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Power Stands Charged
The Times
Journalist: Anjana Ahuja
March 03, 2003

Are electromagnetic fields causing women to miscarry, triggering childhood leukaemias, and even driving some people to suicide? As new studies emerge, the experts are divided

You can't see, smell, hear or feel them, but they surround you at work and at home. And, according to some scientists, the electromagnetic fields given off by electrical appliances, house wiring, computers or overhead power lines are far from innocuous - they constitute an invisible menace eating away at our health and are responsible for such diverse ills as childhood leukaemias, brain cancers, miscarriage, depression and even suicide.

Last year, the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), the government-funded organisation which sets safety limits on exposure, concluded that high electromagnetic fields (EMFs) might double the risk of childhood leukaemia, and was probably responsible for an additional two deaths from the disease each year. Now a massive report from researchers in the United States has cast the net of doubt much wider. The report, conducted by three senior figures at the California Department of Health Services, concluded that the authors "are inclined to believe that EMFs can cause some degree of increased risk of childhood leukaemia, adult brain cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease (a degenerative neurological condition similar to motor neurone disease) and miscarriage".

The link to miscarriage was especially dramatic - as many as one in 20 pregnancies may end prematurely due to EMF exposure, the report said. Whether by coincidence or serendipity, the NRPB, which is independent of the power industry, will shortly issue a discussion document on whether action is needed.

The miscarriage link is controversial - both the NRPB and the Electricity Association, which speaks for power companies, say the studies on this were flawed.

But Denis Henshaw, a professor of physics at Bristol University, who argues that power lines can make people sick, says that the new findings on miscarriage turn this into a major public health issue.

"We're talking about an absolute extra risk of miscarriage of 5 to 10 per cent, which is considerable," Henshaw says. "The power industry has always argued that even if there was an increased risk of childhood leukaemias, they are still very rare, and so it wasn't a public health matter. This is a much bigger can of worms." Henshaw believes that EMFs are responsible for skin cancers, lung cancers, depression and around 60 suicides a year.

The authors of the American report, which took ten years to complete, cost $7 million (4.4 million) and runs to 400 pages, couldn't rule out links with suicide or adult leukaemia. All three scientists were "close to the dividing line between believing and not believing" that EMFs put a person at increased risk of these. They did not believe that EMFs were implicated in birth defects, other cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease or depression. The report did not look at the EMFs from mobile phone masts.

Henshaw has hailed the report, the final draft of which was released on the internet without announcement last summer, as "groundbreaking". He says: "(The report) is unprecedented in its depth. The power industry has tried to ignore it, but it's so substantive that people can't really complain about it. Importantly, it's also been independent from industry pressure. It should wake people up."

Henshaw argues that the NRPB should follow the examples of Switzerland and Sweden in reducing the maximum safe exposure levels. The doubling of childhood leukaemias was seen at levels of 0.4 millionths of a Tesla (0.4 microTesla). The safe limit is set at 4,000 times that, at 1600 microTesla. Four years ago, Switzerland dropped the maximum to just 1 microTesla. To drop the limits any less dramatically, Henshaw comments, "would be as irrelevant as reducing the speed limit on the motorway from 1,000mph to 500mph". He also believes that houses should no longer be built near power lines or substations, and that cables should be buried underground.

Dr Michael Clark, scientific spokesman for the NRPB, says the Californian report "can't be dismissed but, because it is a review of existing work rather than new research, it doesn't substantially change anything". He cautions against being too prescriptive about exposure levels because the conveniences of modern life might be as much to blame as pylons and powerlines. "Hairdryers produce large fields, as do car engines, but can we really tell people not to drive their cars?"

While someone standing directly beneath a power line might experience a magnetic field of 40 microTesla, a hairdryer or electric razor can produce 1000 microTesla. However, Dr John Swanson, scientific adviser on EMFs to the Electricity Association, says that these high exposures come in short bursts, and holding a hairdryer even a few inches away from the head cuts the level to about 100 microTesla.

Clark says that because many factors probably contribute to miscarriage, it is vital to be sure that the role played by EMFs is genuine.

The NRPB has appointed Sir Richard Doll, the epidemiologist who famously spotted the association between smoking and lung cancer, to review all the evidence, including that on miscarriage. Under his guidance, the NRPB believes that there is "(no) substantial evidence of increased risk of miscarriage attributable to exposure to above-average magnetic fields" and therefore no regulatory action is called for.

Doll's scepticism is shared by Swanson, who says: "The miscarriage studies are sufficiently flawed for me to be wary. For example, the participation rate was only about 39 per cent of the women approached, and most epidemiologists would look for a rate of at least 50 per cent. The questions raised are valid but these studies don't answer them.

"I think the California report is wrong. Their conclusions are out of line with most other reputable research groups around the world."

What is really needed to resolve the issue is harder statistical evidence, or a killer fact - a convincing, provable scientific theory of how EMFs can physically damage the body. Such a theory would not only settle the uncertainty, but would also pave the way for legal action. Lawyers such as Martyn Day, whose London firm Leigh & Day is in touch with potential litigants, say that the California report is an important new weapon in the battle. "It's a significant new piece of evidence which has pushed me back to the edge," he says.

"But I could see the courts being very nervous about this one. There is evidence that EMFs affect molecules, but not enough to break them apart. And it is always possible that it is something else, rather than the EMF, that's causing the damage." And so, in the midst of blurred, ambiguous statistics, the controversy lingers. People living in the shadow of power stations continue to pile up anecdotal evidence of ill-health, miscarriage and suicide. And, in the absence of hard figures, scientists remain reluctant to believe that the power lines that lattice the landscape could damage unborn babies and make people take their own lives.

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