Midwest Today, April/May
N E W S F R O N T
Studies link Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs) To Illness
By NEAL LAWRENCE
It was sort of a funny story when we first heard about it a few
years ago: A dairy farmer living in Wisconsin near high voltage
utility company transmission lines couldn't turn out the lights
in his barn. Even with the switches in the off position, night
after night after he had finished his chores, he'd go back out
to the barn to find the light bulbs still glowing from the electrical
charge hovering in the air. The cows were none too happy about
it either, because the constant light prevented them from sleeping,
and they gave less milk.
But the story doesn't seem so funny any more -- not after the
spate of recent reports of children developing deadly illnesses
or adults dying prematurely of rare diseases -- all apparently
because they had the misfortune of living near high amounts of
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that invisible
electromagnetic fields (EMFs) -- created by everything from high-voltage
utility company lines to personal computers, microwave ovens,
TVs and even electric blankets -- are linked to a frightening
array of cancers and other serious health problems in children
Though it received scant attention from the mainstream press,
a report leaked last October from the U.S. National Council on
Radiation Protection said there is a powerful body of impressive
evidence showing that even very low exposure to electromagnetic
radiation has long-term effects on health.
The report cited studies that show EMFs can disturb the production
of the hormone melatonin, which is linked with sleep patterns.
It said there was strong evidence that children exposed to EMFs
had a higher risk of leukemia.
This follows on the heels of three epidemiological reports released
in 1994. One indicated a tie between occupational exposure to
EMFs and Alzheimer' s disease. Another suggested a link with Sudden
Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The third study indicated a tie
with Amyotrophic lateralsclerosis.
Now a surprising new report released in February by physicists
at Britain's University of Bristol shows that power lines attract
particles of radon -- a colorless, odorless gas irrefutably linked
What's this all about? And why have the media failed to report
with the appropriate emphasis the implications of these significant
Shortly after her son Kevin was diagnosed with leukemia, Julie
Larm of Omaha, NE. began to notice other children at the local
pool who had lost their hair or had surgical scars. As her suspicion
rose, she began talking to other parents. One person she contacted
was Dee Hendricks, whose son was also undergoing cancer treatment.
Together they collected the names of eleven children in the area
who had cancer.
When they plotted them on a map they were surprised to see that
all lived within one mile of each other and an electric power
"If there was nothing to worry about, why does our utility
have an EMF committee...which was in effect long before we came
and started making noise ?" asks Larm, a member of the Omaha
Parents for the Prevention of Cancer. "Why do they need such
things if theres nothing to it?"
The group's efforts have been buttressed by Paul Brodeur, a campaigning
environmental journalist who had in his day taken on asbestos
and chlorofluorocarbons and is the author of two books on the
subject of EMFs. Brodeur is convinced that EMFs are one of the
greatest environmental threats facing the nation.
"Never before has there been this much epidemiological evidence
of the carcinogenicity of any agent," says Brodeur, "and
that agent declared to be benign."
Robert Becker, M.D., author of Cross Currents (Tarcher,
1990), who has studied this subject since the 1960s warns, "EMFs
could turn out to be a far worse environmental disaster, affecting
far more people, than toxic waste, radiation or asbestos."
To some, especially the families of people with unexplained cancers,
the sheer volume of research that has been carried out on this
issue suggests there must be a cancer connection and perhaps a
cover-up. Their suspicion is heightened by the fact that many
of the studies are funded by the utility industry, which would
be directly affected by the studies' outcomes.
At the heart of the matter is a relatively simple and well-understood
physical phenomenon: When an electric current passes through a
wire, it generates an electromagnetic field that exerts forces
on surrounding objects. Electric fields arise from the strength
of an electric charge; magnetic fields, from the charge's motion.
Unlike ionizing radiations such as x-rays -- which pack sufficient
wallop to knock electrons out of the molecules that make up the
human body -- EMFs do not produce charged particles, so experts
always believed they posed no danger. Therefore, the Federal government
has never regulated EMFs, and the electric industry was allowed
to set its own standards.
But other recent experimental studies have shown that even weak
magnetic fields can change the chemistry of the brain, impair
the immune system, and inhibit the synthesis of melatonin, a hormone
known to suppress several types of tumors and to be present in
reduced amounts in men as well as women who develop breast cancer.
Some lab tests have confirmed that EMFs affect living cells in
a variety of ways, most of them harmful. (Scientists are intrigued,
however, by their ability to speed slow-healing fractures, enhancing
What's confusing is that the studies have produced widely divergent
and often contradictory results. On the one hand, many scientists
are convinced the study of electromagnetic fields is a massive
waste of time and money -- costing an estimated one billion dollars
a year. After years of extensive study, Dr. Garry Boorman says,
"We're not sure what part of the field, if any, is toxic
or important, or could be hazardous to your health."
