The Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) was set up in 1990 and continued its work programme within the Health Protection Agency (HPA) from 2005, and then within Public Health England (PHE) from 2013.
The Group reports to the PHE Environmental Hazards Programme Board and has the following terms of reference
to review work on the biological effects of non-ionising radiation relevant to human health and to advise on research priorities.
The AGNIR has issued ten major reports in the Documents of the NRPB, a number of statements, and four reports in the Documents of the Health Protection Agency: Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards. These publications, listed in the bibliography, have mainly covered reviews of experimental and epidemiological studies, together with exposure data relevant to assessing possible health effects from exposures to electromagnetic fields (EMFs), ultraviolet radiation (UVR), and ultrasound/infrasound. They have been a valuable input to advice from PHE, the HPA, and the NRPB. They have been used in the development of exposure guidelines as well as being widely circulated and used by Government and the devolved administrations.
A report on the health effects of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields is the most recent, published in April 2012.
The on-going programme of work of the AGNIR is summarised below.
If there are published papers on the topics under consideration that readers think should be reviewed by the AGNIR as an input to its work, references should be submitted through the AGNIR secretariat.
Relevant references can be sent by post to the AGNIR Secretary, PHE Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, Chilton, Didcot, Oxon, OX11 0RQ, UK, or by e-mail to AGNIR.Secretariat@phe.gov.uk.
The Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) drew attention to concerns on this topic in its 2000 report and called for more research. Similar calls were raised in other countries around the same time, and also within Europe and the World Health Organization (WHO). The result has been a substantial programme of research supported by governments, industry and the European Union (EU). In the UK, research was coordinated under the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research (MTHR) programme (www.mthr.org.uk) .
In recognising that research would proceed apace, the IEGMP recommended that a further review of the science should be carried out within three years of its own report and the AGNIR prepared such a review in 2003. At that time, many studies were in progress and, in particular, epidemiological research of mobile phone users was at an early stage. Hence, it was agreed in 2003 that the AGNIR should produce a further review of studies relevant to concerns about health for publication in a few years' time.
The AGNIR published its most recent report on radiofrequency (RF) fields in April 2012. The report concluded that the quantity, and in general quality, of research published has increased substantially since the 2003 report. There are still limitations to the published research that preclude a definitive judgement, but the evidence considered overall has not demonstrated any adverse health effects of RF field exposure below internationally-accepted guideline levels. In summary, although a substantial amount of research has been conducted in this area, there is no convincing evidence that RF field exposure below guideline levels causes health effects in adults or children.
The MTHR programme came to an end in 2012, with only the Cohort Study of Mobile Telephone users (COSMOS) (www.ukcosmos.org.uk) still in progress from among those projects that had been supported. Research commissioning is now undertaken through the Department of Health Policy Research Programme and priorities for research are identified by the AGNIR. The present AGNIR research recommendations are those in the 2012 report.
It is clear from enquiries and media coverage that there is continuing public interest in this issue and in topics such as mobile and cordless phones, base stations, wireless computer networking, and smart meters. There is also continuing research so it is appropriate for the AGNIR to keep new publications under review and to issue comments/statements on specific studies. In this regard, the AGNIR issued a statement on the results of the INTERPHONE study, which was published in 2010.
Static magnetic fields are used in certain industries, high-energy physics research facilities, and particularly in medicine where magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides exceptionally clear images of tissue that can lead to more precise diagnosis of disease or injury. There have been rapid advances in the applications of static fields; in addition, there have been progressive increases in the strength of the fields used. In particular, in MRI, it is expected that exposures of several tesla (T) may become more common, while partial body exposure can be even higher.
The AGNIR published its report on static magnetic fields in May 2008. Among the research recommendations was that there is a pressing need for a well-conducted cohort study of mortality and cancer incidence in workers with high occupational exposures to static magnetic fields from MRI. The HPA responded by setting up a working group to undertake a detailed review of the research possibilities and advise on the practicalities of taking this recommendation forward.
Static magnetic fields continue to be an area where much research is being carried out, especially as future EU legislative actions regarding occupational exposure may have an impact on scanning in MRI facilities. The AGNIR continues to receive and monitor key papers on the topic.
Power frequency electric and magnetic fields are produced wherever electricity is generated, transmitted or used. Electrical systems in the UK use alternating current at a frequency of 50 Hz, which lies in the Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. In general, stronger magnetic fields are produced with high currents and stronger electric fields are produced with high voltages. Concerns about the health implications of exposure to power frequency electromagnetic fields were focussed when a 1979 study suggested a relationship between cancer deaths in children and the current levels suggested by transmission line configurations near their homes.
The first AGNIR report was published in 1992 and addressed the question of whether there could be a relationship between exposure to power frequency fields and the risk of cancer. In the absence of unambiguous experimental evidence, epidemiological findings at that time were regarded as only sufficient to justify hypothesis formation for testing through further research.
More research was undertaken, including improved studies of cancers in relation exposure to magnetic fields, and in 2001 the AGNIR published another report on ELF electromagnetic fields and the risk of cancer. In the report it was concluded that laboratory experiments had provided no good evidence that extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are capable of producing cancer, nor do human epidemiological studies suggest that they cause cancer in general. There is, however, some epidemiological evidence that prolonged exposure to higher levels of power frequency magnetic fields (50 hertz (Hz) in the UK) is associated with a raised risk of leukaemia in children (relative risk of approximately two). This evidence was highlighted in formal advice from the HPA to government and ultimately led via an extensive stakeholder engagement process (SAGE) to the development of nationally agreed precautionary risk management policies.
The AGNIR continues to keep under review published research related to health concerns arising from exposure to power frequency electromagnetic fields. At present there is insufficient new information that would justify the development of an update to the 2001 report, although it will be needed at some point in the future.
