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Electrophobia: Overcoming fears of EMFs

Are power lines, as well as toaster ovens, electric razors, and computer monitors— like cigarettes--— a danger to your health?

From the University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter, November 1994

Photo: trail under big trees

Greenway under transmission lines with downtown Minneapolis in the background

Many Americans today are uneasy with electricity— some are downright fearful. Since 1979, when the first study suggested that electromagnetic fields (EMFs), the imperceptible ripples of energy produced by power lines and household wiring, might increase the risk of certain childhood cancers, EMFs have been the focus of dozens of studies and have become one of the most contentious scientific issues.

Media reports, sometimes sensational, have generated enormous public concern about EMFs and have spawned a new growth industry among researchers, as well as among marketers of EMF monitors. Some houses near high voltage power lines have become hard to sell, residents are fighting utility companies that want to install equipment in their towns, and some people with cancer have even sued utilities.

In some states, legislation has been proposed or enacted to regulate EMFS from power lines, and there has been talk of requiring warning labels about EMFs on ordinary household appliances.

Unfortunately, during the 15 years we've been studying EMFs, we have not learned much, according to a comprehensive survey by Britain's National Radiological Protection Board, as well as one by a White House committee. The population studies on the health effects of EMFs have yielded inconsistent and contradictory results. Many have found no adverse effects at all.

"The population studies on the health effects of EMFs have yielded inconsistent and contradictory results. Many have found no adverse effects at all."

Moreover, even those studies that have found an increased risk of cancer (usually leukemia or brain tumors in children living near power lines or people who work daily with power lines) generally suggest that the number of additional cases that might have been caused by EMFs across the entire population would betiny. In fact, since such small numbers of cases are involved, scientists can't be sure that the differences aren't just chance variations.

Moreover, nearly all the studies to date have been seriously flawed. For instance, a much-publicized Swedish study last year appeared to show that for children living near high-voltage power lines, the risk of leukemia was doubled. In April, in a paper presented to the National Council for Radiation Protection, Patricia Buffler, Professor of Epidemiology and Dean of the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, highlighted the serious weaknesses of this and similar recent studies and pointed out how the results have been overblown and misrepresented.

Much confusion and waffling

The problem is compounded by the fact that there's still no convincing theory explaining how EMFs— once considered innocuous, especially compared to higher-frequency forms of radiation such as X-rays, microwaves, or ultraviolet rays— could cause cancer or otherwise be harmful. It is hard to explain, since EMFs from power lines and appliances are minuscule compared to those naturally occurring on the Earth's surface, as William Bennett, professor of physics at Yale, recently pointed out in a major article in Physics Today.

Some scientists have proposed various sketchy theories to explain the dangers of EMFs, but none of these hypotheses has widespread support. It is very difficult to determine what subtle effects, if any, low-frequency fields may have on cells— and it's hard to extrapolate from test-tube studies on isolated cells using intense EMFs to humans living in the real world. And if EMFs are somehow carcinogenic, the exact component and dosage necessary to cause cancer are unknown, as is the time (months, years or decades?) between exposure and onset of cancer. In fact, everything here is still unknown, unproven, and unclear.

Patricia Buffler quotes Lewis Thomas, who wrote that many scientists "have never learned how to avoid waffling when yes or no are not available and the only correct answer is, I don't know." We don't know about EMFs. But the evidence so far certainly does not justify inordinate concern, let alone hysteria. If EMFs pose a risk, it is undoubtedly extremely small. The stress and anxiety caused by the debate about EMFs have been "more hazardous to public health than EMFs of any level can have been," in the words of one researcher.

Some experts try to occupy a middle ground by saying that EMFs are probably safe, but that it can't hurt to take some simple precautions (such as sitting farther from computer screens, avoiding certain types of electric blankets, and not sleeping right next to an electric clock). Some call this "prudent avoidance," but others say it is waffling. "Carried to an extreme, this policy could result in spending millions of dollars "passed on to us in higher energy rates and appliance prices) to avoid an unidentified or 'phantom' hazard," according to Buffler.

What should you do?

The only consensus among scientists is that more research about the health effects of EMFs should be done. A number of long-term studies are currently underway and may help clarify matters. But, realistically, the results are likely to continue to be inconsistent and inconclusive. Meanwhile, try to avoid the numbing "everything-causes-cancer" mind-set, which can distract you from taking the steps that are known to protect your health.

Scientist Patricia Buffler on EMFs

Since 1987, Patricia Buffler, now Dean of the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley and a member of the Wellness Letter Editorial Board, has chaired an independent committee of scientists that commissions and reviews studies on the health effects of EMFs for the Electrical Power Research Institute. She is a member of the U. S. Environ-mental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board Subcommittee on Health Effects of Non-ionizing Radiation.

Ms. Buffler says, "Early research did raise legitimate concerns about the health effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Since then, most studies have found no association, but there are occasional chance findings— blips— that keep the issue on the table," says Patricia Buffler, who has been involved for the past decade in research on EMFs. "No study, of course, can ever prove that EMFs cause birth defects, childhood cancers, breast cancer in women, or other problems." Thus, she says, the scientific community has no sound basis for cautioning the public against low-level emissions from appliances or power lines. "Such advice would be in conflict with the scientific evidence, since we don't know that there is anything here to avoid."

Why are so many people afraid of EMFs? "Electricity is fascinating and ubiquitous. Every-one knows it's dangerous in high doses— a bolt of lightning, for example, can be lethal. And the media have given undue emphasis to studies that suggest a link between EMFs and cancer, ignoring the large body of studies that show no association and thus don't generate the same level of emotional interest... The New Yorker published a series of irresponsible articles by Paul Brodeur. I wrote a letter, but until recently the magazine did not even publish letters to the editor."

These articles were reprinted courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter, November 1994.


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