As a PBS "Frontline" documentary reported, scientists
have been unable to locate a mechanism by which electromagnetic
fields would trigger a biological reaction. The energy in the
fields to which most of us are exposed is tiny tens of millions
of times too small to break the molecules in cells. All living
organisms evolved in the presence of the earths magnetic field,
which is two hundred times larger.
Dozens of animal experiments have been carried out in which rats
and mice are exposed to very large magnetic fields for long periods
-- some for their entire lives -- but no animal has ever been
proven to contract cancer due to this exposure. Generations of
rodents raised in the presence of high magnetic fields do not
show any increased evidence of birth defects or depressed immune
With no animal data to support the claim and no physical mechanism
to explain how it might affect the body, the main support for
a connection has come from epidemiology.
As for clusters like the ones which motivated Julie Larm and her
group in Omaha, many scientists are skeptical about their significance,
if any, to the debate about EMFs. Because conditions like cancer
are surprisingly common about one-third of the population gets
cancer in their lifetimes random clusters of the disease are not
unusual and are found close to and far from power lines.
Still, because of our reliance on electricity and the potential
financial consequences for utilities and other companies, the
regulation of EMFs is a politically sensitive issue. There is
evidence to establish that the Bush administration tried to suppress
findings of a study by the Environmental Protection Agency linking
electromagnetic fields to certain health problems. The Clinton
White House, meanwhile, has been largely silent on the issue.
Lending credence to claims that there is, indeed, a public health
risk from EMFs and that the government knows about it is that
an EPA report a few years ago raised suspicions of a causal link
between electromagnetic fields and leukemia, brain tumors, breast
and prostrate cancer, even birth defects.
Less-publicized but still significant are some of the foreign
studies. Last July, Canadian researchers told the Lancet medical
journal they had found a high rate of leukemia among children
whose mothers had worked at sewing machines while pregnant.
Checks showed the operators were exposed to more electromagnetic
radiation than people who work on power lines or in power stations.
In another study, Swedish researchers assessed the long-term exposure
of people living near high-voltage transmission lines by taking
spot measurements of the field strength in each home, and using
them to confirm the accuracy of a computer model that calculated
the strength of the fields emitted by each of the lines, according
to distance from the lines, the wiring configurations, and the
current level the lines were known to be carrying.
Then they programmed a computer with records of past current loads
that had been maintained over the previous 20 years for each of
the transmission lines. They were thus able to pinpoint with great
accuracy EMF exposure for each cancer victim. What they found
was a clear dose-response relationship between exposure to even
weak power-frequency electromagnetic fields and the development
of cancer, especially acute and chronic myeloid leukemia.
A second Swedish study, which also employed cases and controls,
was conducted by epidemiologists. It confirmed that average magnetic
field exposure over time was the critical factor in the development
of disease. Interestingly, these studies were funded in part by
the Swedish utility industry.
Maria Feychting of Swedens Karolinska Institute looked at 127,000
children who lived near big power lines for over 25 years and
found twice the risk of leukemia.
"In our study we found about a two-fold increase in the risk
if the children were living close, within 50 meters (yards) of
a big power line," she told Britain's Channel Four television.
The new study by the University of Bristol showing that power
lines can attract cancer-causing gases like radon has heightened
Even scientists who have failed to find a reason for the apparent
link refuse to say it is safe to live near a high-voltage power
Warning to Parents
Of critical importance to all parents is that some studies have
suggested that children exposed to magnetic fields of between
two and three milligauss or above experienced a significantly
increased risk of developing cancer. Since ambient levels of two
to three milligauss can routinely be measured in buildings within
50 to 150 feet of wires carrying strong electric current, these
findings are especially troublesome.
The report leaked last October by the mellitus National Council
on Radiation Protection recommended a safety limit of 0.2 microteslas,
a very weak field compared to those generated by household appliances.
A person standing one foot away from a vacuum cleaner or electric
drill can be exposed to anywhere between two and 20 microteslas.
There is no way to block EMFs (they even penetrate lead shielding),
and the only protection is distance from the source.
In our electronic age, its almost impossible to eliminate exposure
to the myriad of electrical sources with which we come in contact
on a daily basis.
Thousands of electric company substations are scattered throughout
our cities large and small and they abut homes, apartments and
office buildings -- even schools. Since few of the high-voltage
lines that lead into and out of these substations have been buried
to prevent harmful emissions, magnetic fields of potent strength
can be found virtually everywhere.
Concerns have also been raised about magnetic fields given off
by faulty household wiring, by high-current conductors concealed
in the walls, ceilings and floors of commercial office buildings
and other large structures; and by high-voltage transformers that
can be found in almost any large building.
