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Concerns Linger About Electromagnetic Fields
Journalist: Becky Gillette

The Environmental Magazine
April 18, 2002

"Generating comfort" is the slogan of one of the nation's largest utility companies. But the electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) emitted from power lines and electrical appliances may also generate a host of health problems, including miscarriage, cancer, and Lou Gehrig's disease.

Concern about health effects from EMFs first arose in 1979, when a study found that children who lived in close proximity to certain types of electrical lines had a higher risk of leukemia. However, the electric power industry and some U.S. governmental agencies have claimed that research reveals little reason for concern about EMFs.

So why has there been so much effort to suppress the release of government-funded studies on the subject? Recently a draft of a $7 million report on EMFs from the California Department of Health Services (DHS) was made public only after the California First Amendment Coalition filed a lawsuit seeking release of the information.

The DHS report says it is more than 50 percent possible that EMFs could cause a very small increased lifetime risk of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, and Lou Gehrig's disease. The report says it is 10 to 50 percent possible that EMFs could be responsible for a small increased lifetime risk of male breast cancer, childhood brain cancer, suicide, Alzheimer's disease, and sudden cardiac death. The report also says it is more than 50 percent possible that EMFs could cause a 5 to 10 percent added risk of miscarriage.

"If true, this would clearly be of concern to individuals and regulators," says the report. But after evaluating each health problem linked to EMFs, it adds, "There is a chance that EMFs have no effect at all." It is hard to see why it took a First Amendment lawsuit to force release of a report with such wishy-washy conclusions. But there are a lot of details in the 309-page report important to those concerned about EMFs.

Joan Tukey, founder of the California Alliance for Utility Safety and Education, said the report proves that it's foolish to locate high-voltage power lines next to schools. "Lines next to schools are significant because this is an involuntary exposure," said Tukey. "There are other sources of high EMFs, such as your microwave or your electric clock next to your bed. But you don't need to stand in front of the microwave, and you can move the clock to the other side of the room."

Tukey says the California has a plan to bury new power transmission lines and take other steps that can shield people from EMFs, but utilities have consistently weakened implementation. "I think we need to take a hard look at doing statewide mitigation to reduce exposure from power lines," said Tukey.

The DHS report isn't the first time EMF findings were delayed. An even more substantial study conducted by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) in 1995 has not yet been released by mid-2001. Dr. Constantine Maletskos, a consultant for NCRP, said the status of the report is still about the same as in 1995. "There was a big hullabaloo about potential recommendations," said Maletskos. "We want to get the research report published irrespective of recommendations. But it may just die, which is too bad because that report contains more information than has ever been discussed by anyone else."

The NCRP report, written by 11 leading experts and leaked to the public in 1995, says the public health recommendations, if accepted, could force "complex and costly" changes in the electric power industry. The chairman of the study committee, Dr. Ross Adey, a clinical neurophysiologist and professor of physiology at Loma Linda School of Medicine in California, said there is significant scientific evidence that suggests even very low exposure to EMFs has subtle, long-term effects on human health. Adey says the NCRP report, squashed by industry "stakeholders," recommends no new high voltage power lines should be built near existing housing developments or schools. The report also recommends that levels in homes should be less than two milligauss.

Some European government regulatory agencies have concluded that there is an increased risk of childhood leukemia and possibly adult leukemia from exposure to EMFs. That conclusion flies in the face of the latest study released by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS), which says evidence of a risk of cancer and other human diseases from EMFs around power lines is "weak." Adey said NIEHS convened an international body of scientists, then rejected its conclusions after it said the risk was real. "The NIEHS falsified that report to say there was no risk," Adey said. "That is one of the most fraudulent things the government has perpetrated on the health of this country."

From his own research, J. Robert Ashley (an electrical engineer experienced in both the academic and industrial sectors) said more work is needed to measure people's exposure to electrical fields. "The electrical field is 10 to 20 times more likely to explain the link between…power lines and childhood cancers than is the magnetic field," Ashley said. He added that many investigators have compromised their studies by not separating the electric and magnetic components of EMFs.

Concern is also being expressed about microwave and radio frequency fields from sources such as cellular phones, cellular phone towers, and television stations. Adey said the cell phone industry has tried to suppress any findings that indicate concern for health effects. Adey isn't convinced by studies that find no evidence of adverse health effects from cell phone use. "We and others who have spent 30 years researching the biological spectrum from cells to people have no doubt that there is the possibility of harm from these interactions," said Adey.

Adey said the most recent work done by the Swedish government shows a dose-dependent relationship between cell phone use and cancer. The longer cell phones are used, the greater the risk of cancer. "The results are being squashed by the cell phone industry," Adey said. The safety of cell phone use is being investigated by NIEHS, the same agency charged with fudging the EMF data. "We as scientists do not trust NIEHS to conduct this study of cell phone safety based on its record," said Adey.

Peter Frech, executive director of Citizens Concerned About EMFs, said the strength of EMFs from appliances usually drops rapidly within several feet. Keeping a safe distance (three to five feet) from appliances, computers, and monitors can minimize exposure.

Frech recommends avoiding voluntary exposure to products like electric blankets, waterbed heaters, and alarm clocks. He believes involuntary exposure from overhead power lines, particularly transmission and distribution lines, is of greater concern. He says proximity to overhead power lines should be considered when purchasing a home. In the case of existing homes located close to overhead power lines, Frech said residents should lobby their local government and utility companies to place the lines underground to block a higher level of radiation waves. Ashley suggested that people avoid strong electric fields whenever possible.

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