By Alastair McKinley, Chairperson, COST
COST is the abbreviation for ‘European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical research’, which is one of the longest-running European bodies supporting cooperation among scientists and researchers across Europe. It is also the first and widest European intergovernmental network for coordination of nationally funded research activities.
The work of COST is carried out through “Actions”. These are new, innovative, and interdisciplinary scientific networks of nationally funded research teams of at least five COST countries. They cover basic and pre-competitive research for peaceful purposes as well as activities of public utility. They also contribute to the scientific, economic, cultural or societal development of Europe, by supporting networking activities such as meetings, conferences, short term scientific exchanges and outreach activities.
This article summarises a new COST ‘Action’ on emerging electromagnetic field (EMF) technologies and associated health risk management.
EMF technologies: Health Concerns
The use of devices emitting electromagnetic fields (EMF) ranging from static to microwave frequencies has significantly increased in recent years. Their presence has affected almost every aspect of day-to-day living, at home, while travelling and at school, college and work. By far the most significant impact has been through the rapid expansion of personal mobile telecommunication and wireless network systems for voice, picture and video communication, internet access and other data transfer applications. Other applications of EMF are found in the widespread use of electronic article surveillance, radiofrequency identification, metal detection and inductive heating devices. New digital public and commercial radio and television broadcast systems are currently being introduced throughout Europe. Applications in medicine abound, including advances in novel magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment design and new MRI scanning techniques. There is also potential for new medical applications of ultra wide band (UWB), for example in cardiology, detection of breast tumours, detection of intracranial hemorrhage, and the use of implantable sensors that rely on UWB communication.
While the benefits of technologies that have already been introduced are clear and widely accepted by society, significant concern continues to be expressed about consequential increases in EMF exposure of people and potential related adverse health effects. Generally, in the public arena, concern has been often expressed about potential effects of EMF exposure on children’s health and on that of older and/or sick people and pregnant women (including the unborn child). This is exemplified by public and media attention on potential adverse health effects that might result from the exposure of young people through the rapid expansion of the use of WiFi systems in schools and colleges.
In contrast, in one important occupational setting, concern has been expressed by medical practitioners and other clinical staff using MRI for diagnosis and for research and by those concerned with the manufacture, calibration and maintenance of MR equipment, over the likely adverse effect on working practices and patient care of the implementation of an EU Physical Agents Directive that sets limits on occupations exposure to EMF. The clearest trend in MRI is the move to systems utilising higher field strengths, with 3 T installations accelerating and moving into clinical rather than solely research settings. Use of high and ultrahigh systems for structural and molecular imaging will increase particularly in the study of degenerative neurological diseases, high-resolution vascular imaging, detailed monitoring of the effectiveness of anti-angiogenetic and genetic based drugs for the treatment of cancer.
It is clear that there is generally a paucity of data on these and other occupational exposures, and that experimental and computational studies are needed to resolve these issues.
Against this background, a successful submission was made to the COST programme for support for an Action entitled “Emerging EMF Technologies: Health Risk Management”. The Action, in the COST Domain ‘Biomedicine and Molecular Biosciences’, designated as Action BM0704, has been developed by and represents a consensus of scientific experts covering the disciplines of medicine, epidemiology, biology, physics, engineering and risk assessment and management. Experts from some 27 European countries are participating in the Action.
The European Commission, national governments and international advisory bodies, such as the World Health Organization, have all recognised the importance of high quality scientific research as fundamental to addressing such concerns and the Action will effectively facilitate the ongoing exchange of information and the results of such research and provide information that can be transposed by relevant authorities into sound health risk management based on scientific evidence. The Action will also contribute to the training of early-stage scientists in respect of supporting their interaction with more experienced scientists and the skills and knowledge transfer that ensues.
The main objective of the Action is to create a structure in which researchers in the field of EMF and health can share knowledge and information on:
- How existing EMF technologies change either in their operating characteristics or in novel ways and applications in which they are used.
- Identifying what entirely new EMF technologies are introduced and on what time-scale.
- What novel emission and operating characteristics might result and what impact these would have on the device-specific and overall EMF exposure of people.
- What possible health effects could consequently arise and the scientific evidence for health concerns if any.
