By Jonathan Leake
High voltage power cables have been officially linked to cancer for the first time.
A study shows that children living near them run a small but significant increased risk of falling victim to the disease.
Sir Richard Doll, the epidemiologist who discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1960s, will this week warn that children living near electricity power lines are at an increased risk from leukemia.
He is also expected to say that there may be a link with adult cancers but that this is unproven. His work was commissioned by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), the government's radiation watchdog.
Doll is chairman of its Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (Agnir). He has spent months analyzing the results of studies on cancer among people living near power cables.
It is the first time a British government body has accepted the link between cancer and power lines.
It raises the possibility of multi-million-dollar claims by families who have blamed their children's illnesses on the cables. It could also reopen campaigns by local groups to have power lines buried underground or moved away from homes.
Professor Colin Blakemore, a member of Doll's group, said:
"The evidence is that there is a slightly elevated risk of cancer near to power lines. We are going to acknowledge that evidence exists indicating an association between power lines and cancer."
Blakemore said the mechanism was uncertain but could be due to the high voltage lines emitting charged particles called ions which may then be inhaled.
Blakemore added: "It's important to acknowledge that there is a link and we need to do more research on it. Putting power lines underground would be a possibility. The cost would be enormous if we did this to existing power lines, but it is something that we may have to take into account for future development and especially new housing."
Tens of thousands of people in Britain live close enough to power lines to be affected by strong electromagnetic fields.
The analysis in the new report suggests that a small number of children each year could develop cancer.
The link between overhead power lines and cancer was first made in America in 1979. By 1990 several independent British studies had also suggested that electromagnetic fields could damage health. However, successive reports ruled out the connection and legal action by sufferers against electricity companies was abandoned.
The NRPB oversees safety research and regulation for all kinds of radiation. It has always taken a cautious approach to claims that power lines affect health, but this weekend insiders were acknowledging that it may have to revise its policies.
Martyn Day, the attorney who in the mid-1990s pursued unsuccessful claims on behalf of leukaemia victims, believes that the findings could enable legal action to reopen.
"This is probably the most significant step forward for 10 years," he said. "I was forced to back off, pack away the files and put them into archives, but this may well mean I will start to dust them off once more."
The Electricity Association, which represents many of Britain's power generators and distributors, said there was no concrete evidence that the electric and magnetic fields generated by power lines caused cancer. "Any suggestion of a health risk, however weak, needs to be taken seriously," it added.
The evidence continues to mount regarding the dangers of exposures to these radiation wavelengths. If you are not yet convinced I would suggest clicking on the links below.