Ultraviolet radiation is present in natural sunlight and it is also produced by a variety of artificial sources either deliberately, for example by sunbeds, or adventitiously by certain types of lighting. It is accepted that exposure to ultraviolet radiation is a cause of cancer, but there are also other biological effects, including beneficial ones such as the photochemical synthesis of vitamin D in the skin.
The first AGNIR review of UVR and health was published in 1995. The report concluded that personal behaviour in relation to sun exposure was an important factor in the risk of adverse health effects from exposure to UVR, and particularly so in respect of skin cancer. Increases in the risk of skin cancer over 50 years leading up to the report were suggested as linked to increased leisure time and recreation time in the sun, lighter clothes and exposure of larger areas of the skin.
In 2002 the AGNIR published another comprehensive a review of experimental and epidemiological studies relevant to an assessment of the health effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR). The report also included advice on protecting people's health. An executive summary was published separately and the key elements of the advice by the AGNIR were included in a poster, Sunsense - protecting yourself from UVR; this is available as a dynamic version.
The AGNIR has maintained a watching brief on publications relevant to UVR-related health concerns. At present insufficient new findings have been published to need a new full review document in the near future, but there have been considerable new findings with regard to vitamin D-related aspects. The AGNIR therefore began work on a review of ultraviolet radiation in relation to vitamin D synthesis during 2012. It is anticipated that this review will take about two years to complete.
PHE has a responsibility to provide advice on exposures to both ultrasound and infrasound. There are no specific regulations in the UK for controlling such exposure. However, medical products are required to comply with the Medical Devices Regulations 2002 (SI 618/2002) which are based on limits specified by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) although these do not appear to have a solid scientific basis. Guidance is also issued by the following professional and membership bodies: the British Medical Ultrasound Society, the European Committee for Medical Ultrasound Safety, and the World Federation for Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology. Concern has been expressed about 'souvenir' exposures (scanning for the provision of images not required for clinical reasons).
In September 2004 the AGNIR was asked to undertake a review of ultrasound (frequencies greater than 20 kHz) and infrasound (frequencies less than 20 Hz) relevant to any possible health effects. A scoping group met in December 2004 in order to consider the possible content and shape of the required report and an AGNIR subgroup was set up in 2005. In addition, a workshop on ultrasound and infrasound safety was held at Chilton from 24 to 26 October 2005. The workshop proceedings formed a valuable input to the AGNIR report, which was published in February 2010.
The AGNIR report covers physical principles, sources and applications, cellular, human and animal studies, and existing guidelines. It concludes that high levels of ultrasound and infrasound exposure have well-recognised acute adverse effects. At lower levels of exposure, notably for diagnostic ultrasound, there is no established evidence of specific hazards, but there are too few research data to draw firm conclusions about their absence, especially in the long term. The AGNIR drew attention to some unconfirmed indications from the biological and epidemiological literature of possible neurological effects of in utero ultrasound exposures and recommended there should be further research on whether there are any long-term adverse effects of diagnostic ultrasound exposure. The HPA subsequently responded to the AGNIR report and provided advice on practical measures that should be taken.
AGNIR (1992). Electromagnetic fields and the risk of cancer. Report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB, 3 (1), 1-138.
AGNIR (1993a). Electromagnetic fields and the risk of cancer. Summary of the views of the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation on epidemiological studies published since its 1992 report (23 March 1993). Doc NRPB, 4 (5), 65-69.
AGNIR (1993b). Electromagnetic fields and the risk of cancer. Supplementary report by the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Radiol Prot Bull, No. 142.
AGNIR (1994a). Electromagnetic fields and the risk of cancer. Supplementary report by the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (12 April 1994). Doc NRPB, 5 (2), 77-81.
AGNIR (1994b). Health effects related to the use of visual display units. Report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB, 5 (2), 1-75.
AGNIR (1995). Health effects from ultraviolet radiation. Report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB, 6 (2), 7-190.
AGNIR (1999a). The solar eclipse. Statement by the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. NRPB press release P8/99.
AGNIR (1999b). Use of sunbeds and cosmetic tanning. Statement by the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Radiol Prot Bull, No. 218, 11-5 .
AGNIR (2001a). ELF electromagnetic fields and neurodegenerative disease. Report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB, 12 (4), 5-24 (2001).
AGNIR (2001b). ELF electromagnetic fields and the risk of cancer. Report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB, 12 (1), 1-179.
AGNIR (2001c). Possible health effects from terrestrial trunked radio (TETRA). Report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB, 12 (2), 1-80.
AGNIR (2002a). Effects of ultraviolet radiation on human health. Executive summary of a report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation.
AGNIR (2002b). Health effects from ultraviolet radiation. Report of an Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB, 13 (1), 5-282.
AGNIR (2003). Health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. Report of an independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB, 14 (2), 5-177.
AGNIR (2004). Particle deposition in the vicinity of power lines and possible effects on health. Report of the independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc NRPB 15(1), 5-55.
AGNIR (2008). Static Magnetic Fields. Report of an independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc HPA, RCE-6.
AGNIR (2010). Health effects of exposure to ultrasound and infrasound. Report of the independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation. Doc HPA, RCE-14.
AGNIR (2010). Brain tumour risk in relation to mobile telephone use:results of the INTERPHONE international case-control study. Statement from the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation.
AGNIR (2012) . Health effects from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. Report of the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation.. Doc HPA, RCE-20.
Dr S M Mann, PHE
Mr S Conney, Department of Health
Dr J O'Hagan
Dr M P Maslanyj
Dr J R Meara
Dr Z J Sienkiewicz
Dr A Tedstone
Dr A Peyman
Last reviewed: 24 May 2013