Electromagnetic Fields and Health
By Richard W. Woodley – Bridlewood Residents Hydro Line Committee
Ionizing and non-ionizing radiation are separated on the electromagnetic spectrum by visible light – a frequency of roughly 500 trillion cycles a second. Above that frequency is ionizing radiation which contains enough energy to physically alter the atoms it strikes, changing them into charged particles called ions. Below visible light the low frequency waves are non-ionizing – they do not possess enough energy to charge atoms. Ionizing radiation, such as nuclear radiation and X-rays, have long been known to be harmful. However, the question of the health effects of electromagnetic radiation, which is non- ionizing is a controversial one.
Some of the first warnings came in 1972 when scientists in the Soviet Union reported strange health effects in switchyard workers who were routinely exposed to high levels of electromagnetic fields. The workers experienced increased heart disease, nervous disorders, blood pressure changes, recurring headaches, fatigue, stress and chronic depression.
Although concerns had been raised earlier, one of the first epidemiological studies to indicate a health risk was a 1979 University of Colorado study by Dr. Nancy Wertheimer and Ed Leeper which reported a two to three fold increase in cancer deaths among children living near high current power lines in Denver, Colorado.
In November 1986 Dr. David Savitz, of the University of North Carolina, reported the results of a study done as part of the New York Power Lines Project which confirmed Wertheimer and Leeper’s findings. The study found increased incidences of childhood cancer and leukemia associated with EMF exposures above 2.5 mG. Dr. Savitz’s final report to the New York State Health Department stated: The degree of confidence placed in these findings is open to varying interpretation, but the tentative conclusion that the study is supportive of an association of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and cancer risk is warranted.
Dr. David Carpenter, the Executive Secretary of the New York Power Lines Project, in response to statements that the Project revealed no evidence that magnetic fields pose a health hazard stated: Any logical person cannot conclude that there are no effects. He said It’s just wrong to imply that there are no hazards. A second New York Power Lines Project was soon planned.
The findings of the Wertheimer and Leeper and Savitz studies were confirmed by a 1991 study by S.J. London et al., published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
A University of Southern California study undertaken by John Peters and colleagues and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in November 1991 also confirmed these findings. Public Power Weekly reported on January 28 1992 that: The most comprehensive study to date of childhood leukemia and exposure to electromagnetic fields offers additional evidence that proximity to power lines may increase leukemia risk.
When wire codes were used to measure exposure, the risk of leukemia among children with the highest exposure to magnetic fields was about two times greater than the risk of leukemia among children with the least risk.
There was no clear association shown when direct measurements of magnetic fields in the children’s residences were used as an indication of exposure. However the discrepancy between results based on measurements and those using wire codes may mean that wire codes are a more accurate predictor of magnetic fields, according to the researchers. They stated: Although magnetic fields are imperfectly approximated by wiring configuration, the wiring configuration is determined with little error, is unlikely to change over time within a residence, and therefore, may actually be a superior indication of long-time field exposure than the measurements taken. Even though our 24-hour measurements were longer than measurements made in previous studies, they’re still just snapshots, said Peters. The estimates based on wiring configuration may better reflect the long-term exposure.
These findings were further confirmed by a 1992 Swedish study by Maria Feychting and Anders Ahlbom which reported a higher relative risk of 2.7 times for childhood leukemia and 1.7 times for leukemia in adults for subjects exposed to higher magnetic field levels compared with the control group in the study.
Christine Gorman in the October 26, 1992 issue of Time, stated: One of the most telling results was that the cancer risk grew in proportion to the strength of the electromagnetic field. She reported that children with constant exposures to the weakest fields (less than 1 mG) had the lowest incidence of cancer. Those exposed to 2 mG had a threefold increase in risk and those exposed to 3 mG had a fourfold increase in the risk of leukemia. As Gorman stated: Such a clear progression makes it difficult to argue that factors other than exposure to the electromagnetic field were responsible for the extra cases of leukemia.
