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December 2011

Campaigning on the Physical Agents Directive

Dr Stephen Keevil is President Elect of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine and has worked with us on several projects including Making Sense of Radiation and our Physical Agents Directive (PAD) campaign. Here, Steve talks about how we started working together and where the PAD campaign is now:

I well remember the day back in 2005 when I faced the cameras for the first time. The medical imaging community’s attempts to draw attention to the potential impact of the EU Physical Agents (EMF) Directive on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) had fallen on deaf ears. With the help and encouragement of Sense About Science, then a relative newcomer on the science policy scene, we were staging a press conference to highlight the issue. Frankly, I was terrified!

There are details of the issue and campaign on the Sense About Science website. Essentially, in a well-intentioned effort to protect workers from ill effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF), European legislators had adopted overly-cautious restrictions that threatened to curtail the clinical use and further development of MRI severely. Yet MRI equipment is constructed to international standards, and combined with safe working practices this ensures that scanners are already safe for patients and workers. Additional exposure limits were unnecessary, and ironically threatened to lead to increased use of x-ray imaging to replace prohibited MRI procedures, with a negative overall impact on patient and worker safety. It was a classic example of policy being made without proper consideration of the scientific evidence and broader impact. I was sceptical about the effect that our press conference would have, but it led directly to ministerial engagement and a damning select committee report, providing a platform for further lobbying at European level by the Alliance for MRI and eventually to postponement of the Directive in 2008. We breathed a sigh of relief: a feather in the cap for Sense About Science and an apparent reprieve for one of the most powerful diagnostic techniques available to medicine.

And yet, six years on from the press conference, final resolution of this problem seems about to slip through our fingers. Earlier this year, in a move fully supported by the MRI community, the European Commission introduced a proposal to exclude MRI from the exposure limits in the Directive and instead address MRI safety through harmonised European guidelines. Such legislative proposals require the agreement of EU member states, making up the Council of the EU, and of the European Parliament. The Commission proposal has met with strong and unexpected resistance in the Council. It is a frustrating case of déjà vu for those of us who spent years convincing the British authorities and the European Commission that the scientific evidence is on our side, only to find the same misunderstandings voiced again in Council. This time, poor grasp of the science is overlaid by a complex web of political positioning and national interests. For example, there is a move to replace EU-wide exemption of MRI with a provision for individual member states to allow exemptions for particular industrial sectors on a national basis: a move that fits well with the present UK government’s aim to ‘repatriate’ powers from Brussels, and one imagines would play well on the Tory backbenches. It also, of course, defeats the purpose of the Directive to harmonise standards across the EU, and the Commission will not accept this. Deadlock seems inevitable.

Under the terms of the postponement in 2008, a solution must be found by the end of April 2012: time is definitely not on our side. Yet all is not lost: we have strong support from patient groups across Europe, who have benefited from MRI and appreciate what its curtailment would mean (see from p10 of Science And Society), and with their help have won over a number of key MEPs (for example Marina Yannakoudakis). Next month Denmark takes over the rotating presidency of the Council from Poland, which we hope will bring a fresh approach there too. With such strong support, there’s still hope that a sensible solution will be found to this long-standing problem.