Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:35 pm on 25th June 2019.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the health-related effects of electromagnetic fields.
I am honoured to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This Westminster Hall debate is timely. It comes on the back of an historic decision by Glastonbury Town Council to oppose the roll-out of 5G because of a severe lack of evidence about its effect on the health of those living and working around 5G sites. In the words of Martin Pall, emeritus professor of biochemistry at Washington State University:
“Putting in tens of millions of 5G antennae without a single biological test of safety has got to be about the stupidest idea anyone has had in the history of the world.”
We saw the roll-out of 5G postponed in Brussels when Céline Fremault, Environment and Energy Minister, identified that it was not compatible with Belgian radiation safety standards; and a planned upgrade to 5G in Geneva has been stopped, through application of the precautionary principle, until independent findings on possible health damage become available.
I was approached by an old friend who is now a constituent about how a sensitivity to electromagnetic fields seriously affects her health and the way she lives her life. Annelie lives in France for part of the year and has to return to Wales as her health deteriorates while working as a university lecturer. I was intrigued by the effects and wanted to know more, so I have been in contact with a number of people who either have concerns about the health-related effects or are suffering at first hand. Following discussions with others, I was keen to secure a debate on the subject, because the Government are sweeping the health concerns under the carpet and there appears to be an absolute refusal to acknowledge that the health-related effects even exist.
Initiating a conversation about electromagnetic sensitivity has had members of my own team and family telling me that it is all made up. That in itself motivated me to keep reading and to speak to as many people as I could in Wales and beyond who were suffering. What shocked me was the number of people who have ES but are too afraid to talk publicly about their illness, because they are really wary of being humiliated and ostracised.
Electrosensitivity is the symptomatic sensitivity to electric or magnetic fields of any frequency, including radio frequency transmissions. The condition was first described in 1932. It is when a person’s physiology is affected by external electromagnetic fields, giving rise to a spectrum of symptoms, which are often neurological. It is therefore an illness caused by environmental agents—essentially, an environmental toxic pollutant. The condition can arise because of continued exposure to an environment polluted by man-made EM and RF wireless signals at levels at orders of magnitude below those that produce heating effects, and it is well understood in many other countries. Symptoms include headaches, fatigue, disturbed sleep, tingling, pains in limbs, head or face, stabbing pains, brain fog and impaired cognitive function, dizziness, tinnitus, nosebleeds and palpitations. As we saw with chronic fatigue syndrome, however, there was disbelief about those presenting with symptoms of this condition. Indeed, it was construed by others, through a lack of knowledge and difficulty in diagnosis, as a psychological illness. I believe that electrosensitivity will be recognised in years to come—sooner than that, I hope—and that the Government will have to own up to their part in it.
To be honest, this is not a subject that I ever thought I would stand here and talk about, even though as a mother, I have always been keen to charge my son’s phone outside his bedroom but have never applied the same rule to myself. Parents seem to care about this in relation to their children, and we hear that masts—one was recently fitted to a school in Haringey—are no longer being put up on primary schools. There is something in this.
I also worry about the impact of social media on mental health, and about the smartphones’ increasingly addictive nature, which is impacting on the lives of the youngest of children. There is some evidence about the effects of radio frequency signals on mental health and behaviour in children and young people, but those effects are not considered in current attempts to address the increase in mental health and behavioural problems in the UK. I ask the Minister to include the effects of wireless signals when considering solutions for such problems in children and young people. The recent advice from the UK chief medical officers on screen time and wellbeing in young people has ignored evidence for the adverse effects of wireless signals.
I want to ask about the wider environmental impact. My hon. Friend will know that 4G has the same carbon footprint as all of aviation, and 5G will be a lot more. What is more, we are now hearing that 5G will have a detrimental impact on insect life, which is decreasing globally at 2.5% per year. Given that insects are essential to humanity because they are required to pollinate all fruits and vegetables, does she agree that before hurtling ahead for commercial reasons, we should apply the precautionary principle until we know precisely what the impact will be on insects and our carbon footprint?
