Leading article: Power to heal, power to harm

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The Independent Online

We are irredeemably in debt to electricity. It powers our economies and liberates us from drudgery. Such once-laborious tasks as cooking, washing clothes or cleaning the floor are largely accomplished by the flick of a switch. It has vastly increased our knowledge, enabling us to read easily after dark and opening the world's libraries at the push of a computer key. Every day, it saves countless lives, especially by powering hospital equipment, and entertains us in our millions, not least through television. No Roman emperor had slaves enough to do the work that electricity achieves for us each day.

And yet, as we reveal today, the slaves can revolt; the benefits also have a downside. Increasing evidence links the invisible "smog" given off by electrical wiring and appliances - and by mobile phones and their masts - to a bewildering array of diseases. There seems little doubt that it increases the chances of children getting leukaemia. There is good evidence that it causes other cancers in adults, as well as miscarriages. It may even lead to depression and suicide. Some people seem to become allergic to it, losing much of what it bestows on the rest of us.

None of this alters the equation greatly; electricity still saves many, many more lives than it destroys. Yet it makes sense to reduce the damage. First, ministers must recognise the problem: there are welcome signs that this is starting to happen after decades of denial. Next, they need to take action. For a start, they should ban the building of homes near overhead power lines, and vice versa. They should drive down the levels of radiation emitted by mobile phones, beginning by forcing manufacturers to display the amount prominently. And they should introduce measures to limit the smog given off by electrical appliances, especially those used close to people's heads such as electric shavers and hairdryers.

People should also be made aware of the danger and encouraged to take commonsense measures, including preventing small children from using mobile phones. As with every other form of pollution, it needs regulation, and it is high time this began.