As well a 1992 Danish study conducted by Dr. Jorgen H. Olsen found a five-fold increase in the risk of childhood leukemia, lymphomas and brain tumours where children living near power lines were exposed to 4 mG.
Children are not the only ones at risk. Microwave News reported in March/April 1990 that there are now at least 12 studies pointing to an EMF-brain tumour risk. Researcher Dr. Samuel Milham Jr. stated: There are far too many positive studies to dismiss an EMF-brain tumour connection.
As well, Microwave News reported in July/August 1990 that epidemiologists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA, had uncovered new evidence for an association between occupational exposures to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and the development of male breast cancer. The study supports the preliminary findings of a Johns Hopkins University (JHU) study, reported last year, showing an increased risk of male breast cancer among young New York telephone workers.
Paul Demers, working with Dr. David Thomas’s research group at the Hutchinson center, has found that telephone linemen, electricians and electric power workers have six times the expected rate of male breast cancer – a statistically significant increase. For radio and communications workers, the risk was almost tripled. Overall there was a doubling of the cancer risk for all EMF-exposed workers.
A further Norwegian study found twice the expected rate of breast cancer in men in occupations which involved exposure to electro- magnetic fields.
As well, a study by University of North Carolina researcher Dana Loomis published in the June 15, 1994 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that women in electrical occupations are 38% more likely to die of breast cancer than other working women. The study found the breast cancer death rate was more than twice as high among female telephone installers, repairers and line workers, compared with women in non-electrical occupations. The results support four previous studies that found elevated breast cancer rates among male electrical workers.
Another study, conducted by Dr. Tora Tynes of the Cancer Registry of Norway, found that in a sampling of over 2,000 female licensed ship radio operators born between 1934 and 1969, the risk of develop- ing breast cancer was almost twice that of other Norwegian women.
Another occupational study, funded by Hydro-Quebec, Ontario Hydro and Electricite de France, was released at the end of March 1994. It found a link between the magnetic fields generated by electrical currents and an increased incidence of leukemia among utility workers. These findings confirm the results of a 1991 study by Genevieve Matanoski that found telephone workers employed by AT&T with higher EMF exposures had 2.5 times the rate of leukemia as employees with lower exposures.
We believe our results speak for an association between occupational exposure to magnetic fields and at least one type of leukemia conclude the authors, led by Dr. Gilles Theriault of Montreal’s McGill University.
They found that workers with above-average exposure to magnetic fields were three times more likely to develop acute myeloid leukemia than less-exposed workers. Acute myeloid leukemia is one of the most common types of leukemia among adults.
A University of North Carolina School of Public Health study conducted by Dr. David Savitz and Dr. Dana P. Loomis published in January 1995 in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that utility workers have a greater chance of dying of brain cancer. The results demonstrated that workers with the highest EMF exposures had more than a two-and-a-half times greater chance of dying of brain cancer than the least exposed workers. The researchers also observed a strong exposure-response relationship for brain tumours.
Over 40 occupational studies have shown that adults who were routinely exposed to high EMFs in their work environment had a significantly increased chance of dying of cancer when compared to other workers.
In The Great Power-Line Cover-Up, published in 1993, Paul Brodeur cites a review of 51 epidemiological studies of electromagnetic field exposure and cancer risk published in a California Department of Health Services handbook. It found that 28 studies (55%) reported a statistically significant risk, 15 studies (29%) reported elevated but nonstatistically significant risk, and 8 studies (16%) reported no association.
In the same book Brodeur also refers to remarks made by Dr. David Carpenter, the Executive Secretary of the New York Power Lines Project, in the keynote speech at a conference on electromagnetic fields in Meriden, Connecticut on July 28, 1992. Dr. Carpenter, was responding to a June 1992 report of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering which stated that there was not enough evidence to support a conclusion that electromagnetic fields could cause cancer.
