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Magnetic fields may cause childhood cancer

No causal link, however, and research continues

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Despite some evidence that magnetic fields may be linked to certain cancers in humans, scientists say that no causal link has been established.

Indeed, more research is needed into the effect of magnetic field on the human body, says the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB).

The organisation, which provides advice and information on radiation protection, is calling for the UK to international guidelines laid down by The International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), on exposure to electromagnetic fields.

According to NRPB spokesman Dr Michael Clark, even this may not be enough: researchers in Canada, the USA and Sweden have observed small increases in the risk of childhood leukaemia in areas where people live in fields much weaker than those restricted by ICNIRP. His is, however, keen to point out that no causal link has been established.

ICNIRP’s guidelines say people should limit their exposure to magnetic fields stronger than 100 microTesla. However, Clark says that the higher incidence of cancer has been observed in populations whose homes are directly underneath powerlines - where the field strength can be up to 40 microTesla - and near to power substations; where fields of up to one or two microTesla have been detected.

“Elevated levels of leukaemia have not been detected in the UK, but more research is clearly needed. We are not even sure in every case what causes these elevated magnetic fields: we have found them in houses many miles from sub-stations and powerlines.”

One way that elevated fields could be generated is from the wiring in a house, he suggests. “Electricity is funny stuff: if you have a room where it is moving in all kind of directions, it is possible some kind of inductive loop could be set up,” he says.

Work is underway to establish how these elevated fields come about, and to investigate potential health risks. The NRPB says the government needs to act in a precautionary way while there are still uncertainties in the science. ®

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