Monday, February 9, 2015

Precaution - protecting lives versus risking lives

On 29 January 2015, the French Parliament voted a law that introduces new obligations in the deployment of base stations and sales and promotion of radio-electric devices, namely mobile phones and connected objects. The author of the new law claims that the intention is to better inform the public about exposure to electromagnetic fields and to incite operators and network deployers to reduce exposure levels. 

While the text itself avoids radical statements that cannot be proven, the author of the law publicly stated that she is convinced of the harmful effect of EMF, taking up several of the arguments put forward by the anti-EMF activist community. In the same parliamentary debate, the responsible Minister on the other hand underlined that the latest scientifique review by the French Health Agency in 2013 had concluded that there are no established health effects from exposure to EMF within the established limits. More explicitly, the Minister said “that the government does not share the idea so far that electromagnetic fields represent a danger to public health”. Nonetheless, the government supported the adoption of the text. Conflicting signals to the public to say the least. 

Stoking fears instead of calming them

The Minister sees the law as the implementation of a methodology that should help deal with existing worries and questions among the population in regards to exposure to EMF. However, this objective is very unlikely to be obtained. International experience has shown that the introduction of precautionary legislation rather increases the level of anxiety in the population, as people assume that when the government feels the need to act, there likely is reason to worry. Several studies (Barnett et al, 2006; Wiedemann & Schütz, 2005; Wiedemann et al, 2006) confirm that precautionary measures tend to increase risk perception and fail to calm the minds. 

Real life consequences 

Only one day before the adoption of this new law, a group of French students was surprised by an avalanche in the Swiss alps. Three of the students were buried, two could be saved thanks to their avalanche beacons, the signal of which helped the rescue team to locate them in time. The other 17 year old died, having refused to wear an avalanche beacon, claiming he did not think it served any purpose and saying he did not like the idea of wearing a device that was emitting EMF. This is a real tragedy and our sympathies are with the boy’s family and friends. The new law risks to reinforce such unfounded fear, adding proof to the established adverse health effects of blind precaution.

Yann Kindo, author of a very critical blog post analysing the possible impact of this new law, concluded: “[…] it is not possible for the legislator to hide behind the idea that if [these measures] don’t help, they do not hurt either. That is not how it works: in real life, an unnecessary precautionary law does not reassure the public, but legitimises the anxiety of those that worry without a real reason for worry, and has negative consequences in reality.” 


Barnett J., Timotijevic L, Shepherd R and Senior V (2006) Public Responses To Precautionary Information From The Department Of Health (UK) About Possible Health Risks From Mobile Phones, Health Policy, 82, 240-250

Wiedemann PM, Schütz H (2005) The precautionary principle and risk perception: experimental studies in the EMF area. Environ Health Perspect 113: 402–405 [PMC free article] [PubMed]

Wiedemann PM, Thalmann AT, Grutsch MA, Schütz H (2006) The impacts of precautionary measures and the disclosure of scientific uncertainty on EMF risk perception and trust. J Risk Res 9: 361–372

Précautionnisme tragique en Isère: un mort, Yann Kindo 

Mort dans une avalanche : le lycéen ne portait «jamais» de balise de détection

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