The EPA Raises Questions
Concerns about so-called non-ionizing radiation began to mount
in 1979, when a study of cancer rates among Colorado school children
determined that those who lived near power lines had two or three
times as much chance to develop cancer. The link seemed so improbable
that power companies eagerly paid to have the study replicated.
To their surprise, the subsequent scientific inquiry supported
the original findings, which have since been buttressed by a variety
of additional studies and reports of increased cancer rates among
workers employed in the electric industry.
One such study, conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research
Center in Seattle, WA. confirmed that telephone linemen, electricians
and electric-power workmen are developing breast cancer at six
times the expected rate.
But it was the Environmental Protection Agency's scientific review
that has had an explosive impact, lending the most credence to
those who have been warning of EMF health hazards.
The report -- a 367-page document entitled "Evaluation of
the Potential Carcinogenicity of Electromagnetic Fields"
-- came to light in 1990, when someone in the agency leaked a
draft version of it to Louis Slesin, editor of an influential
newsletter called Microwave News.
Chief among the conclusions was one specifying that power line
electromagnetic fields should be classified as a "probable
human carcinogen." William Farland, then-director of the
EPA's Office of Health and Environmental Assessment ordered this
conclusion deleted from the report.
Then the Associated Press reported that the Bush administration
tried to delay release of the EPA's findings. Robert E. McGaughy,
the project manager and chief author of the report, was quoted
as saying that the White House "was concerned not about the
accuracy of the report...[but] about how people would react to
the news and how it would affect the electric power industry."
Ultimately, after two major TV networks and newspapers throughout
the country exposed the Bush administration's efforts at censorship,
the report was released. It contained a disclaimer that asserted
"the controversial and uncertain nature of the scientific
findings of this report" and declared that it should not
be construed as "representing Agency policy or position."
The Medical Connection
Just how EMFs affect humans is still not entirely known.
In the case of cancer, most specialists theorize that a malignant
tumor forms in at least two stages. In the first, referred to
as "initiation," an outside agent damages the cell's
genetic material. Because EMFs are not strong enough to break
molecular and chemical bonds, scientists are concentrating on
the second stage of cancer, a series of steps called "promotion."
Researchers are tying to pinpoint ways in which EMFs might cause
cells to grow and multiply abnormally.
Some studies suggest that EMFs may promote cancer by interfering
with the transmission of calcium across the cell membrane, a flow
that governs such processes as muscle contraction, egg fertilization,
cell division, and growth. EMFs may also disturb a cell's ability
to process hormone, enzyme, and other biological signals that
regulate normal growth.
EMFs are known to affect nerve impulses. Melatonin, a regulatory
hormone secreted by the pineal gland near the brain, ordinarily
stimulates immune responses and may suppress tumor growth. Reduced
melatonin production has been linked to breast and prostate cancer.
Melatonin secretion in turn is controlled by norepinephrine, a
neurotransmitter in the brain. Receptors for its relative, the
hormone epinephrine, are disturbed by EMFs.
Some doctors stated that their observations led them to believe
that it was possible that magnetic fields stimulate the rate of
cancer cell growth, or act as a cancer promoter.
A San Antonio researcher discovered human cancer cells exposed
to 60 Hz fields (the frequency of a high-voltage line) grew as
much as 24 times as fast as unexposed cells and showed greatly
increased resistance to destruction by the cells of the body's
Female breast cancer has reached epidemic proportions, with one
in ten American women developing it and one in four dying. Alarmingly,
of women who develop the disease, 55% have no known risk factors.
Breast cancer mortality rates are five times lower in Asia and
Africa than in industrialized North America and northern Europe
regions where EMFs are omnipresent.
Electric Companies On the Spot
A contention of the electric utility industry in the United States
had been that the pathologies referred to in most of the studies
might actually have been induced by exposure to pesticides, chemicals
or other toxic agents in the environment.
For a time they contended that if power-line magnetic fields really
did cause cancer, the fivefold increase in electrical usage during
the past 30 years would have been expected to have produced an
epidemic of childhood leukemia. The utility industry stopped making
this statement in June of 1991, after the National Cancer Institute
disclosed that a study it had made showed that in recent years
there had been unexplained increases of nearly 11% in childhood
leukemia, and of more than 30% in childhood brain cancer.
A study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine
reported a steep increase in brain-cancer rates over the past
dozen years among the general population.
People working with computer monitors are developing primary brain
tumors at nearly five times the expected rate.
Still, as Dr. Becker observes, "Companies wont admit that
EMFs are risky, because they will become liable. And the government
wont, because it is the largest user of the electromagnetic spectrum,
especially for military communications. Our whole economy depends
on them now."
Not surprisingly, as people begin to focus on the problem of EMFs,
property values near power lines and electric substations have
been plummeting, and numerous lawsuits have been filed.
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