Blow for Government as power line activists shift focus to health fears
The Government's plans to roll out the €500m pylon project across 10 counties is to face a further setback as campaigners shift their focus to the health risks.
An ongoing major EU study to be published later this month is widely expected to expand on its previous findings of a possible link to cancers and a lesser possible link to Alzheimer's disease from exposures to magnetic fields associated with high voltage power lines.
Meanwhile, MEPs Marian Harkin and Phil Prendergast are separately hosting fact-based conferences in Meath and Kilkenny respectively next month at which international experts will address the health risks and the case for putting the power lines underground.
Persistent health concerns over pylons present the Government with another divisive battle front as it struggles against enormous public opposition to the project it says is essential to Ireland's economic future.
The plan involves running 200km of high-voltage power lines on 750 large pylons across Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny, Carlow, Wexford, Wicklow, Kildare and Laois. EirGrid has been flooded with 135,000 submissions from the public.
This weekend, Professor Denis Henshaw, a British physicist who will address Ms Harkin's meeting in Trim on February 10, said that Irish people were justified in having health concerns about the project.
Prof Henshaw, emeritus professor of human radiation effects at Bristol University, listed the increased possible health risks of living close to power lines as: childhood leukaemia; adult leukaemia; adult brain tumours; Alzheimers' disease; miscarriage; depression and others.
Prof Henshaw also challenged EirGrid's insistence that international researchers have established no conclusive link between overhead power lines and ill health.
"The issues are too important to have this type of confrontational and adversarial exchange with EirGrid. They should become aware of the actual science, not what they have been told or they want to hear," he said.
While scientific opinion over the level of risk associated with proximity to overhead power lines is divided, the World Health Organisation has found that there is a possible increased risk of childhood leukaemia associated with magnetic fields from overhead power lines.
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However, it found the evidence weak and overall found that there are no substantive health issues with electrical fields "at levels generally encountered by members of the public".
The Government and EirGrid have said the pylon project will pose no health risks to the public.
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte, who is steering the project, said last week that there was no connection between health risks and pylons. His cabinet colleague, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, said he too was unaware of any health risks.
The EU's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risk (SCENIHR), which is due to report this month, has already identified possible health risks.
The findings of its latest study -- its third in seven years -- are expected to confirm its previous findings in 2007 and 2009 which found that magnetic fields are a "possible carcinogen" and "might contribute to an increase in childhood leukaemia". It's last study also noted a possible increase in Alzheimer's disease arising from exposure to low frequency magnetic fields but said that more studies were needed.
Ms Harkin's meeting takes place in Trim on February 10. "To date, the debate has been unbalanced with the combined voices of Government and EirGrid getting to the stage of brow beating the public into acceptance of what could prove very damaging and costly to the economy and people of Ireland," she said.
Ms Prendergast, MEP for Ireland South, will host a conference on February 14 to examine alternative ways of upgrading the electricity grid and the health issues.
EirGrid said this weekend that it did not disagree with the findings of the SCENIHR study. But it pointed out that the study also concluded that "there is so far no scientific evidence that justifies a change in the rationale used to set up the current exposure limits".
"Our position on electromagnetic fields (EMF) is fundamentally based on the reviews of leading organisations including the WHO which have not concluded that there is a link between electric and magnetic fields and health issues," said a spokesman.
In 2007, an Irish expert group said that the possibility that electromagnetic fields caused cancer could not be excluded, although the evidence overall was "weak".
The Irish Cancer Society has not voiced concern over the pylon project, saying there is "no conclusive evidence" that electromagnetic fields cause cancer.