We do need to take climate change and insect life into consideration when we discuss the impact of electromagnetic fields.
As MPs, we have a duty of care to our constituents. There is no escaping the fact that when MPs, schools, local authorities and others ask questions about the safety of new technologies, the Government give a standard reply. People who question the health-related effects of electromagnetic fields come up against a brick wall, and today I want to break through that brick wall and ask the Minister several questions. I like to think that the smart way to move forward is to consider safety and sustainability when developing products.
Many years ago, the Trade and Industry Committee investigated the matter with all sorts of experts, but nobody could come to a conclusion. That is not to say that my hon. Friend is wrong, but it was looked at about 20 years ago. Is there any evidence that electromagnetic fields can affect the behaviour of animals?
There is evidence about the effects on animals. I cannot quote from it now, but I have read about it. We must remember that animals do not use screens, but there is evidence of the impact on them of electromagnetic fields from things such as smartphones and 5G. I would have to find that evidence and send it on to my hon. Friend.
On that point, there is clear evidence that with high-frequency 5G—there is some denial about the idea that the frequency may be so high—there will be an enormous loss of insect life. To get the necessary coverage we need to place masts every 150 metres. The coverage will be enormous, and there is an incredible risk of substantial damage. Surely we should apply the precautionary principle, even if all sorts of commercial threats are being made to the Government behind closed doors about what will happen if they do not go ahead.
We need to apply the precautionary principle when we look at anything. Many councils and the Government have embraced 5G, which has come up on us so quickly, as a solution to connectivity. To be honest, given the potential impact, I would rather see fibre broadband—fixed, wired broadband—in all the houses in my constituency and across Wales, rather than having masts put up everywhere just because that seems to be a cheaper solution.
I will not accept the response that electrosensitivity does not exist; studies show that it does. It has many effects that are not at all subjective, including effects on proteins and DNA, cell death, altered brain activity and effects in animals, as my hon. Friends have mentioned. Those effects can be measured, and they cannot be dismissed as being all in the mind.
We all know that decisions relating to technology can have unintended consequences. We are discussing one such consequence: the impact on our health. Similarly, it could be argued the effects on our mental health are being caused by online contact or screen time, but in combination with studies about animals, we can see that the signals themselves have effects. Animals do not look at screens or use social media.
In the past, no matter what questions, evidence or concerns have been put to Public Health England or the Department of Health and Social Care, they have responded with their standard reply, which includes them saying that they have thoroughly assessed the evidence in the 2012 report by the Independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. The World Health Organisation International Agency for Research on Cancer classified all radio frequency signals as possible human carcinogens in 2011, based on significant increased risks of gliomas and acoustic neuromas associated with mobile or cordless phone use in humans, as well as animal and mechanistic studies. Subsequent studies have strengthened the evidence in humans and provided clear evidence of tumours in animals. Some scientists are even calling for the classification to be upgraded to a definite carcinogen.
Why, then, has Public Health England removed all mention of the IARC classification of radio frequency signals from its website? It informs people about other possible carcinogens. People cannot make informed decisions or protect those they are responsible for if the information is withheld. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that Public Health England informs people on its website and in leaflets, communications and presentations that all radio frequency signals are a possible human carcinogen?
Following the publication of a paper on the AGNIR 2012 report in Reviews on Environment Health, the AGNIR was quietly disbanded. However, the inaccurate report is still on its website and is used to justify its advice to MPs and the public. When will the 2012 report be retracted because it is scientifically inaccurate and out of date?
The Department for Education in England and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland have said that it is the responsibility of schools to carry out risk assessments before technologies are introduced and used. However, schools cannot safeguard pupils or staff through a risk assessment if they have been given inaccurate information. Can schools be accurately informed about the risks, so that they can fulfil their responsibilities to safeguard children?
Schools and parents could have been informed that wireless signals are a possible human carcinogen; that there is evidence of damage to fertility; and that there are adverse effects on brain development. Schools could have been advised to use wired technologies to prevent possible harm to children’s health and development. The EU has sent a cautionary message about wi-fi in relation to school children, but only France has removed wi-fi from its primary schools.
