Potential health risks of pylons cause deep divisions

The damage to health may not have been proved but that does not mean it does not exist, say campaigners


When the Minister for Health James Reilly decided to enquire about the potential health effects to people living in close proximity to high-voltage underground power cables he may not have realised it but he was illustrating a point.

No matter how much assurance exists in one quarter, there will always be unease in another.

Deeply divisive questions about the potential impact of proposed power lines, whether underground or knitted through pylons, cannot be answered in a way that satisfies everyone.

The pylons, or more specifically the electromagnetic fields around them, have prompted fears, claims and counterclaims that all manner of illness will follow, with a particular emphasis on childhood leukaemia.

While a recent announcement revealed an independent panel will be established to examine the possibility of undergrounding – certainly an option favoured by protestors – questions surrounding health issues are unlikely to disappear overnight.

EirGrid, which aims to upgrade the country’s electricity network, dismisses these concerns, insisting there is no evidence to support them. Campaign groups beg to differ.

An alternative view is that legitimate fears of the unknown should not be ignored simply because a problem has not yet been found.

In 2012 Reilly sought assurances from Cabinet colleagues Phil Hogan and Pat Rabbitte that planned underground cables in his Dublin North constituency, as part of the east-west electricity interconnector, would not be a health hazard.

His question was spurred by an opinion he received from Dr Anthony Staines of Dublin City University, linking high-voltage electricity cables to an increased risk of childhood cancer.

Last month, the Department of Health scrambled a statement rejecting any suggestion the Minister’s concerns were tantamount to evidence of risk.

“National and international health and scientific agencies have reviewed more than 30 years of research into electromagnetic fields,” it insisted, eagerly pursing damage limitation.

“None of these agencies has concluded that exposure to electromagnetic fields from power lines or other electrical source is a cause of any long-term adverse effects on human, plant or animal health.”

The chief medical adviser, the department continued, informed the Minister that there was no need for him to concern himself.

And yet in the midst of an ongoing public consultation process for the proposed €500 million “Grid 25” project, which would see some 750 pylons across the country, the debate rages on. Thousands of submissions have been received by the company. Scientific efforts to analyse electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) around pylons and their possible relationship to cancer and other diseases began as far back as the late 1970s, instigated in the US by reports of increasing numbers of children with leukaemia living in the vicinity of power lines. This in turn prompted international studies.

In Ireland today these fears are alive and well despite considerable scientific research that has unearthed no particular, unequivocal threat.

The North East Pylon Pressure (Nepp) campaign group, which is opposed to the pending North South Interconnector scheme, is staunch in its criticism.

A briefing document it circulated points out that significant exposure “increases the risk of leukaemia, particularly to children” and is associated with “risk of miscarriage, brain tumours, Alzheimer’s and motor-neurone diseases”.

‘Major concern’
“Health is by far the most major concern,” says spokesman Padraig O’Reilly of the ongoing resistance. “People are saying if the lines can be put far enough away that is fine but that is not happening.”

Nepp favours putting the lines underground despite an insistence from EirGrid that this is neither practical nor the approach in any other country.

The group presents it as the perfect solution, solving at a stroke all of the perceived problems. “No electric fields are emitted from underground cables and, importantly, the magnetic field is also greatly reduced.”

It says current exposure safeguards as set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) are inadequate and that Ireland has the worst record in Europe for compliance (the Department of Health has also referred to our adoption of guidelines developed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection).

The proximity to property as planned, an “aspirational” 40 metres, is also deemed to be unacceptably close, the group says.

But O’Reilly does not have much faith these concerns will be humoured. “I don’t think they will be taken on board to any great degree by An Bord Pleanála because they will state that it’s not their area of expertise and EirGrid comply with regulations,” he says.

“We don’t have any great faith in the process anymore.”

Incoming EirGrid chief executive John O’Connor did little to calm the waters when he admitted frankly before an Oireachtas committee recently that he “would not like to live close to a pylon”.