Pointing to the consistency of results between several childhood cancer studies and more than two dozen occupational studies, he declared that the weight of the evidence clearly showed that people exposed to power-line frequency fields at home and at work were experiencing an increased risk of developing leukemia and brain cancer. He said that recent studies showing increased breast cancer in men who were occupationally exposed to power-frequency fields were particularly worrisome, and he warned that if breast cancer and other reproductive cancers in women were also found to be associated with magnetic-field exposure, the nation would be facing a major public health hazard…. He added that to do nothing about the problem was unacceptable because `we are where we were with cigarette smoking twenty five years ago’.
In 1994 three new epidemiological reports were released. One indicated a tie between occupational exposure to EMFs and Alzheimer’s disease, another indicated a link with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and another indicated a tie with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
In a case-control study of 387 Alzheimer’s patients and 475 controls, Dr. Eugene Sobel of the University of Southern California School of Medicine and colleagues found an association between occupational exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and Alzheimer’s disease. The study was made up of two Finnish groups and one American group of subjects. Researchers found that the overall odds ratio of subjects occupationally exposed to high and medium levels of EMFs developing Alzheimer’s was 3.0 (p<0.0003) compared to subjects exposed to low levels of EMFs.
A researcher at Coghill Research Labs in England recently reported the results of a study on the relationship between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and EMFs. This study examined the location of all SIDS cases in Inner North London between January 1986 and July 1988 in relation to obvious sources of EMFs. The researcher found that not only were SIDS infants living significantly nearer to EMF sources than controls, but the nearer the EMF sources, the younger in age did the infants die. The author concluded that there is a correlation between chronic EM field exposure and SIDS.
Laboratory studies have also shown health effects from electromagnetic radiation. Cass Peterson, writing in The Washington Post, states: Similarly, numerous animal studies have demonstrated neurological or reproductive effects from low frequency electro- magnetic fields. Chick embryos show a higher rate of abnormalities when exposed to low-frequency fields, mice suffer a higher rate of abortion and abnormal fetuses when exposed to slightly higher frequencies, approximating those emitted by video display terminals.Peterson further stated: In separate experiments, scientists at the Cancer Therapy and Research Centre in San Antonio 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 defense system.’
While doing research for the New York State Power Lines Project Dr. Jerry Phillips and Dr. Wendell Winters discovered that human cancer cells proliferated like crazy when exposed to magnetic fields. As well, the exposed cells became increasingly resistant to the body’s immune system. Drs. Phillips and Winters 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.
Research into how magnetic fields are linked to cancer is also being undertaken. For example, Dr. Russell Reiter believes that a variety of different cancers may be promoted by magnetic fields. In a paper presented in November 1993 at a United States Department of Energy meeting, he explained that the suppression of melatonin by magnetic fields could result in a higher incidence of cancer in any tissue, This effect could clear up one of the mysteries of the magnetic field/cancer issue, that is, the large number of different types that have reportedly increased, he suggested. A leaked United States National Council on Radiation Protection report (discussed later in this article) supports this theory.
A recent study suggests another possible cause. A British study conducted by Denis Henshaw and colleagues at the University of Bristol, published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology on February 14, 1996, found that power lines attract particles from radon gas, a known carcinogen. They have found evidence that the harmful concentrations of radon products may be present around overhead power lines. The electromagnetic fields associated with the lines can therefore concentrate a cocktail of potential carcinogens.
We only have room here to cite a sampling of the hundreds of laboratory studies that have shown a link between EMFs and health effects.
