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The European Commission has confirmed for the first time that it is prepared to delay the start of, and amend if necessary, European Union health and safety legislation that critics warn might restrict the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The announcement by the social affairs commissioner, Vladimir Spidla, follows the launch in March of the Alliance for MRI campaign, which has brought together medical specialists, patients' groups, and European parliamentarians.
They have argued that the measures designed to protect employees from short term exposure to electromagnetic fields would inadvertently make it harder for medical staff to operate equipment that is used safely to investigate eight million patients in Europe every year.
The legislation, which is due to take effect in April 2008, would limit the time that operators could spend near the imaging machines, making it harder for doctors and nurses to help young and elderly patients.
After meeting MEPs in the alliance in Brussels on 13 June, Mr Spidla said, “We need a directive that makes full use of the great benefits of MRI and at the same time protects workers who are exposed to radiation.”
He welcomed the findings, which were released on the same day as research into the matter carried out by Stuart Crozier for the UK Health and Safety Executive. According to the Alliance for MRI, this research shows that changes to existing practice would not be sufficient to comply with the legislation and “so the current equipment and procedures would need to stop.”
Mr Spidla said that he would analyse the report and that the commission was planning to complete its own study into the effects of the legislation on the use of the imaging machines by October. “If the results of our analysis prove it necessary, I am prepared to postpone the entry into force of the directive or, if necessary, amend it,” he told the alliance.
A commission official later confirmed that the institution is already preparing to delay implementation of the legislation for a full year to give time to examine the new scientific evidence. It will table a proposal to this effect in the coming weeks, which will then have to be approved by EU governments and the European parliament.
The British Labour MEP Stephen Hughes, who is active in the campaign, accepted that there was a general willingness on all sides to reach a practical solution. But he warned that a postponement would “not remove the legal uncertainty facing hospital administrators right across Europe who are considering ordering MRI equipment.”
Mr Hughes and the Alliance for MRI say that the imaging machines should be totally excluded from the legislation. The alliance has proposed that the legislation should clearly state it would “not apply to the operation, manufacture, and servicing of magnetic resonance imaging.”