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,
"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
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.