The Cyprus Government have produced short, practical videos warning teenagers and pregnant women about the risks of radio frequency signals and offering simple actions. When will children, young people, parents and pregnant women in the UK be offered similar advice so that they can take steps to stay safer?
By denying the existence of adverse effects and providing inaccurate information, Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care have prevented the UK public from living and working in safe environments. When will the Government listen to the warnings from scientists and doctors to help MPs to better protect their constituents?
If we are to develop safer technologies in the future, we need to be honest about the risks. We must not ignore the fact that people have ES; those people exist, and their lives are being ruined. Others without ES also have genuine concerns about the roll-out of 5G. People do not need to suffer to be concerned, because the name 5G is deceptive: it implies a simple upgrade from the current 4G, or fourth generation, wireless, but it is so much more than that. It is a massive experiment, and the consequences of our actions are largely unknown.
One thing I feel very strongly about is that for people with ES there is literally no escape—they will have nowhere to go. Can we have safe public spaces and living and working environments so that everyone has somewhere to exist? That is extremely urgent, particularly with the introduction of 5G smart cities, smart roads, the internet of things and thousands of 5G satellites.
I would like the Government to give a commitment to creating white zones, where people can have respite when they need it; to pledge to provide up-to-date, transparent and independent research on the impact of electromagnetic fields; and to replace the 2012 AGNIR report. The science needs to be reviewed—no one can disagree that the technology moves on so quickly that there is even more need to keep up to date with the science.
Finally, I recently received a letter with a heartfelt request from a mum in west Wales:
“I’m told you think the only way forward is a white zone, I agree but also to get ES recognised as a disability. I have spoken with my MP and he agreed that if ES could be recognised as a disability, other things such as access to education would fall into place.”
I agree with Sarah. Her struggle is real, and so are the lives of many people who are largely ignored and belittled. Electromagnetic fields have had a dramatic impact on the life and health of my old classmate Annelie over the past 10 years. We can no longer hide and pretend that this is not happening. It cannot be swept under the carpet, especially in the light of the future impact of technological advances at the expense of people and our environment.
In conclusion, it is evident that the Government need to ensure that the research is independent. They need to recognise electrohypersensitivity as an occupational disease, as a French court did earlier this year, and put guidelines in place for employers to make reasonable adjustments so that their employees can continue to work in a healthy environment. I remember the days when we made plans to meet without mobile phones to say that we were running late or could not make it. Advances in technology have swept through our lives. Before I am accused of being a luddite, I stress that I think technology is wonderful and offers a great many benefits to all, but we cannot continue to deny that there is an impact on some people’s health and wellbeing. This is not about stopping progress; it is about making sure that there are no health concerns as a result of the technology, and about doing what is best for our constituents.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. My hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi has done an admirable job in at least raising the issue that the precautionary principle should be paramount before we take on any new technology. As someone who represents a semi-rural area, let me say at the outset: please give me 3G. I am not worried about 4G or 5G; I just want 3G, with all the consequences it brings. My constituency still has at least one market town that cannot even get that. That was just a little plug for getting the existing technology in place.
What my hon. Friend says is worthy of debate. It should be taken seriously by the Government and should help the public to understand that their representatives are listening. Stroud being Stroud, an active campaign is already under way on 5G. People are saying, “We don’t want it and we’ll do anything to stop it, so please listen to those who have already raised concerns.”
Like my hon. Friend, I have met people who are incredibly affected by electromagnetic sensitivity—to the extent that, when they moved into their house, they had to have the smart meter taken out, and even asked their neighbour to take out theirs. Once that happened, their health dramatically improved. People say that electromagnetic sensitivity is all psychosomatic, but I have seen the evidence of people’s sensitivity to electromagnetic waves. If we ignore it, there will certainly be health and biological consequences, and there may be many more problems. Since my hon. Friend has done a valuable job of explaining the possible health and biological impacts, I will say more about planning.
