HL Deb 10 April 2001 vol 624 cc84-5WA
Lord Bradshaw

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they can give assurances concerning any potential health risks arising from the new radio communication system being introduced into the police service. [HL1239]

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Health and safety considerations have been of paramount importance in the development of Airwave, the new radio communications system for the police.

Airwave will use the Terrestrial Trunk Radio System (TETRA). This is an advanced digital technology system which will improve police effectiveness and have a positive impact on the safety of police officers' operational environment. It will do this through such features as emergency buttons on police radio handsets, more secure operation through encryption, better quality sound and by facilitating communications across police boundaries.

Airwave has been designed to enable the use of terminals which comply with guidelines issued by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) and the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) on exposure to electro-magnetic fields.

An issue has arisen in connection with the report of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (the Stewart Committee), commissioned by the Minister of Public Health and published in May 2000. The report is concerned with the possible health effects of mobile phones, their base stations and transmitters. In his foreword to the report, Sir William Stewart states that:

"the balance of evidence does not suggest that mobile phone technologies put the health of the general population of the United Kingdom at risk. There is some preliminary evidence that outputs from mobile phone technologies may cause, in some cases, subtle biological effects, although, importantly, these do not necessarily mean that health is affected".

The report proposes that a "precautionary approach" be adopted until more robust scientific information becomes available.

At one point in its report, the Stewart Committee makes reference to research on the possible effects of radio frequency emissions at or near a modulation of 16Hz (cycles per second); TETRA terminals (but not base stations) operate at 17.6Hz. On this, the conclusion of the Stewart Committee (paragraph 5.59) is that: although the weight of evidence suggests that radio frequency exposure (at around 16Hz modulation) at average levels too low to cause significant heating does increase the release of calcium from brain tissue, there are contradictory results. The suggestion that these effects occur significantly with fields that are amplitude modulated at extremely low frequencies is intriguing but difficult to interpret. Further, the finding is of no obvious relevance to mobile phone technology, where the amplitude modulation within the critical frequency band is very small. If such effects occur as a result of exposure to mobile phones, their implications for cell functions are unclear and no obvious health risk has been suggested. Nevertheless, as a precautionary measure, amplitude modulation around 16Hz should be avoided, if possible, in future developments in signal coding".

(Calcium has a vital role in the function of neurones (nerve cells) and other cells). These conclusions are based on observations in animals and human cell tissue in the laboratory; the effect has not been observed in human beings.

While no obvious health risk has been suggested by the Stewart Report, it recommended a precautionary approach and we recognise that there are concerns. Accordingly we have approached the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) and the National Radiological Protection Board and they have each agreed to conduct a review of the relevant science. Also the focus of the recently announced Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme being initiated by the Government in response to the Stewart Report is on emerging technology and we anticipate that further research in areas that are directly relevant to TETRA will be supported.

On the basis of current evidence on health and safety issues, there is no reason to delay the roll-out to police forces of the Airwave system. We will, however, keep these issues under close review, publishing the results of the research as it is concluded, or sooner if it suggests any risk, acting fully in accordance with those results.