Power Hungry, Power Mad

by Howard Fienberg
August 20, 2002

After last summer's energy crisis in California, residents are understandably more at ease this summer. 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.


Thirteen years ago, Paul Brodeur, writing in the New Yorker, called these EMFs "the most pervasive - and covered up - public health hazard Americans face." Now, a leaked final report from the California Department of Health Services claims that these EMFs are associated with increased risks of everything from childhood leukemia to suicide.


Louis Slesin, the editor of Microwave News (which obtained the leaked copy), thinks the report will "open a Pandora's box for the electric utility industry." His prediction is more than an understatement. Given how hard it has been for the media and advocacy groups to let this issue fade away, California's report giving credence to the issue will be a veritable bombshell. While not saying outright that power lines cause these problems, the report could lead to a flurry of lawsuits and a disastrous 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 last year, which insisted that the public had a right to know. That prompted the posting of a draft report last summer.


But don't we already know enough? Public health professor Simon Chapman (British Medical Journal, Mar. 17) has compared advocates of 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 study a year later from the National Cancer Institute also uncovered "no evidence" of increased health risk from EMF exposure. Similar large-scale 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" can 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? Because researchers have 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.


California's upcoming report cost the public at least $7 million dollars. In 1992, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy estimated the total national cost of efforts to mitigate the non-existent risk of EMFs at $23 billion dollars up to that point. Billions more have since been wasted. The American Physical Society has called the expenditure "a diversion of these resources to eliminate a threat which has no persuasive scientific basis."


Paul Brodeur seemed to have made a nice living off his horror stories and books on the unsubstantiated dangers of EMFs. However, physicist Robert Park noted last year that Brodeur had fallen on hard times. Having long since been fired by the New Yorker, Brodeur told Forbes magazine that "he's turned to writing fiction." "Nonsense," Park exclaimed, Brodeur has "always written fiction."


Unfortunately, while Stephen King thrillers are purchased by choice, we soon may have no say in the matter of Brodeur's EMF fictions.

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