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Electromagnetic fields: worker health and safety

Electromagnetic fields can have short-term health effects on people working in close proximity to them. A 2004 Directive designed to protect workers’ safety created problems for the health sector. A proposed new Directive provides derogations for some applications while safeguarding workers’ health and safety.

Electromagnetic fields and health

Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are produced by natural processes (e.g. electrical storms, the Earth’s magnetic field) and man-made devices (e.g. microwave ovens, TVs, computers, broadcast facilities and mobile telephones). EMF exposure is particularly high for some workers, such as those who weld, repair power lines, work with radar or use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment.

Exposure to EMFs has well-known short-term effects on the human body due to absorbed energy as well as electrical currents transmitted through contact or induced. The effects depend on the radiation’s intensity, source (static magnetic field or time-varying magnetic or electrical fields) and frequency. Long-term exposure to EMFs may also have health effects, but the scientific findings are not as yet conclusive.

Original EU legislation

In 2004, Parliament and Council adopted Directive 2004/40/CE for the protection of workers from EMFs, based on limits established at the time by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), an independent scientific body recognised by the World Health Organisation. The Directive sets upper limits of allowed exposure as well as ‘action values’ which, when attained, require employers to take measures that ensure compliance with exposure limits. The Directive only covers workers; an earlier Council Recommendation (1999/519/EC) sets out limits for exposure of the general public to EMFs.

In 2007, after some stakeholders raised objections, the Commission recommended that Member States (MS) postpone transposition to allow for more consultation. In 2008, the ICNIRP also raised its exposure limits for low-frequency EMFs in the light of new scientific evidence. Legislation was passed to postpone the transposition deadline, first from 2008 to 2012, and then to October 2013.

Stakeholder objections

The major objections to the original Directive concerned MRI technology in the health sector. MRI is used to obtain diagnostic information and, increasingly, to guide surgical operations. Workers manufacturing or maintaining MRI equipment and medical staff using the technology are exposed to higher EMFs than the directive would have allowed. Specialists said that the Directive’s approach was too precautionary given manufacturers’ standards, current practices and the millions of scans performed safely every year. They believed that the Directive would unnecessarily restrict both current medical use and future development of MRI technology; it would also encourage greater use of computerised tomography (CT) scans that have proven X-ray health risks.

New Directive

Welder at work

© motorradcbr / Fotolia

In June 2011, the Commission proposed a new Directive to replace the problematic one. The proposal provides exemptions for clinical and research MRI applications in the health sector, as well as in the military field where equivalent (e.g. NATO) standards apply. It also raises the exposure limits for EMFs at low frequencies following the ICNIRP guidelines.

After the EMPL Committee report (rapporteur Elisabeth Morin-Chartier, EPP, France) and trilogue discussions, an informal agreement on the new Directive was reached. The revised proposal includes an additional derogation for other justified applications and a provision that the European Commission will act if long-term exposure is proved to create health risks. The EMPL Committee also succeeded in introducing measures to provide traceability data concerning the health of workers exposed to EMFs.

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