A Precautionary Approach

The Treaty of the European Union states that

'Community policy on the environment.... shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventative action should be taken, that environmental damage should, as a priority, be rectified at the source and the polluter should pay' (Treaty on European Union, 1992).

The working definition used in the European Environment Agency for the Precautioinary Principle is:

'The precautionary principle provides justification for public policy actions in situations of scientific complexity, uncertainty and ignorance, where there may be a need to act in order to avoid, or reduce, potentially serious or irreversible threats to health or the environment, using an appropriate level of scientific evidence, and taking into account the likely pros and cons of action and inaction' (Gee, 2006). Taken from the European Environment Agency Bio-Initiative report, 2007, section 16.

A paper by Damvik and Johansson (2010) describes how decision-makers are being misled by inaccurate risk assessments.  In it they say 'In many cases, the information in its reports and fact sheets (the WHO) is wrong, because the data are based on a misunderstanding of the precautionary principle'.

The European Parliament and Environment Agency

European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety adopted (27/5/2008) a report on the mid-term review of the European Environment and Health action plan 2004-2010 (Ries, 2008). 

The report states that the precautionary principle should remain the cornerstone of the European Union's policies on environmental health.

It states that it is greatly concerned at the International Bio-Initiative Report (2007) concerning electromagnetic fields, which summarises over 1500 studies on that topic and which points in its conclusions to the health risks posed by emissions from mobile telephony devices such as mobile telephones, Wi-Fi, UMTS, WiMax, Bluetooth and DECT cordless telephones.  The report concludes that repeated and/or excessive exposure to wireless electromagnetic waves may cause cancer, acoustic neuroma, genotoxicity (damage to DNA), modify brain function and affect the immune system

The mid-term review was concluded on the 4/9/2008.  It noted that 'the limits on exposure to electromagnetic fields which have been set for the general public are obsolete.'  It '... calls on the Council to amend its Recommendation 1999/519/EC in order to ... set stricter exposure limits for all equipment which emits electromagnetic waves in the frequencies between 0.1MHz and 300GHz.

In September 2007 the European Environment Agency advised the 27 member states on the basis of the Bio-Initiative report that they should introduce more effective protection of the general public from electromagnetic fields (Ries, 2008).

The Director of the European Environment Agency, Professor Jacqueline McGlade, has said that the evidence for potential risks is strong enough to justify steps to reduce people's exposures to radio frequency electromagnetic fields.  She recommends that the current exposure standards be reconsidered and that effective labelling and warnings of potential risks are provided for the public (September 2009).

The European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution on health concerns associated with electromagnetic fields (Ries, April 2009).  The resolution is calling for the Commission and Member States to increase funding to evaluate potential long-term adverse effects of mobile telephony radiofrequencies.  It also states 'it is in the general interest to encourage solutions ... to ensure at least that schools, creches, retirement homes and healthcare institutions are kept clear (of electromagnetic field transmitting equipment).

International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety

The International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS) is made up of leading scientists, medical doctors and engineers from around the world who are working at the forefront of research into the health and safety of electromagnetic radiation.

ICEMS in their Venice Resolution (6/6/2008) and press release (6/6/2008) strongly recommend a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phones and wireless devices by children, due to their concerns of adverse health effects.

American Public Health Association and President's Cancer Panel

The American Public Health Association (APHA) has affirmed that the precautionary principle should be the cornerstone of public health policy for the protection of children's health.  The APHA encourages governments, the private sector and health professionals to promote the use of the precautionary principle to protect the health of developing children (AHPA, 2001).

The American President's Cancer Panel report 2008-2009 (April 2010) supports the application of the precautionary principle to environmental carcinogens.  "Opportunities for eliminating or minimizing cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures must be acted upon to protect all Americans, but especially children. They are at special risk due to their smaller body mass and rapid physical development, both of which magnify their vulnerability to known or suspected carcinogens, including radiation."  "Industry has exploited regulatory weaknesses, such as government’s reactionary (rather than precautionary) approach to regulation."