- How such concerns should be addressed through the use of evidence-based information.
- What tools are effective in communicating and managing such risks and perceived risks.
The initial focus will be on those existing EMF technologies where concern has already been expressed about their use and where further developments in respect of their applications are foreseen in the shorter term. These include:
- WiFi – and more generally wireless networks - particularly in respect of their mass roll-out across Europe in schools, other educational establishments and elsewhere, and the potential exposure of young people. This is a complex issue due to the variable proximity of such devices and the efficiency of coupling of EMF with the body.
- MRI - where there is already considerable research in progress in assessing occupational exposures to medical staff and to patients and volunteers. Increases in specialised MRI techniques, such as cardiac imaging and interventional procedures, will lead to the emergence of greater numbers of specialised medical units with further uncertainties in exposures of staff. It is important that the results of dosimetry and other studies are shared and discussed in respect of assessment of compliance with an EU Physical Agents Directive and in national and European policies for the care of patients and volunteers undergoing MRI procedures.
- Electronic article surveillance and RFID devices - where the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), in a report commissioned by the EU, recommended the measurement of levels of exposure. Such exposures include those to workers and to the general public (including children). For this, and for other exposure characterisation purposes, the further development and dosimetric application of anatomically realistic computational phantoms, including those of children, based on medical imaging data is recommended.
The focus will subsequently shift to identify those EMF technology applications and services currently in use and/or likely to be rolled out over future years and, where possible, to characterise likely exposures and identify potential health concerns associated with their use. Likely candidates might include, for example: so-called 4G (and further developments in mobile telephony), ad hoc networks, W-LANS, WiMax, Zigbee, Bluetooth, Wimedia, UWB, broad-band over power transmission lines, various EASD and RFID applications and further digital broadcasting.
The Action will be of benefit to:
- Researchers: - in respect of sharing information on ongoing research multidisciplinary forums, early identification of research gaps and needs, encouraging opportunities for international collaboration and co-publication and, for early-stage researchers, the opportunity to acquire relevant further experience, skills and knowledge.
- Risk managers and communicators: - in providing multidisciplinary forums to share complementary knowledge with scientific researchers supporting the development of health risk communication strategies.
- EU and national and local government officials and elected representatives: - in their task of developing proportionate policies to minimise health risk in the face of often technically complex and apparently conflicting health information.
- International health protection advisory and technical standardisation organizations: - in providing scientific information on EMF and health related to emerging technologies, useful to the work of bodies such as WHO, ICNIRP, the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) etc.
- Industry and commerce: - in respect of having the information to judge whether there is likely to be adverse public and media concern about their products and services before launching them, to consider likely EMF emissions and exposures of people at an early stage of product design and development.
- Society as a whole: - in ensuring that, when new EMFtechnologies are introduced, potential risks are seen in perspective with the benefits. This supports open communication and dialogue based on facts rather than ‘beliefs’.
- The media: - in making available facts about new EMF technologies in order to inform their readers/viewers/listeners.
The scientific programme of the Action is carried out through the multidisciplinary activities of working groups. Initially, these comprise five working groups, viz.:
- EMF Technologies and Measurements – Chaired by Georg Neubauer
- Computational Dosimetry – Chaired by Joe Wiart
- Epidemiology and Human Studies – Chaired by Maria Feychting
- Biology – Chaired by Isabelle Lagroye
- Risk Management – Chaired by Peter Wiedemann
International coordination of activity in EMF-related scientific research and health risk management has been significantly improved by the activities of previous COST actions in this field, particularly one, which addressed the health issues related to mobile communication systems. Through effective multidisciplinary scientific collaboration, major improvements in providing stakeholder-specific information for health risk communication should be possible. There are many partners contributing to this process internationally including WHO, ICNIRP and national agencies and advisory bodies. The Action seeks to build upon and strengthen this cooperative complementary approach with other bodies.
The Chairperson of the Action is Alastair McKinlay and the Vice- chairperson, Mirjana Moser. The Scientific Secretariat is led by Gerd Friedrich with professional administrative support from Daniela Wernze. Further information about this and other COST actions and activities can be obtained online at http:// www.cost.esf.org/index.php?id=211. COST Action BM0704’s own Website is currently being developed and will be online by August 2008.