It is only fair to ask the Government to at least respond to the growing evidence from the International Electromagnetic Field Scientist Appeal, PHIRE— the Physicians’ Health Initiative for Radiation and Environment—and other reputed scientists in the field, as well as from communities. Brussels has now stopped the roll-out, and so have a number of cities in California. There is growing concern, and it needs to be recognised and answered. It is a shame that we seem to be in complete ignorance of some of the effects of 5G. I have not seen proper medical studies that deal with people’s susceptibility to it. It would be right and proper for us to see those studies.
I apologise that I will have to leave before the end, Mr Hollobone.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the veracity of reports that 5G companies, which have enormous commercial power, have put pressure on the Government to move ahead quickly and are making threats similar to those made about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership? It may be that we have signed up already, and if we pull back on the basis of the precautionary principle and risks to human and wildlife health, the Government will end up being sued by big commercial interests. We should resist that in the interests of the public.
I agree. My hon. Friend’s work on air quality is very important. Politicians in general are at last beginning to understand the threats. It seems lamentable that, now that we understand the threats to air quality through pollution from cars, incineration and other things, another technology is coming in that could be as damaging. Maybe we will not see its effects for years, but will in decades unless we understand what it can do to people. It may not affect everybody—it may be down to genetic susceptibility—but we ought to listen to what is happening to those people.
It would be useful for the Government to put the studies, and their responses to them, on the record. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower says, one problem is that, now we are into 5G, there is a view that existing masts can be added to or that additional technology can be used. I put it to the Minister that the biggest worry is that there is a view, certainly in Stroud, that lamp posts will be seen as a perfectly acceptable substitute and that, instead of putting up new masts, the technology could be added to existing infrastructure.
It would be useful to know what powers exist, because I understand that the electronic communications code has granted virtually unlimited powers to companies to construct, maintain or develop the current infrastructure without any planning permission. It is all done under delegated responsibility, which means that the general public do not even know what is going on, because normally these things are not publicised. There is little recourse unless the public take court action to stop it, but the means of doing so are limited. Even a private landowner has little authority to stop it. The matter needs to be looked into and properly investigated.
I ask the Government to look at how they can consult the public, because the public are getting worried. The scare stories may not have the full scientific rigour that they should have, but the public know no more than what they have been told by various experts in the field, and there are always experts on either side of the argument. Our case is that, at the very least, there should be an open, honest and transparent investigation of the health and biological impact of the new technology.
Driving forward 5G is about financial interests. It is not being done for altruistic reasons, but because an awful lot of money stands to be made in a very short time. We need to look at that. It exacerbates the digital divide. As I have said, I would be satisfied with 3G in constituency.
Having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower, I hope the Minister will be able to say what plans the Government have to investigate the impact on the ecosystem, which is as important as human beings. We need to keep our bugs, birds and other fauna in the state they are in, given that they are under enormous attack. We talked about that yesterday in relation to the climate change statutory instrument that we passed. We are not just talking about our own survival but the survival of other species. It would be a tragedy if we have done things to protect them and yet we let 5G come in. There are allegations that 5G has an impact on other species, particularly in rural areas where we see many living creatures.
My final point is that part of the problem is that the new technology is coming through without much questioning, or even recourse for people to question it. The biggest problem is the speed at which it is being introduced. There is no way that communities that are at best uncertain about the impact of that technology on their children, their schools and their wider community can do anything.
I ask the Government to look at this carefully, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gower said, so that we consider the implications both for individuals’ health and the wider ecosystem, and that we also take time and recognise that the precautionary principle is as important in this area as it is in general about air quality.
We now come to the Front-Bench spokespersons, the first of which will be from the Scottish National party.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I thank Tonia Antoniazzi for securing this debate and for the interesting comments she made about electro-sensitivity, highlighting the issue of the 5G roll-out, in particular with relation to electromagnetic fields. As she pointed out, 5G operates on different frequencies and with much higher ranges than those we have seen before with previous roll-outs.
