and leaves it to decision makers in each individual country to reach their own conclusions.

But the WHO makes a special point of stating that setting new tougher exposure limits for 50/60 Hz EMFs is not a viable option. The EMF project states that ìWHO believes exposure limits should be based on effects conventionally regarded as established and are not an appropriate mechanism for implementing precautionary approaches. Therefore WHO does not recommend including exposure limits based on the childhood leukemia data as an option.î

The current ICNIRP exposure limit is 1,000 mG (100 µT) for the general population. Epidemiological studies have consistently shown a leukemia risk to children exposed, on average, above 3-4 mG (0.3-0.4 µT).

The WHO also actively discourages the adoption of new exposure limits for RF radiation. It finds that the probability that mobile phones can cause disease of otherwise affect the brain ìis probably small, but cannot be completely eliminated,î but allows that if there are any effects, ìthe global burden of disease could be enormous.î (The WHO draft does not mention the new study from the Karolinska Institute pointing to a risk of developing an acoustic neuroma after using a mobile phone for more than ten years.)

Limiting the use of mobile phone by children is presented as a possible policy option but it is discounted, because its effectiveness ìis likely to be limited.î Repacholi was the only member of the Stewart panel in the U.K. to recommend against advising against the widespread use of cell phones by children (see MWN, M/J00).

The WHO appears to be concerned that any company that adopts precautionary policies may appear to be admitting that a health risk does in fact exist. The WHO states that, ìA company acting to reduce exposures from mobile phones under the WHO [precautionary framework] is not taken to be admitting legal liability for such exposureî and that ìthe decision to reduce an exposure is not taken as evidence that such an exposure it in fact dangerous.î

The WHO is inviting comments on the new draft report. They are due by January 15, 2005.