Alarm - Concerns Linger About Electromagnetic Fields
Journalist: Becky Gillette
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 five 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, says 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,” says 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 State of 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
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. Dr. Constantine
Maletskos, a consultant for NCRP, says the status of the report in mid 2001
is still about the same as in 1995.
"There was a big hullabaloo about potential recommendations," says 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, says 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
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 says 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 says.
“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) says 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 says. He adds 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 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,” says Adey.
Adey says 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 says. 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,” says Adey.
Keep Your Distance
Peter Frech, executive director of Citizens Concerned About EMFs, says 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 says residents
should lobby their local government and utility companies to place the lines
underground to block a higher level of radiation waves. Ashley suggests that
people avoid strong electric fields whenever possible.