How Dangerous Is
What characteristic is shared by an electric
blanket, a power line, and a broadcast tower?
All three emit electromagnetic radiation.
These invisible electromagnetic fields are known as
EMFs. They are generated by currents running through electric
wires. Since they are not powerful and destructive like
nuclear or X-ray radiation, they were once thought to be harmless.
However, studies have suggested that people exposed to them
chronically run a higher risk of certain health problems, including
miscarriages, learning disabilities, and cancer.
No clear cause-and-effect relationship has been
established between EMFs and illnesses, but the mounting evidence
makes EMFs appear to be extremely suspicious. And because EMFs
are generated by many sources -- including microwave ovens,
televisions and radios, military radar systems, and, ironically,
some treatments for cancerous tumors -- many of us could be at risk.
Studies over the last 15 years have hinted at a
connection between EMFs and health problems. EMFs have been
implicated in behavioral changes, birth defects, memory loss, and
Alzheimer's disease. In 1976, two doctors at the Veteran's
Administration Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y. showed that the offspring
of mice exposed to extremely low-frequency EMFs from power lines
were born stunted.
In their attempts to establish a cause-and-effect
connection between EMF exposure and health problems, scientists have
been trying to uncover just what effect EMFs have on the body.
One theory is that EMFs of certain frequencies disrupt the normal
role of calcium in the brain. Another theory says that EMFs
affect how cells grow and reproduce. A third belief holds that
EMFs make cells manufacture proteins they normally would not
Researchers who believe in the EMF-illnesses
connection have their critics. These skeptics emphasize that
there is no proven cause-and-effect link between EMF exposure and
cancer. At a Florida state government hearing on power line
emission standards, Philip Cole, MD, an epidemiologist (a researcher
who studies the occurrence and control of a disease) at the
University of Alabama, Birmingham, emphasized this absence of proof.
Without a proven connection, Cole asserted, "There is no
relationship between EMFs and cancer in human beings, or if there is
an effect it must be of very low magnitude, even among people who
are moderately to heavily exposed."
Other studies have focused specifically on the
suspected connection between EMF exposure and cancer. In 1979,
two University of Colorado researchers, physician Nancy Wertheimer
and physicist Ed Leeper, pored through childhood mortality records
in the Denver area and correlated long-term exposure to weak EMFs
with a higher incidence of cancer. Seven years later, Dr.
Lennart Tomenius, a Swedish researcher, found the same relationship
between EMF exposure and cancer rates among children in Stockholm.
And in 1982, Samuel Milham, an occupational health physician in the
Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, noted in
the New England Journal of Medicine that he found more
leukemia-related deaths in men whose work brought them in contact
with electrical and magnetic fields, such as employees of utility
Furthermore, EMFs have been implicated in pregnancy
problems. In 1986, Wertheimer and Leeper reported that women
who used heated waterbeds or electric blankets, both of which emit
EMFs had longer pregnancies and a higher miscarriage rate. And
in 1987, Kurt Salzinger, a psychology professor at the
Brooklyn-based Polytechnic Institute of New York, found that rats
exposed to EMFs for 30 days had more problems than unexposed rats in
learning to press a bar on command. Their offspring, exposed
in the womb and for nine days after birth, developed permanent
Indeed, studies on diseases occasionally have the
difficulty of trying to prove a causal link when researchers must
rely on past records and events instead of controlled experiments.
However, this lack of proof has not stopped lawyers from introducing
available studies as evidence in EMF-related lawsuits. The
judgments in several such suits were based on research showing a
possible connection and not a definite link. In late 1985, a
Texas jury ordered the Houston Lighting and Power Company to pay a
local school district $25 million in punitive damages after the
utility built a transmission line through school property without
the district's permission. In Florida, juries have awarded
more than $1 million to owners of land next to high-voltage lines.
Another suit illustrates the potential effects of
transmission lines and the EMFs they create on home owners trying to
sell their homes. About 60 landowners in New York state filed
a $60 million suit against the New York Power Authority, alleging
that a half completed power line from Canada into the state could
produce a "cancer-phobia corridor" where property values would
This fear of diminished property values brings up
the question of what the general public can do to protect itself
from this potential threat. EMFs are not like other harmful
agents. They have not been proven dangerous, as has the
outlawed, cancer-causing food coloring Red Dye #2, for example.
In addition, unlike Red Dye #2 and other proven carcinogens, EMFs
are almost unavoidable. The magnetic fields easily, penetrate
walls and bodies, and as of now, no protective shield is available.
With such a pervasive yet mysterious force around
us, there's not much we can do to totally eliminate EMF exposure.
There are ways, though, of minimizing our potential risks:
Unplug and do not use electric blankets.
Don't sit less than five feet from televisions.
Don't allow people to peer through the doors of
microwave ovens when they're on.
If you're pregnant, minimize the use video-display
Avoid taking jobs or living in areas where EMF
exposure could be high. The people at greatest risk are
utility workers and those near transmission lines. (No study
has established a "safe minimum distance" from power lines.)
Though EMFs have not been proven dangerous, the
evidence clearly points to an association between them and health
problems, and individuals have reason to be concerned.
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