Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
November 1, 1996, Friday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 1; Column 1; National Desk
LENGTH: 1152 words
HEADLINE: Panel Sees No Proof Of Health Hazards From Power Lines
BYLINE: By WARREN E. LEARY
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, Oct. 31
There is no convincing evidence that exposure to electric and magnetic fields from
power lines and appliances in the home presents a health hazard, a panel of scientists
A 16-member committee of the National Research Council, an arm of the National
Academy of Sciences, said in a report that more than 500 studies over the last
17 years have produced no proof that electromagnetic fields common in households
caused leukemia or other cancers, or harmed human health in other ways.
After a three-year study that involved reviewing research papers and interviewing
scores of experts, the committee said, "Specifically, no conclusive and consistent
evidence shows that exposures to residential electric and magnetic fields produce cancer, adverse neurobehavioral effects or reproductive and developmental
The report was commissioned by Congress to address widespread concern that low-level
electromagnetic fields caused by electrical lines and appliances or by power lines
near homes, schools and public buildings might harm people's health. The concerns
had set off a fierce debate over whether expensive steps should be taken to limit
these fields when the extent of the hazard was not clear. Some community and consumer
groups have sued power companies to force them to move electric lines, install
shielding or bury new power lines in the ground at a cost of more than $1 billion
a year, Government studies have estimated.
The panel noted that several studies have shown that there is a statistically significant,
but small, risk of a rare childhood leukemia associated with living in homes located
near large groupings of power lines. However, it said, there is no clear evidence that electric and magnetic fields generated by these power lines are the
cause of this cancer.
The committee chairman, Dr. Charles F. Stevens of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
and the Salk Institute in San Diego, told a news briefing that extensive
animal and cellular testing have failed to show how magnetic or electrical
fields could trigger or promote the growth of cancer. Therefore, he said, the statistically
weak link between leukemia and the proximity of large power lines may be due to
unknown factors with no connection to electromagnetic fields. Possible outside factors, which need to be looked into more closely, include the age of homes and
their construction features, pollution, local air quality and heavy traffic in
areas near power lines, the committee said.
Dr. Stevens said in an interview that if the question of whether electromagnetic
fields caused health problems was only a scientific issue, the case against a cause-effect
relationship would be considered solid and beyond much doubt. However, he said, public concerns and perceptions about potential problems require
that more research be conducted in hopes of answering remaining questions and allaying
"No test or study can prove that any environmental agent is safe," Dr. Stevens
said. "All that science can do is fail, after trying very hard, to find an
adverse effect or to show that there is no current evidence of harm."
The debate over electromagnetic fields and health began in 1979 when researchers
at the University of Colorado linked some cases of childhood leukemia with
the proximity of high-voltage power lines to the children's homes. While some later studies appeared to confirm a connection, many others did not.
Some environmental groups have been using the issue to oppose some electrification
projects and the installation of transmission towers for cellular-telephone
Spokesmen for utility associations said the new report on electromagnetic fields,
or EMF, was encouraging. "Clearly the N.R.C. study shows that a continuing
body of evidence does not link EMF to a public health threat," said Thomas R. Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned
Madalyn Cafruny, director of communications for the American Public Power Association,
representing community-owned utilities, said the new report "should allay some concerns,
but may not put the issue to rest, as is the case with most scientific controversies."
Industry spokesmen said more research on the issue is needed and encouraged the
Government to continue to support a five-year joint research program with industry,
begun in 1994, to resolve the issue. This $65 million program involves extensive
laboratory work on the effects of electromagnetic fields on cells and biological processes,
as well as engineering research on electromagnetic fields in homes.
The National Research Council panel, in calling for more research, said work was
needed to pinpoint the unexplained factor or factors that are causing the small
increase in childhood leukemia in houses close to power lines. About a dozen
studies consistently show that children living in these situations are 1.5 times more likely
to develop the rare cancer than are other youngsters, the report said.
This leukemia link, he said, is based on the assumption that homes near transmission
lines are immersed in stronger magnetic and electrical energy fields than are
homes farther from such lines. Researchers have used the size of the wire, the amount of current it carries and its distance away as a basis to estimate the strength
of magnetic fields in nearby homes.
However, Dr. Stevens said, new work has shown that such estimates are not accurate.
Electromagnetic fields measured in homes show little correlation to ratings of
wires outside the home, he said.
Dr. David A. Savitz of the University of North Carolina, vice chairman of the committee,
said childhood leukemia afflicts one in 30,000 children in the United States each
year, appearing mostly in children between the ages of 2 and 4. Because the
increased risk associated with proximity to power lines is so small, Dr. Savitz said,
it is doubtful that whatever is responsible is a major overall cause of the cancer.