The utility industry’s latest strategy is to argue that we cannot prove that there is a health risk from electromagnetic fields until we know exactly how magnetic fields cause cancer, leukemia or other diseases. This is a false argument as Paul Brodeur clearly points out in his 1993 book The Great Power-Line Cover-Up. He states: What industry spokespeople conveniently overlooked, of course, was that thirty years after definitive epidemiology had been conducted to show that asbestos was a potent cancer-producing agent, scientists still do not know the mechanism by which an inhaled asbestos fibre reacts in lung tissue to cause cancer. Nor do they understand the mechanism by which cigarette smoke reacts in lung tissue to cause cancer. Or how the chemical pesticide DDT operates in breast tissue to cause breast cancer. Suffice it to say, if public health authorities had been required to wait for the cancer-producing mechanisms of these agents to be fully understood, regulations governing asbestos exposure would not have been implemented; warnings on cigarette smoking would not have been issued; and the twenty-year old ban on DDT would not have been imposed.
In the United States several courts have ruled on the health risk issue.
In late 1985, after parents brought suit, a Texas court ruled that Houston Lighting & Power had shown callous disregard of their children’s health by siting a 345 kV line within 200 feet of a school and playground. The court ordered the utility to relocate the line.
In June 1989 a Florida judge ruled that children may not play in a Boca Raton school yard which borders on high voltage power lines. The suit was brought by three local parents who sought to close the Sandpiper Shores school because of potential electromagnetic field health hazards.
The judge noted that children have no choice about going to school and therefore EMF exposure at school is an involuntary risk: He stated that a 1% chance that there is substantial danger is unacceptable.
Official recognition of the health hazards of electromagnetic radiation is slowly coming. In a report issued June 19, 1989 the United States Congressional Office of Technology Assessment stated: Electric and magnetic fields produced by electric power systems may pose public health hazards. The report states that a growing amount of evidence now indicates that, under certain circumstances, even relatively weak extremely low frequency (ELF) fields can cause biological changes and that, although the implications are stillunclear, there are legitimate reasons for concern.
Among the report’s proposals is a strategy of prudent avoidance: attempting to route new transmission lines so that they avoid people; widening transmission line rights-of-way; developing designs for distribution systems – including new grounding procedures – which would reduce the associated fields; and redesigning appliances to minimize or eliminate fields.
Further official recognition comes from a United States Environmental Protection Agency draft report which, according to The New York Times (May 23, 1990), says that there is a possible link between cancer and the electromagnetic fields generated by power lines. In particular, the agency’s survey of existing human health studies found that children exposed to such radiation seemed to face a higher than normal risk of developing leukemia.
The findings on the possible health effects of exposure to radiation from electromagnetic fields generally agree with those in the report issued previously by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment.
Of the EPA report, Time magazine reported, on July 30, 1990, that Louis Slesin of Microwave News, has printed what may be his greatest scoop: the key paragraph of a two-year Environmental Protection Agency study recommending that so-called extremely low-frequency fields be classified as probable human carcinogens alongside such notorious chemical toxins as PCBs, formaldehyde and dioxin. The recommendation, which could have set off a costly chain of regulatory actions, was deleted from the final draft after review by the White House Office of Policy Development. The EPA thing is a stunner, says Paul Brodeur, a writer for the New Yorker. It’s a clear case of suppression and politicization of a major health issue by the White House.
Paul Brodeur wrote of the EPA report in The New Yorker: In spite of the deletion, the summary-and-conclusions section of the draft EPA report contained a persuasive indictment of power-line magnetic fields as a cancer-producing agent. Its authors stated that five of the six case-control studies published in the peer-reviewed medical literature showed that children who lived near power lines giving off strong magnetic fields were developing cancer more readily than children who did not live near power lines.
Further official recognition came on June 29, 1994 when Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries ruled that a former smelter employee of Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation in Tacoma was entitled to worker’s compensation for cancer he claims was caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) on the job. This is the first ruling by a U.S. government body acknowledging a link between EMF exposure and cancer. The complaint filed by James Brewer pointed out that eight Kaiser employees out of the 90 who worked with him in the smelter’s pot room had developed lymphoma or leukemia and died. Aluminum smelting requires unusually high levels of electrical power and consequently workers are exposed to high magnetic field levels during the manufacturing process. In the pot room Brewer was also frequently exposed to intense heat and noxious chemicals including benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Mr. Brewer’s physician, Dr. Samuel Milham, has asserted a link between EMF and cancer in aluminum smelters in his research. Dr. Milham studied Kaiser’s aluminum plant during the 1980s and found way too many cases of leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among workers there. The high incidence of cancer in the Kaiser workers coincides with similar findings in other aluminum plants.