UK Government

The Stewart Report published in May 2000 and updated in January 2005 was commissioned by the UK Government to look into the possible health effects from the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters.  The report recommends that 'a precautionary approach should be taken to the use of mobile phone technologies until more detailed information on any health effects becomes available'.

The Stewart Report recommends that the beam of greatest intensity from mobile phone masts should not fall on any part of a school's grounds or buildings without the agreement of the school and parents.  They also say that parents should be given adequate information to make an informed decision.  The emissions from Wi-Fi computers will vary according to the applications being used.  However, the Panorama programme on UK TV (21st May 2007) showed in an example measurement that the electrical field strength 0.5m from a Wi-Fi-enabled computer in a school (1.7V/m) was greater than that from the beam of greatest intensity from a mobile phone mast near the school (mast reading measured at adult torso height above ground, approximately 100m from the mast - the distance at which the field strength is greatest, 0.7V/m).

Surely the same precautionary approach should be applied to Wi-Fi computers in schools as to mobile phone masts near schools.

The Stewart Report also advises that children should not use mobile phones for non-essential calls.  The Government's Chief Medical Officers recommend that if parents want to avoid their children being subject to possible risks, they should not let their children (under the age of 16) use mobile phones (Department of Health, 2006).  Recommendations about the use of mobile phones by children also apply to the use of DECT cordless phones (Hardell and Sage, 2008).  

Further information

For further information on the concerns of groups and individuals calling for the application of the precautionary principle please see International Concerns.

Applying the Precautionary Principle

Scientific studies to date have provided enough information to raise concern about the consequences to human health from using wireless technologies (see Scientific Research and Health Issues for Schools).  However, many more good long-term studies are needed to understand more fully why effects are seen in some circumstances and not others, the range of damage produced, possible mechanisms of action and the long-term effects of lower-powered devices such as Wi-Fi.

Until these studies have been carried out, we would like to see the application of the Precautionary Principle in nurseries, schools, colleges, universities and other public places frequented by children and teenagers such as libraries, hospitals, public transport and playgrounds.

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APHA, 2001. The Precautionary Principle and Children's Health. American Journal of Public Health, 91(no.3), p.495-496.

Bio-Initiative Report, 2007. A Rationale for a biologically-based public exposure standard for electromagnetic fields (ELF and RF). http://www.bioinitiative.org/index.htm (accessed Aug 2008).

Department of Health, 2006. Mobile phones and Health, Leaflet 2883,  http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_4123979  (accessed Aug 2008).

Hardell L. and Sage C., 2008, Biological effects from electromagnetic field exposure and public exposure standards, Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy 62, 104-109.

Ries, F (2008) European Parliament mid-term review of the European Environment and Health Action Plan 2004-2010, (2007/2252(INI), http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2004_2009/documents/pr/713/713890/713890en.pdf (accessed Aug 2008).  http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&mode=XML&reference=A6-2008-0260&language=EN (accessed September 2008). http://www.europarl.europa.eu/oeil/resume.jsp?id=5564632&eventId=1046703&backToCaller=NO&language=en (accessed September 2008).

Gee D. (2006) Late Lessons from Early Warnings: towards realism and precaution with endocrine disrupting substances. Environ Health Perspectives 114, Suppl. 1, 152-160. General Food Law Regulation, EC No 178/2002, Official Journal of the EU, L31, 0.02.2002, Luxembourg.

International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS). The Venice Resolution June 2008,  http://www.icems.eu/resolution.htm. Press Release (6/6/2008), http://www.icems.eu/workshops.htm (accessed Aug 2008).

Panorama 21st May 2007, BBC1, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/6674675.stm and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/6683969.stm (accessed Aug 2008)

Stewart Report, 2000, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, http://www.iegmp.org.uk/report/index.htm, 2004, Mobile phones and Health, NRPB Report Vol15 no.5, http://www.hpa.org.uk/web/HPAweb&HPAwebStandard/HPAweb_C/1195733821582  (accessed Aug 2008).

Treaty on European Union 1992, Official Journal of the European Communities C325 of 24 December 2002, Article 174(2), http://eur-lex.europa.eu/en/treaties/dat/12002E/htm/C_2002325EN.003301.html (accessed Aug 2008).