Of course, exposure to electromagnetic fields is not new, but due to technological advances it is now far more common for people to be exposed to man-made electromagnetic fields than it ever was in our parents’ time or our grandparents’ time. In recent decades, we have seen the public becoming concerned about potential health issues involving numerous electromagnetic field sources, ranging from overhead power lines to computer or TV screens in the home, as well as from radars, microwave ovens and mobile phones, to name just a few other sources.
Of course there are some significant differences between these sources. With some of them, people can self-select to take a precautionary effect: we do not need to have a microwave in our home; we can limit our mobile use; and we do not need to have a TV screen in our bedroom. With other sources, such as overhead power lines or telephone masts, people are pretty much stuck with them if they are outside their home. It is different with those sources.
The evidence so far seems to show that electromagnetic fields do not have detrimental health impacts. However, more research is always being undertaken, which is especially important as the technology changes and the frequencies involved change—that point has been made by a number of hon. Members. There is current research on the effects of the long-term use of mobile phones. The World Health Organisation has said that, as yet:
“No obvious adverse effect of exposure to low level radiofrequency fields has been discovered.”
However, as has been pointed out, the frequencies of the new 5G technology are significantly higher than those used before, and therefore the research into that new technology is somewhat different than earlier research.
Over the years, the WHO has identified some “25,000 articles” on electromagnetic fields that
“have been published over the past 30 years.”
The WHO says of that body of scientific knowledge—indeed, it is undoubtedly the case—that
“scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals.”
However, the WHO also says that there are still
“some gaps in knowledge about biological effects” and so there is a need for “further research”.
The European Union Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks published a lengthy report in 2015—that is not so long ago in terms of years, but in terms of technology it is almost a generation ago. That committee’s final opinion was:
“The results of current scientific research show that there are no evident adverse health effects if exposure remains below the levels recommended by the EU legislation. Overall, the epidemiological studies on radiofrequency EMF exposure do not show an increased risk of brain tumours. Furthermore, they do not indicate an increased risk for other cancers of the head and neck region.
Previous studies also suggested an association of EMF with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. New studies on that subject did not confirm this link.
Epidemiological studies associate exposure to Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) fields, from long-term living in close proximity to power lines to a higher rate of childhood leukaemia. No mechanisms have been identified and no support from experimental studies could explain these findings, which, together with shortcomings of the epidemiological studies, prevent a causal interpretation.
Concerning EMF hypersensitivity…research consistently shows that there is no causal link between self-reported symptoms and EMF exposure.”
The evidence is a little conflicted, but we would definitely benefit from having further evidence.
The role of the Government when it comes to the effects of electro-magnetic fields is to ensure that policy is supported by the latest scientific research, so I do not envy the Government in considering the opposing research that has been published. According to the WHO, the heating effect of electromagnetic fields is the current focus of guidelines and regulation. The WHO has said that, to date, no adverse health effect from low-level, long-term exposure to radio frequency or power frequency fields has been confirmed. However, that is not to say that research into the effects of prolonged low-level exposure to these fields should not continue. We must always make sure that the policy is expertise-led.
With the seemingly exponential increase in the rate of technological innovation, the regulation and monitoring of the effects of these technologies on our health needs to continue. However, we must bear in mind not only the physiological impact of technology but the psychological impact of huge amounts of screen time, which can affect mood and sleep, which in turn can have an impact on mental health. This psychological impact must also continue to be monitored.
In conclusion, I concur with the hon. Member for Gower on the need for independent research into the 5G technology, because without public confidence in and understanding of that technology, we will all be faced with many people campaigning against it when it comes into their areas, and we need to know the answers now, before the technology is rolled out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi for securing this debate and for her excellent speech, which set the scene and informed us all about this issue. Earlier this year, I met her to discuss it, so I am pleased that she was able to secure the debate on it.
I also thank my hon. Friend Dr Drew and Martyn Day, who spoke for the Scottish National party, for their thoughtful contributions to this debate. There were also excellent interventions by my hon. Friend Geraint Davies; I am pleased that he is still with us in Westminster Hall, as he had said that he had to leave early.
