A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

WHO Welcomes Electric Utility Industry To Key EMF Meeting, Bars the Press

September 22, 2005

The week of October 3 in Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) will set its recommendations for public exposures to power-frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

A 20-member task group from 17 countries, assembled by Michael Repacholi, the head of the WHO EMF project, will finalize an Environmental Health Criteria (EHC) document, which is designed to guide the development of standards for extremely low frequency (ELF) EMFs all over the world. It will likely represent WHO’s official position on EMF health risks for years to come.

Last month, Repacholi gave eight observers the green light to attend the meeting —all eight either work for electric utilities or have direct and strong ties to the industry. Other than WHO staff, these are the only people on the Repacholi’s list of approved observers:

Kazu Chikamoto, Japan NUS Co., Tokyo
Rob Kavet, EPRI, Palo Alto. CA, U.S.
Michel Plante, Hydro-Quebec, Montreal, Canada
Jack Sahl, Southern California Edison, Upland, CA, U.S.
Martine Souques, Electricity de France-Gaz de France, Paris
Hamilton Moss de Souza, CEPEL, Brazilian Electrical Energy Research Center, Rio de Janeiro
John Swanson, National Grid, London, U.K.
Tom Watson, Watson & Renner, Washington DC, U.S.

Although Watson is on the list, he will not be at the meeting. “I tried to become an observer, but I did not succeed,” he said in a recent interview. It is not clear why Repacholi changed his mind and disinvited Watson.

Chris Portier of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) will chair the task group.

Very few other members of the EMF community are aware of the meeting. A spot check, an admittedly unscientific survey, found that staff members at U.S. health agencies knew nothing about it. The single exception said that he had heard about it from colleagues in the electric utility industry.

When asked whether Microwave News could sit in as an observer, Repacholi dismissed the idea. “The press is not permitted to attend EHC Task Group meetings,” he told us.

Did Repacholi invite the industry representatives? If not, how and when did they first learn about the meeting and request observer status? Have any of the companies or associations, other than EPRI, contributed to the WHO EMF project or its activities? EPRI cosponsored a WHO workshop on EMF risks to children held last year in Istanbul (see our August 8 post), but it is not known whether EPRI’s Kavet has made other contributions to the WHO. All these questions need answering.

While Repacholi has long said that the EHC would be revised around this time, the specific schedule has not been previously publicly disclosed. For instance, the October 3-7 task group meeting is not in the listing of meetings on the WHO Web site nor is it included in the Bioelectromagnetics Society Newsletter conference calendar.

The WHO released its first EHC for ELF EMFs in 1984. Repacholi chaired the task group that wrote that report. Back then, 20 years ago, the panel recommended that: “efforts be made to limit exposure, particularly for members of the general population, to levels as low as can be reasonably achieved” (a policy known as ALARA). Yet for the last ten years while he has been at the helm of the WHO EMF project and while the health risks posed by power-frequency fields have become much less uncertain, Repacholi has consistently refused to endorse ALARA for ELF EMFs.

In addition to NIEHS’ Portier, the members of the EHC task group are:

Houssain Abouzaid, WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, Cairo, Egypt
Anders Ahlbom, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden
Larry Anderson, Battelle Pacific Northwest Labs, Richland, WA, U.S.
Christoffer Johansen, Danish Cancer Society, Copenhagen
Jukka Juutilainen, University of Kuopio, Finland
Sheila Kandel, Soreq, Yavne, Israel
Leeka Kheifets, University of California, Los Angeles and EPRI, Palo Alto, CA, U.S.
Isabelle Lagroye, University of Bordeaux, France
Rüdiger Matthes, Federal Office of Radiation Protection, Oberschleissheim, Germany
Alastair McKinlay, Health Protection Agency (HPA), Didcot, U.K.
Jim Metcalfe, University of Cambridge, U.K.
Meike Mevissen, University of Berne, Switzerland
Junji Miyakoshi, Hirosaki University Faculty of Medicine, Japan
Eric van Rongen, Health Council of the Netherlands, The Hague
Nina Rubtsova, RAM Institute of Occupational Health, Moscow, Russia
Paolo Vecchia, National Institute of Health, Rome, Italy
Barney de Villiers, University of Stellenbosch, Cape Town, South Africa
Andrew Wood, Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Australia
Zhengping Xu, Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Hangzhou, China

Those attending from WHO include Elisabeth Cardis (IARC); Chiyoji Ohkubo, Rick Saunders (on leave from the U.K. HPA) and Emilie van Deventer.

As we post this on the Web, we have learned that Michinori Kabuto of Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies will also be an observer at the meeting.

• • • • •

Five years ago, the Committee of Experts on Tobacco Industry Documents issued a 260-page report documenting the tobacco industry’s strategies to undermine the work of the WHO. In response, the WHO issued 15 pages of recommendations on how to make sure its work is never subverted again.

Nevertheless, the WHO appears to be unable to apply the hard lessons it learned from tobacco to other potentially harmful agents. Instead, the WHO now simply invites the industry to be part of the process.