California: Can't Live Without Power, Can't Live With It

by Howard Fienberg and David Murray
August 8, 2000

California has suffered from rolling power blackouts for much of the summer. When Californians flick a switch and a light actually turns on, they may be excited by a chain of events the rest of us take for granted. But while some people are concerned about a lack of power, demanding more generators and power lines, others are worried about the consequences of too much power. They claim that the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) generated by high-voltage power lines are detrimental to our health.

Way back in 1989, Paul Brodeur, writing in the New Yorker, called these EMFs "the most pervasive - and covered up - public health hazard Americans face." Now, a new report from the California Department of Health claims that these EMFs are associated with increased risks of everything from childhood leukemia to suicide. While not saying outright that power lines cause such problems, the report could lead to a flurry of lawsuits and a plummet in property values.

Begun eight years ago, and based on primarily old or discredited studies, the California report long ago left behind good science and common sense. It might never even have seen the light of day, except for a lawsuit filed by the First Amendment Center, which insisted that the public had a right to know.

But don't we already know enough? Public health professor Simon Chapman, writing in the March 17 British Medical Journal, compared believers in the EMF-cancer link to "the plucky, armless black knight in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail: they just won't give up." A major study from the National Academy of Sciences in 1996 found "no conclusive or consistent evidence" that EMFs "produce cancer, adverse neuro-behavioral effects, or reproductive and developmental effects." Another one a year later from the National Cancer Institute also uncovered "no evidence" of increased health risk from EMF exposure. Similar large studies in Canada and the United Kingdom have since reiterated and underlined these conclusions.

No reasonable biophysical link has ever been found between EMFs and cancer, only weak epidemiological associations. An exasperated American Physical Society has said that no "biophysical mechanisms" explain how power lines could possibly cause or influence cancer. In addition, if power lines were causing childhood leukemia, rates of the disease should have risen in this generation along with the prevalence of power lines. In reality, rates have remained relatively constant over time.

So why does research turn up any association at all? Unfortunately, most research has had to rely on proxy measurements when investigating people's exposure to EMFs. Rather than measuring regular EMF exposure directly, researchers have measured the strength of power lines near residences, using "wire codes." These wire codes were expected to correlate well with EMF measurements. Unfortunately, wire codes only account for about 18 percent of the variance in residential background field and residential permanent exposure. So while differences in wire codes seems to correlate with increased risk for leukemia, scientists don't believe that EMF exposure explains that risk. Some researchers think the wire codes actually serve as a proxy for poverty. Poor people face a higher cancer risk than the rest of the population and are more likely to live near high-voltage power lines, in high traffic areas, areas with a lot of air pollution and in older, poorly constructed homes.

This particular report cost California at least $7 million dollars. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy estimated the total national cost of efforts to mitigate the non-existent risk at $23 billion dollars as of 1992. Billions more have been spent since then. The American Physical Society called the expenditure "a diversion of these resources to eliminate a threat which has no persuasive scientific basis."

Paul Brodeur seems to have made a nice business from his scary articles and books on the unsubstantiated dangers of EMFs. However, physicist Robert Park notes that Brodeur has fallen on hard times. Having long since been fired by the New Yorker, Brodeur told Forbes magazine recently that "he's turned to writing fiction." "Nonsense," Park exclaims, Brodeur has "always written fiction."

Let's hope that this time we don't all end up paying for it.

HOWARD FIENBERG is Research Analyst and DAVID MURRAY is Director at the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

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