Dr. Stevens said his committee's conclusions are in line with those of large studies
that assessed research in the field and found inconsistent and inconclusive
evidence of adverse effects from electromagnetic fields. There is more cause for confidence in the new study, he said, because it is more thorough and detailed than
the earlier work, including a report released last year by the American Physical
Dr. Robert L. Park, a spokesman for the American Physical Society, the world's
largest group of physicists, said the new study confirms his group's conclusions
and should help put an end to the controversy over electromagnetic fields. "Scientifically, it's essentially over now," Dr. Park said in an interview. "I
hope this puts the whole issue to rest, but somehow I doubt it. Sometimes it takes
a long time to end things like this because there is so much emotion invested
Copyright 1996 Globe Newspaper Company
The Boston Globe
November 1, 1996, Friday, City Edition
SECTION: NATIONAL/FOREIGN; Pg. A1
LENGTH: 869 words
HEADLINE: Electromagnetic research review finds no danger
BYLINE: By Scott Allen, Globe Staff
An exhaustive review of possible health risks from the electromagnetic fields
that surround power lines and home appliances has found no conclusive evidence
that the low-level exposure in most homes causes cancer or any other disease.
In recent years, fear of the weak electric and magnetic fields that emanate from
electric wires and devices has depressed real estate prices near high-tension
lines and fueled opposition to construction of electric lines and
substations. A popular
book, "The Great Power-Line Cover-Up," argued that the government and utilities
were deliberately hiding the danger.
But a 16-member committee of the National Research Council concluded yesterday
that those fears appear to be unfounded. In a review of more than 500 studies spanning
17 years of research, the panel found no evidence that electromagnetic fields damage human cells at all.
The panel did find a 50 percent increase in leukemia among children whose homes
have the biggest power lines nearby. But the researchers said the leukemia rate may
be just a coincidence, since the size and proximity of the power lines outside have
little to do with the intensity of electromagnetic fields inside houses.
"The findings to date do not support claims that electromagnetic fields are harmful
to a person's health," said committee chairman Charles F. Stevens, an investigator
at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
However, three members of the committee issued a separate statement warning that
electromagnetic fields should not be dismissed as health hazards. While agreeing
with the overall report, the three said the panel's inability to explain the
elevated childhood leukemia rate is cause for concern.
"This report documents that electromagnetic field exposure produces a number of
biological effects . . . that could possibly play a role in cancer development,"
said panelist Richard A. Luben, professor of biomedical sciences and biochemistry at the University of California-Riverside.
At extremely high levels, electromagnetic fields can speed bone healing or even
cause tumors, but manmade electromagnetic fields in most households are weak
and quickly dissipate, the panel said. In fact, naturally occurring electromagnetic fields surrounding brain activity and other bodily functions are hundreds of times
Boston Edison, for example, routinely faces community concerns when it seeks to
expand its power-line system.
"It's raised as an issue whenever we have a project," such as a substation built
in South Boston two years ago, said Edison spokesman John Conroy. "This report
should help us locate these facilities. The third party credibility certainly
But activists concerned about electromagnetic fields said the report was just one
battle in a long fight, noting it took 50 years to discover the cellular mechanism
by which cigarette smoke causes lung cancer.
Robert Hemstock of Guilford, Conn., said he remains convinced that a Connecticut
Light & Power substation on Meadow Street in his town is at least partly responsible
for five brain tumors in nearby residents. Hemstock, whose research helped make electromagnetic fields a health issue, said he has invented a device that
measures the fields more precisely than ever, allowing him to better document
links to cancer.
"We're doing the grunt work and these guys are shooting at us from the outside,"
said Hemstock of the National Research Council report.
The new report comes 17 years after researchers first found evidence that children
living close to larger electric lines were 1.5 times more likely than others to
develop leukemia. Since then, other researchers have found similar results.
But the National Research Council, responding to a request from Congress, concluded
that much of the research that found heightened childhood leukemia and other diseases
Because measuring electromagnetic fields is difficult and time-consuming, researchers
estimated household exposure based on the size of wires and their proximity to
the house. Houses with the highest so-called "wire codes" had the highest levels of childhood leukemia.
However, panelist Lynn W. Jelinsky of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said
it turns out that outdoor wiring is a minor source of most people's electromagnetic
field exposure. Researchers measuring the fields inside found that their strength bore no relation to the size of the power lines nearby, he said.
Committee members admitted they were puzzled by the elevated leukemia rate, but
suggested it could be caused by poor air quality or other hazards associated with
older houses that tend to have larger electric wires nearby. The panel called
for more research into childhood leukemia close to power lines.
But panelist John S. Waugh, a chemist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
said the new report shows that electromagnetic fields are simply not as important
as other environmental issues.
"Compared to other things you might worry about or spend money on, electromagnetic
field research doesn't look to me like the best one to spend it on," Waugh said.
"If you have money to spend, spend it on breast cancer or smoking."