Just in time for the Olympics…probably


I know that there are many out there eagerly awaiting the wonderfully technical, subversive and deliciously evil Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive to enter into force. Ok, I admit they’re dull, but I wanted to spice it up a little. I don’t know of any other type of legal instrument that so over uses the phrase “Having regard” to start a sentence. James Clerk Maxwell would probably have a fit if he were alive today – sadly he died around 120 years ago.

Who I hear you say? James Maxwell? He’s up there with the greats – he’s an Isaac Newton but someone you’d actually like (Newton was, by all accounts, quite objectionable and that wig was so… Newtonian; in contrast, Maxwell didn’t wear a wig and was therefore a delightful fellow). Maxwell managed to connect (forgive the pun) electricity and magnetism – seeing them as different forms of interacting energy. He’s the one that calculated that this electromagnetic energy can generate waves that travel through the “aether” at the same speed as light – this deduction lead him to suggest that light was in fact a transverse electromagnetic wave i.e. self-propagating electric and magnetic fields that oscillate at right angles to the direction of travel. This is all confirmed standard stuff now, but it was a revelation at the time. We like Maxwell. I’d better stop there….there’s a law against liking dead people too much.

So, this EMF directive applies to a select range of non-ionising electromagnetic radiation with frequencies up to 300 GHz. It’s stuff like power lines (50 Hz in the UK), radio waves (which are notably used in medical applications like Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and microwaves (used for communications). People want it so much it’s been delayed once – oh the irony of creating a directive purely to delay another in some self-serving bureaucratic hell is not lost on me. It was supposed to come in during 2008 but was delayed to 2012 (I note that these are both Olympic years, which probably well-describes the process). This is to allow them enough time to do a “full impact assessment” (including lunches and expenses) of the proposals – you are supposed to do this with children, where you leave them on the naughty step to think through what they have done. In reality they just get distracted…now where was I, yes, it looks set to be delayed again as more wrangling continues. Looks like there’ve been a few arguments over dinner – I hope they’ve managed to find at least a morsel of time to do some work between courses.

To some the real problem seems to be that the existing proposals are unworkable. The well-intentioned “precautionary principle” (i.e. assume everything is out to get you and hide under the mattress) has, based on limited and equivocal evidence, lead to overblown controls for risks that either don’t really exist or are insignificant. Well, you can never have too many risk assessments…..