But EirGrid is staunch in its defence of the proposals and says the science plays down health implications.

“The fact is that extensive worldwide research, involving expenditure of over €440 million, has found no conclusive evidence that extremely low frequency (ELF) EMFs from power lines are harmful to public health,” it has stated.

“EirGrid is satisfied from the totality of studies and the views of international authoritative agencies that the balance of evidence is that electric and magnetic fields do not have any adverse effect on health.”

One of the reports it highlights is a 2007 government-commissioned study, Health Effects of Electromagnetic Fields.

Preceding the current debate, it examines many of the concerns but falls a long way short of vindicating them.

“ELF fields induce electric fields and currents in tissues that can result in involuntary nerve and muscle stimulation, but only at very high field strengths. These acute effects form the basis of international guidelines that limit exposure,” it says.

On the particularly provocative issue of childhood cancer, it confirms “limited scientific evidence of an association between ELF magnetic fields and childhood leukaemia” but that “this does not mean” it is a cause. The possibility cannot be excluded but “overall the evidence is considered weak”.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that with “limited evidence”, ELF magnetic fields are possibly a human carcinogen. “This does not mean that ELF magnetic fields are actually carcinogenic, simply that there is that possibility,” the report says.

“An example of a substance classified by IARC as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ is coffee, which may increase the risk of kidney cancer. The evidence is unconvincing that ELF is a cause of adverse birth outcomes in humans, nor a cause of Alzheimer’s disease, motor neuron disease, suicide and depression, or cardiovascular disease. There is very weak evidence that maternal or paternal occupational exposure to ELF causes reproductive effects.”

Understandable concerns
One of the report’s authors, the aforementioned Prof Anthony Staines, chair of health systems in the School of Nursing and Human Sciences at Dublin City University (DCU), says that while there are understandable concerns, there is simply not enough certainty.

“The short answer is that there have been a lot of studies done [on links with childhood leukaemia] and the evidence shows one health effect that is not insignificant but is not huge,” he told The Irish Times. “There is anxiety about this as there is about other developments. One man’s unjustifiable cancer is another man’s unreason. It’s very hard to say who is right in these arguments. What we can do is say: here is the evidence, here are the figures.”

Mike O’Carroll, professor emeritus at the University of Sunderland, a mathematician whose work has exposed him to areas of engineering and science and particularly EMFs, pleads for a balanced approach.

He is the chairman of the Revolt group in the UK, an anti-power line outfit formed in 1991 and he has been advising Nepp in Ireland.

O’Carroll says the concerns should neither hinder progress nor be ignored. At the core of his concern is the language used by those who seek to downplay legitimate fears: a lack of conclusive evidence, he argues, does not equate to disproval.

In a recent email exchange with colleagues, he picked apart the position of the Department of Health that there is “no evidence” of adverse effects.

This is “spinning ambiguity” he says. “There is of course a wealth of relevant and suggestive evidence but what does ‘evidence that . . . ’ mean? If it means ‘evidence that is formally accepted as proof beyond doubt’ then the claim may be justified, but that is not how the sentence might normally be read.”

Regarding links to childhood leukaemia, he says there is no definitive method to test for it but that any effort to rule it out with statistical bias is to miss the point; the possibility alone should be considered and used as part of cost-benefit analysis.

For the argument against pylons in its entirety, O’Carroll presents the Russian roulette analogy.

“You have live bullets and you know that if you pull the trigger when the bullet is in the chamber there is going to be an effect,” he says. “It’s not that you are unsure about the mechanism; you can say you are confident about the mechanism. You have a five in six chance of survival and a one in six chance of dying. What’s not understood in this case is the causation or mechanistic element. We don’t know if the gun works or not.”

Progress should not be delayed without unambiguous evidence of danger he concedes.

“But the possible risk is still a risk. [Imagine] if you are given a gun to play Russian roulette and someone tells you it might be seized up. This is the situation: we don’t know.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.