Pylons pose health risk dilemma for housing planners: Councils seek guidance on proposed developments near overhead cables as scientists study possible links with childhood cancers

PLANNERS are seeking urgent government action over requests for new housing developments near electricity power lines. They say they have been left in limbo, with no central government information on which to base planning decisions and no legal authority to refuse permission on health grounds.

Medical opinion is divided on whether health risks exist. However, the Association of District Councils has received a growing number of complaints from frustrated local authorities in England and Wales. It is undertaking a comprehensive survey to establish the exact planning problems of its membership, and hopes to present a report to the Government in the autumn. 'Our members are going to ask the Department of the Environment to produce at least a circular with interim guidance while further research and analysis is being done,' a spokesman said.

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment said it does not advise on the possible health risks of living close to power lines because although there is weak evidence to suggest the possibility exists, 'the latest studies . . . do not establish that exposure to electromagnetic fields is a cause of cancer.'

In April, Woodspring District Council in Avon, Somerset, was asked to consider a plan to build 200 homes on a site adjacent to power lines. The plan met with fierce local opposition and several planning officers and councillors were uneasy at the proposal. The council approached the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) for advice. Chris Mitchell, Woodspring's chief planning officer, said: 'They told us there was no definite proven link with cancer. We didn't have the necessary technical reasons to refuse the application.'

Thurrock Borough Council, in Essex, faces a similar problem. Barry Palmer, chairman of the council's planning committee said he needs urgent planning guidance.

'We don't want to put our residents at risk by allowing new developments close to power cables in case these areas do turn out to be hazardous,' he said.

Many people living close to power lines have claimed they suffer from poor health, ranging from minor complaints such as headaches and nausea, to serious medical conditions, even cancer.

Proof of a link between power lines and cancer has eluded medical science. But recent studies in Scandinavia suggest there may be an increased risk of childhood leukaemia in families living close to power lines. The results were sufficiently convincing for the Swedish government to revise its planning guidelines on the basis that powerful electro-magnetic fields are harmful. Epidemiological studies in Denmark and the US have also suggested that power lines and other electrical installations may be linked to childhood leukaemia and brain tumours.

The Scandinavian work appears also to have persuaded the NRPB to take the possibility of such risks more seriously. An NRPB spokesman said: 'The recent studies do not establish that exposure to electromagnetic fields is a cause of cancer, but, taken together, do provide some evidence to suggest that the possibility exists in the case of childhood leukaemia.' The board said in June that further research on the subject was urgently required.

But the NRPB remains cautious. 'The problem with childhood leukaemia is we don't know what causes it. Of 400 cases a year in Britain, we don't know the cause of 80 per cent of them,' its spokesman said. Meanwhile, the UK Co-ordinating Committee for Cancer Research is conducting a national study of five possible causes of childhood cancers, one of which is electromagnetic fields. Results are expected in 1995-6.