As we have heard, the World Health Organisation has concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields. I know that the Government have followed a similar line, with the independent Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation concluding that although a substantial amount of research has been conducted in this area, there is no convincing evidence that electromagnetic field exposures below guideline levels cause health effects in either adults or children. However, as we have heard, concerns exist about the long-term impact of electromagnetic fields, and although my hon. Friends did not go into great detail about individual cases, I have read of such cases and I am sure that all hon. Members have also read some of the details about them. As we become ever more reliant upon modern technology, such concerns will only increase.
On a more light-hearted note, those people who have Netflix might have seen the impact of electromagnetic fields being played out, albeit in a fictional sense, in a programme called “Better Call Saul”, in which the brother of the main character is terribly affected—indeed, he is housebound—by EMF. It is often said with these types of issues that Hollywood leads the way in bringing them to the public’s attention, and this example is definitely a case in point.
International studies, such as the cohort study of mobile phone use and health, or COSMOS, and national studies, such as the study of cognition, adolescents and mobile phones, or SCAMP, exist to continue research into any possible impacts. It is important that such studies continue, so that the public can be aware of all the current advice about electromagnetic fields. As we have heard, as technology develops there will be concerns—new and old—about the impact that it could have on our health. What assessment has the Minister made of all those studies, specifically those that conclude that radio waves are carcinogenic? As we have heard, Cyprus and Austria advise children and teenagers how to limit their exposure to radio waves. Will the UK Government consider doing that, too?
Some of my constituents have written to me with concerns about the new 5G network, as also reported by other hon. Members, and I am grateful for the Minister’s response on that. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower has had conversations with her constituents, who are concerned about the new technology being rolled out across the country. As she said, she would like white zones to be considered and protected. White zones give people who are sensitive to electromagnetic fields, or are concerned about their impact, somewhere to live without interference from radio waves, and that is why it is important that the matter is looked at cross-departmentally.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern that 5G cannot penetrate trees and that, as a result, we are looking at the destruction of thousands and thousands of trees? That destruction has already started around Swindon. How can we possibly be serious about our ambitions for zero carbon if we are destroying the trees and have this huge carbon footprint? It does not add up and is clearly environmentally ridiculous.
I was not aware of that, but my hon. Friend has put it out there on the record. I had heard, though, that 5G can go through us, where other things go around us, so it cannot go through trees but it can go through humans. There is a lot more we need to know about the technology.
As I was saying, anything that looks at this must be cross-departmental because of the impact on health, business, digital and the environment. Each of the Departments responsible for those areas should consider the health implications of electromagnetic fields, whether it is for a small minority of the population or the majority. Is that something the Minister has considered?
As we roll out digital technology, particularly in rural areas, the protection of white zones should be considered. We can be world leaders in digital, but that must not be at the expense of health and wellbeing. I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that all the information about the health and wellbeing impacts of electromagnetic fields is made available to the public, and kept under constant review as we find out more. I also urge her to work with her colleagues, across several Departments, to ensure that health and wellbeing is prioritised throughout the digital roll-out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank Tonia Antoniazzi for securing the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject.
People are exposed to radio waves in the home, at work and throughout their daily lives. As the hon. Member for Gower mentioned, people have been talking about the issues for about 100 years, since early in the last century, but the numbers of devices and transmitters have increased rapidly, and the pace of change in how this technology becomes part of our lives can be very unsettling to some. People ask whether radio wave exposure levels are increasing and whether there could be health consequences, and I want to put on record right at the beginning that, very importantly, radio waves are non-ionising radiation. That means that the packets of energy that form the radiation are too small to break chemical bonds: the radiation cannot damage cells and cause cancer in the same way as ionising radiation. Even so, there are concerns that this type of radiation could have health effects, and a great deal of research has been done in the United Kingdom and around the world to clarify the matter, which is something the Government take very seriously.
