Electromagnetic fields are everywhere, but to what extent are these EMFs harming our health?
The possibility that they cause diseases, and the Japanese government’s unwilling- ness to take any precautionary measures, was the topic of a symposium held by citizens’ groups in Tokyo on April 13.
At the meeting, Taro Ajiro, a representative of the association of 30-odd civic groups that organized the event, said that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is trying to set a limit on the EMF surrounding electric power cables. Previously, he said, this limit was far too lax in view of disease data available from the World Health Organization.
Last June, the WHO announced that epidemiological studies demonstrated a consistent pattern of a twofold increase in childhood leukemia associated with average exposure to residential-power magnetic fields above just 0.3 to 0.4 microtesla — a unit that measures magnetic-field strength.
But in January, a METI panel compiled a draft report that recommended an EMF limit from electric power cables and electric booster stations of 100 microtesla for the 50-Hz power system used in eastern Japan, and 83 microtesla for the 60-Hz power system used in western Japan.
Even so — WHO findings notwithstanding — the EMF from power-cable poles measured at 1 meter above the ground is up to 20 microtesla, according to METI data.
“The METI panel ignored the WHO, which said that the use of precautionary approaches is warranted,” Ajiro said at the meeting at which more than 300 people had turned up.
Although the citizens’ groups had asked METI to include some of their members in the ministry’s panel on EMF, the ministry rejected that request, Ajiro said. The ministry did, however, include among its panel members a representative of an association of electricity companies and “experts” whose researches are funded by power companies, he said.
The reason that the ministry and the electricity companies don’t try to adopt a low limit of EMF is a lack of sufficient evidence that EMF causes disease, according to the METI panel, while others cite the huge cost that would be involved in reducing the danger of millions of power cables strung across Japan.
Koya Ogino, a former lecturer at Kyoto University and now director of the Electromagnetic Fields Environment Institute in the city, believes that an effective way to reduce EMF emissions to 0.4 microtesla is to braid together the three lines that comprise one power cable. By braiding them, he said, the magnetic waves released from them are neutralized.
“If electricity companies were to change all their power cables, they would be bankrupt,” he said. “But we are not asking them to change all of them. At least, however, power cables close to residences, schools and kindergartens should be changed.”
Sadatoshi Okubo, another representative of the association of citizens’ groups, said the government should start working now to limit people’s exposure.
“Our request is quite logical. The government should bring in regulations to limit the strength of EMF from new electricity booster stations, power cables and electrical appliances,” Okubo said.
H ow different things are across the world. In Sweden, since 1993, electricity power facilities have already been reconstructed to limit people’s exposure to EMF to 0.2 to 0.3 microtesla, according to Ogino. The Swedish government led the move after researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, one of Europe’s largest medical universities, published a report in 1992 showing that childhood leukemia increased 2.7 times when children had been exposed to an EMF of 0.2 microtesla or over — and 3.8 times if they were exposed to 0.3 microtesla or over.
“Sweden was able to lower EMF, so there should be no reason why Japan cannot do so,” Ogino said.
Similarly, in many cities in Europe and the United States, electricity companies have removed power cables strung from poles and put them underground to better protect people from exposure to EMF, according to Ogino. But the METI report says, for example, that in Switzerland the EMF exposure limit is set at 1 microtesla, while in Italy it is 10 microtesla.
So, on what grounds is METI in Japan trying to set EMF limits at such a high level compared with these European countries?
Well, according to Kazuki Matsui, an official in the Electric Power Safety Division of METI, the limits that the METI panel suggested — of 100 microtesla for 50 Hz and 83 microtesla for 60 Hz — are based on guidelines set out by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) in 1998.
Matsui said in a telephone interview that the panel “was mindful” of the momentous WHO announcement on EMF.
However, he said that those findings, released in June 2007, suggested that: “When constructing new facilities and designing new equipment, including appliances, low-cost ways of reducing exposures may be explored. . . . However, policies based on the adoption of arbitrary low-exposure limits are not warranted.”
Nonetheless, the Lyon-based International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized EMF as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” along with other materials like chloroform and lead.
But Matsui said, “We believe it is not right to introduce a regulation based on an uncertain long-term impact on health.”
Indeed, even experts at the WHO, who have noted a correlation between childhood leukemia and EMF, have not been able to establish a causal relationship due to possible selection bias and the lack of specific scientific evidence.
However, Mikio Miyata, professor emeritus at Kitasato University School of Medicine in Tokyo, presented the symposium with the results of several experiments indicating a relationship between EMF and negative impacts on the body.
“Research showed that EMF exposure encouraged cells to commit suicide at a rapid pace through a process called apoptosis, which promotes the aging of living bodies,” Miyata said.
Then, commenting on EMF’s effect on the human immune system, Miyata referred to research results showing that EMF from a 50-Hz power source increased so-called mast cells in the skin and the thyroid gland that secretes histamine, which is a main cause of allergies.
He also pointed out another experiment’s result showing that 50-Hz EMF exposure lowered the activity of the body’s natural killer cells and white blood cells that combat infections and diseases.
“I can say there is no safe EMF for the human body,” Miyata said, explaining that three main pillars of maintaining human health are the immune system, the hormone system and the neuron system — and all these are jeopardized by exposure to EMF.
In fact, there are a number of people who suffer from a disease called electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome (EHS), the doctor said. These patients exhibit symptoms including headaches and eczema when exposed to EMF, said Miyata, who works with such patients.
In fact, among the 30 citizens’ groups who attended the symposium, several comprised many people suffering from EHS. But in its report, the METI panel gave these people almost no credence.
Whether such a dismissive attitude will prevail when the ministry sets EMF limits as it is expected to do soon, the association of 30 citizens’ groups is trying to change the government’s attitude. To date, the association has collected 82,000 names on petitions calling for official EMF exposure limits to be set at 0.4 microtesla or less, and urging particular measures to be taken to protect children from exposure to EMF.
The association also plans to submit its petitions to the speaker of the lower house and the president of the upper house of Japan’s Parliament, according to its representative Sadatoshi Okubo.
By collecting its petition and submitting it to the Diet, the association aims to inform many more people about the problem of EMF, Okubo said. He added: “Let the government and the power companies provide information on EMF. Then we should have thorough discussions on how to reduce EMF exposure to create a safe and sound life for everyone,” he said.