Europeans scramble to thwart electromagnetic threshold law

March 9, 2007

European legislation aimed at protecting workers from harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation, such as those emitted by mobile phones and electrical power lines, could unwittingly change the course of MR imaging if efforts to amend the law fail, according to Dr. Gabriel P. Krestin, who spoke today at a press conference at the European Congress of Radiology.

European legislation aimed at protecting workers from harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation, such as those emitted by mobile phones and electrical power lines, could unwittingly change the course of MR imaging if efforts to amend the law fail, according to Dr. Gabriel P. Krestin, who spoke today at a press conference at the European Congress of Radiology.

The European Union EMF Directive, adopted by the European parliament in 2004 and set to become national law in April 2008, aims to protect workers from short-term exposure to time-varying, or shifting, electromagnetic fields.

"The directive puts limits on exposure of operating staff in an extremely wide range of frequencies. The limits proposed are huge extrapolations from largely hypothetical conditions and are an overcautious interpretation of very limited experimental data," said Krestin, chair of the European Society of Radiology research committee.

Just about everyone associated with an MRI procedure - except patients - will be affected by the law: interventional radiologists performing intraoperative MRI, technologists transporting patients or administering contrast, anesthesiologists sedating patients, and nurses and parents comforting children.

A potential effect of the directive would be the migration of patients, doctors, and scientists out of Europe, Krestin said.

"The directive is a laudable effort by the European Commission, but there has been no research to support the notion that exposure to MRI frequencies causes harm," he said. "The commission did not conduct a proper risk assessment of all areas."

The radiology community has asked for a one-year extension of the implementation of the directive, to allow the results of impact assessments being conducted by the European Commission and member states to be concluded.

The commission has been working since 1992 to protect workers from harmful electromagnetic exposure, but the current directive - which did not involve input from organized radiology - took the community by surprise.

When radiologists became aware of the extent to which routine MR scans would be affected, they approached the commission. Officials from the European Society of Radiology and the commission have contracted an independent expert group to perform an analysis of the implications of the directive on clinical MRI.

While results from that study won't be available until the fall, interim studies by several member states show that MRI's electromagnetic exposure exceeds the values in the directive by factors of between 10 and 50, Krestin said.

"This would mean that almost all of the eight million MRI exams per year in the EU would be affected," he said.

He added that 400,000 of them involve intraoperative MRI.

Several countries including as Latvia and Slovenia have already adopted the legislation without any changes. Other countries including Finland and Austria have adopted a modified version of the legislation. Countries that modify the directive can be sued by the parliament and mayn incur hefty fines amounting to billions of euros, Krestin said.

Research with high-field MRI is also in jeopardy. France recently acquired an 11.5T scanner, and Austria has a 7T magnet on order.

"If the directive becomes a reality, we may have to rethink this research enterprise," said Dr. Christian J. Herold, president of the ECR and director of diagnostic radiology at the Medical University of Vienna.