A number of issues, both for my Department and for colleagues in others, have been raised during the debate, and I will try to address them. I will also pass them on to colleagues.
Health concerns about electromagnetic fields have been raised in relation to each successive wave of new communications services, from 2G to 3G and 4G mobile phone networks, and with wi-fi, smart meters and now 5G. I have certainly noticed the growing number of letters I have received from parliamentary colleagues, passing on their constituents’ concerns, and I am grateful for the opportunity to address some of them today.
Concerns about telecommunications networks first came to the fore in the late 1990s. A report containing an evidence review and recommendations was prepared for Government by the independent expert group on mobile phones, under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart. A major research programme was undertaken and the international exposure guidelines were adopted, with a commitment from industry that they would be followed. Although many new services and technologies have been launched, the basic way they are delivered—by radio—has not changed, and the science of how radio waves affect the body does not change when a new technology is launched. However, the Government take people’s health concerns about electromagnetic fields very seriously. They have committed, and continue to commit, significant resources to supporting research and analysis on the topic, and policies are in place to ensure the exposure guidelines are followed.
Public Health England monitors the health-related evidence and collaborates internationally to ensure that any important new evidence is identified and responded to.
The hon. Lady might be about to refer back to her speech. I was going to respond to a comment she made, but I will happily give way.
I thank the Minister for allowing me to ask this question: is she able to point out where the recent evidence that the Government and Public Health England have is? Is it in the public domain?
I think the hon. Lady talked about accurate information, and about honesty concerning the information put out by Public Health England. Public Health England conducts extremely rigorous research, all based on the best available international evidence and on monitoring assessments of expert reviews. Some of those things will, of course, be in the public domain, and others will not. I will happily write to the hon. Lady with all the evidence that is available in the public domain.
The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment has a watching brief on non-ionising radiation. It assesses all the available data to give health advice. Many scientific studies have been done over several decades, and a wide range of health topics have been investigated, including cancer, reproduction, cognitive effects and electrical hypersensitivity.
The Minister referred to the frequency range. It is true that we are talking about lower frequencies than the ionising radiation that would be beyond the visible spectrum. However, it is not true to say that all low frequencies are not harmful. Looking at microwave radiation, for example, if we get a high enough intensity of non-ionising radiation we can still cause harm. I would not want to be in a microwave oven and I am sure the Minister would not either. So it is not just about frequency; it is about the intensity of the radiation.
The hon. Lady is talking about risks and hazards. [Interruption.] Yes, we are talking about two different sorts of radio wave, but she said that I would not want to go in a microwave oven. I am not suggesting that I would put myself or anyone else in a microwave oven, so we are talking about hazards and risks. The best scientific evidence given to Government is that the radiation is safe, and I was going to go on to talk about the evidence that Government have used before addressing some of the points that the hon. Member for Gower raised. I apologise if I have not quite understood the point made by Carol Monaghan; I will happily discuss it with her later.
Expert groups in the UK and around the world have examined the evidence and published many comprehensive reports. In the UK, the advisory group on non-ionising radiation produced reports in 2003 and 2012. The Government have played their role in the international effort to learn more about the health effects of radio- wave exposure. They supported the dedicated mobile telecommunications and health research programme that ran from 2001 to 2012 and they continue to fund research.
A challenge in understanding the evidence is that some studies report effects, while others do not. Sophisticated analyses are needed to draw studies together, considering their strengths and weaknesses and working out what they mean collectively, which is the role of expert groups. Simply counting or listing studies that have found effects is not an adequate way of assessing where the overall evidence lies.
An expert group reporting to the European Commission delivered a review in 2015, and the World Health Organisation is currently carrying out a major review on radio waves and health, which will include studies performed over the past 25 years. Overall, those expert groups have not found any clear evidence of adverse health effects occurring if the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection exposure guidelines are followed. The ICNIRP exposure restrictions have been incorporated into a 1999 European Council recommendation on limiting public exposures to electromagnetic fields. The United Kingdom and Public Health England support that recommendation.