The latest official recognition of the health risk comes in a leaked United States National Council on Radiation Protection report funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and written by eleven leading American experts in EMFs. Bob Edwards, in the October 7, 1995 issue of New Scientist, writes that the report recommends an EMF safety limit of 2 mG (0.2 microteslas). He writes:
EPA officials say the report is the most comprehensive study ever on the health effects of low-frequency EMFs. Its findings represent a fundamental challenge to the electricity industry. The authors say that their recommendations, if accepted, could force `complex and costly’ changes in society`s use of electricity.
The committee`s chairman, Ross Adey, a neurologist from the Veterans Affairs Medical Centre in Loma Linda, California, says there is now a `powerful body of impressive evidence’ to suggest that very low exposure to EMFs has subtle, long-term effects on human health. `The sensitivity of the brain and its mechanisms to these fields is the key to understanding this issue,’ he told New Scientist.
The report recommends that future developments adopt a safety limit of 0.2 microteslas. This is a very weak magnetic field, and stronger fields are common around electricity pylons and close to electrical appliances. New nurseries, schools and houses should not be built where EMF exposures breach that guideline, says the report, and power lines should be kept away from residential areas. Offices should be designed to keep workers’exposure from computers, photocopiers and printers below o.2 microteslas.
Public health officials are now beginning to take a position on the EMF issue.
Patti Miller, who is in charge of the Washington State Department of Health EMF Task Force, is quoted by Ellen Sugarman in Warning: The Electricity Around You May Be Hazardous to Your Health as stating: In the Department of Health, we’ve been answering questions about the dangers by telling people to avoid fields at the level of 3 mG. The utilities recently complained to the governor’s office about it and the governor has tried to make us stop saying this when people call. But we feel strongly that we can’t just pass the buck the way they do. After all, we’re responsible for the public health.
Dr. David Carpenter, former Executive Secretary of the New York Power Lines Project and now Dean of the State of New York School of Public Health, is quoted by Ellen Sugarman as stating:
I am now convinced that EMFs pose a health hazard. There is a statistical association between magnetic fields and cancer that goes beyond the shadow of reasonable doubt. I think there is clear evidence that exposure to EMFs increases the risk for cancer. This is most clear with leukemia and brain tumours, but in the residential studies, statistical significance increased for all kinds of cancer. And we’re just beginning to have a whole body of evidence that reproductive cancers are increased by exposure.
The World Health Organization has, in early 1996, initiated a 5 year $3.33 million project to assess the health and environmental effects of exposure to electric and magnetic fields. An International Advisory Committee will oversee the project.
Perhaps the most significant new factor concerning the EMF health factor is the increasing public awareness. The January 1-3, 1993 issue of USA Weekend, a Sunday supplement magazine with a readership of thirty-three and a half million, contained a poll that asked readers to select what they considered to be the United States number one environmental health priority. The results were announced in the February 19-21, 1993 issue of the magazine. Electromagnetic fields were selected as the number one priority by 35% of the readers; 17% chose chemicals in food; 12% chose indoor air quality, and 36% listed other environmental concerns.
The Bridlewood Residents Hydro Line maintains a Bibliography on Electromagnetic Radiation and Health which currently contains over 1,000 entries consisting of scientific reports and journal articles, government and official reports, newspaper and magazine articles, books, and non-print media such as videotapes and TV programs.
Another extensive review of the the health effects of EMFs is provided in the Safe Technologies Corporation file in the Other EMF Organizations menu.