European Commission accepts that Physical Agents Directive poses a threat to crucial medical technology

Chemistry World has learned that the European Commission will delay the implementation of the EU Physical Agents Directive until the end of 2012, while amendments are considered. 

The decision follows pressure from scientists who have been lobbying to avert what they called a ’serious threat’ to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) posed by the directive. 

Now, according to European Commission (EC) spokesperson Katharina von Schnurbein, ’the legislation, as it stands, will never come into force.’ Vladimir Spidla, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities will make an official announcement about the proposed delay later this month.

The directive, which was adopted in 2004, was originally planned for implementation Europe-wide in April 2008. Its aim is to protect workers from possible physiological effects of electromagnetic fields, by limiting their exposure. 

But scientists said that the directive set exposure limits that would make it impossible to operate MRI systems. In June this year, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive published a report authored by Stuart Crozier from the University of Queensland, Australia. It showed that exposure limits set by the directive were likely to interfere with normal working practices (see Chemistry World July 2007 p12). 

The EC has commissioned its own study to monitor the health effects of working with MRI systems, but has now accepted that there is already sufficient evidence to warrant a review of the legislation. 

Valuable technology

von Schnurbein, EC spokesperson for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, told Chemistry World  that the directive will be adapted to take into account advances in research and technology. ’The Commissioner recognises the how valuable MRI is as a medical and research instrument and does not want this directive to prevent its use,’ she said. 

Stephen Keevil, a medical physicist from Kings College London, UK is a member of the Alliance for MRI - a consortium of scientists and policy-makers lobbying to have the legislation changed. He welcomed the news. ’This statement indicates that the Commission has accepted that the directive has a detrimental impact and needs to be changed, which vindicates what the MRI community has been saying for several years,’ he told Chemistry World

Keevil pointed out that in one European country, Slovakia, the directive has already been transposed into international law. ’As a result, one of the major MRI manufacturers has told its field service engineers that they can move no faster than 0.15 metres per second [0.54 kilometres per hour] when working on a scanner, and must stay at least 1 metre away when the scanner is running,’ he said. ’This is what we appear to have narrowly averted throughout Europe.’

Keevil cautioned that the uncertain future of the legislation still posed a problem for people planning to invest in high-field MRI systems. ’We need to know how the directive will be changed, so that research can continue,’ he said.  

’Communication has been very poor,’ agreed Michele Fisher, an assistant health and safety advisor for CSR, a Cambridge, UK-based company that designs and manufactures wireless communication devices. ’This legislation will be particularly onerous on an industry like ours, but we have not been told what action to take, and no guidelines have been issued.’

Victoria Gill