Since 1996, the World Health Organisation has been running an international electromagnetic field project that provides a forum for countries to gather together, discuss and share knowledge on this topic. The WHO’s main conclusion is that electromagnetic field exposures below the limits recommended in the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection guidelines do not appear to have any known consequence for health. However, as the hon. Member for Gower and other Members have mentioned, that does not mean that people who have electrical hypersensitivity do not have symptoms. Those symptoms are real and can be very debilitating, and the Department’s guidance is that those people should seek medical advice, so that their personal situation can be taken into account and the best possible treatments found.
I will also address the points raised by many hon. Members about the effects of screen time on the mental health of children; as any parent can attest, there are some effects. The shadow Minister, Mrs Hodgson, referred to SCAMP, and the Government conduct research that looks at the effects of technologies on schoolchildren.
Exposure levels reduce very rapidly with increasing distance from transmitting antennae, which means that being in immediate proximity to the transmitting antenna of a mobile phone handset held next to the head is different from living near a base station. There is long-standing precautionary advice from Public Health England and the NHS for mobile phone users, and research is continuing. We are continually looking at the evidence and updating our advice.
What work has been undertaken by Public Health England to look for evidence of risk in mobile phone usage? Is it looking at what damage it is actually doing, rather than saying, “Well, it is not really hurting anybody”?
Public Health England takes its role very seriously, and is always monitoring the evidence. Since perhaps 10 years ago, there has been a lot of research into having mobile phones next to one’s ear. Of course, the way we use our phones is changing, but Public Health England is always looking at this issue and reviewing the best available evidence.
There has been a general trend from 2G through to 5G for transmitters to become smaller, to be mounted nearer to the ground, and to use less transmitted power. Dr Drew raised a point about the electronic communications code, which I think is a matter for colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Geraint Davies has left, but I do not think we are cutting down trees; in fact, I am sure that the Government have committed to planting more trees. I know that the Secretary of State is very keen on them, so I will write to him on that issue.
To answer the questions that were asked about radio frequency fields and cancer, a working group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the health effects of exposure to RF fields and concluded that such exposures are possibly carcinogenic to humans—group 2B, based on IARC’s classification scheme. There was a minority opinion in the working group that current evidence for humans was inadequate, and therefore there was no conclusion about a causal association. In terms of the different classes of carcinogens, there is a statement on the PHE website that responds to the IARC classification. PHE has summary advice statements that it sends to inquirers with a full explanation of different carcinogens; there is a broad spectrum, including petrol engine exhausts, bracken fern and talc-based body powder.
Since 2001, the Office of Communications has been carrying out an audit of the emissions from mobile phone base stations. The Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation’s 2012 report contained a summary of over 3,000 measurements made at over 500 sites by Ofcom. The maximum exposure found at any location was hundreds of times below the international guideline levels, and typical exposures were much lower still. Public Health England advises that there may be a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves when 5G is added to an existing network or a new area, but that is expected to remain low relative to guidelines.
I hope I have demonstrated that the Government take seriously the potential health effects of the introduction of 5G, and that Public Health England is well placed to identify and respond to any important new evidence that may emerge. I reiterate that the public’s levels of exposure to electromagnetic fields from telecommunications networks are currently very low in relation to the international guideline levels, and are expected to stay that way after the deployment of 5G.
I thank the Minister for her response and Members from all parties who have taken part in the debate.
I have concerns about the international guidelines, and I think that the effect of exposure to electromagnetic fields should not be underestimated. When my hon. Friend Dr Drew asked the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport a written question, a Minister replied that her belief was that the next-generation network would not endanger the public, and added that Public Health England had found no evidence of any significant risk and that the Government
“anticipate no negative effects on public health.”
I am afraid that those statements are far from reassuring. Belief and anticipation are insufficient grounds for making such statements; we have to think about the precautionary principle. To state that there is no evidence of significant risk prompts the questions of what level of risk is acceptable, and at what stage an unknown risk moves from being acceptable to significant.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the health-related effects of electromagnetic fields.