Power Lines, Wiring Pose Health Risks
SACRAMENTO, California, July 16, 2001 (ENS) - Added risk of miscarriage,
childhood leukemia, brain cancer and greater incidence of suicide are
some of the health risks associated with exposure to electric and
magnetic fields such as those that radiate from power lines, according
to a California health department review.
Released Friday under pressure from a California First Amendment
Coalition lawsuit, two reports summarize and analyze a decade of
research done at a cost to ratepayers of more than $7 million.
Two reports by researchers from the California Department of Health
Services say human population studies suggest there might be a problem
from electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) from power lines, wiring in
buildings, certain jobs, and appliances.
On behalf of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), three
scientists who work for the California Department of Health Services
were asked to review the existing scientific literature about possible
health problems from these sources. The PUC request for review did not
include radio frequency EMFs from cell phones and radio towers.
Power lines radiate electric and magnetic fields.
Three assigned scientists, a physician/epidemiologist, a
geneticist/epidemiologist, and a physicist with training in epidemiology
assessed the literature with the assistance of 10 other DHS scientists.
It is "more than 50 percent possible" the scientists reported, that EMFs
at home or at work could cause a "very small increased lifetime risk of
childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, and amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease."
"It is more than 50 percent possible that EMFs at home or at work could
cause a five to 10 percent added risk of miscarriage."
"It is 10-50 percent possible that residential or occupational EMFs
could be responsible for a small increased lifetime risk of male breast
cancer, childhood brain cancer, suicide, Alzheimer's disease, or sudden
cardiac death," the scientists wrote.
In every instance, they took care to note that "there is a chance that
EMFs have no effect at all."
"It is very unlikely - two to 10 percent possible - but not impossible,
that residential or occupational EMFs could be responsible for even a
small fraction of birth defects, low birth weight, neonatal deaths, or
cancer generally," the researchers said.
All of the three reviewers give a degree of confidence of at least 10 to
50 percent possible that residential or occupational EMFs could be
responsible for a small 15 increased lifetime risk of adult leukemia or
female breast cancer, and one gave a degree of confidence that was
The reviewers compared the size of possible risks from EMFs to the size
of possible risks from chemical and physical agents now being regulated.
They agreed that with the exception of miscarriage, the added risk, if
any, of even a highly EMF exposed individual getting any of these rare
diseases would be such that the vast majority of highly exposed
individuals - 95 percent to 99.9 percent - would not get them.
"Calculations suggest that the fraction of all cases of these conditions
for which EMF might be responsible would be very low," they said.
Still, these results were not readily released to the public, according
to the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC) which mounted a
lawsuit to make them public.
Dr. Raymond Neutra is director of the California Department of Health
EMF Program. (Photo courtesy McGill University School of Medicine)
In late June, the lawsuit was filed in Alameda Superior Court by the
California First Amendment Coalition and Citizens Concerned about EMFs,
two public benefit non-profit organizations. Defendants named in the
suit are the California Department of Health Services (DHS), DHS
Director Dr. Diana Bonta, the California Electric and Magnetic Fields
Program, and EMF Program Director Dr. Raymond Neutra.
The two reports, one a compilation of all available scientific evidence,
the other examining public policy implications of the data, were
originally ordered by the California Public Utilities Commission in
"We are delighted that the state decided to abide by the California
Public Records Act rather than go through protracted litigation," said
CFAC executive director Kent Pollock. "The people of California won an
important victory this morning."
The reports were scheduled for release in early May, but at the last
minute the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) asked state
department of health to delay releasing the reports until CPUC staff
could review them.
Several California Public Records Act requests for the reports were
denied. The letters of denial said release was inappropriate because any
last minute CPUC changes would become detectable if the reports were
released before the CPUC had a chance to review or alter them.
"These reports in their uncensored versions are important to the public
because they reflect an unbiased risk assessment of the effects that EMF
exposure from electric utility facilities has on human health," said
Peter Frech, executive director of Citizens Concerned About EMFs.
"If these reports were censored for political reasons or delayed until
the state of California had bought the transmission grid from the
utilities, then the whole purpose of the California EMF Research Program
- to inform the public about such risks - would have been defeated."
The increased risk of miscarriages did not show up in animal studies,
the three DHS reviewers said, but "two new epidemiology studies in
humans suggest that a substantial proportion of miscarriages might be
caused by EMFs," they said.
Miscarriages occur in about 10 to 15 percent of pregnancies in any case,
the reviewers point out. "The theoretical added risk for an EMF exposed
pregnant woman may be an additional five to 10 percent according to
these two studies. If true, this would clearly be of concern to
individuals and regulators."
But the type of EMF exposures implicated by these two new
epidemiological studies "short, very high exposures probably come from
being within a few inches of appliances and indoor wiring, and only
rarely from power lines," the reviewers theorize.
"It may not be possible to avoid all such exposures in modern life,"
Seventy-five percent of the women in the studies had at least one of
these brief high exposures during a day. Even one exposure a day, if
typically experienced during pregnancy, seemed to increase the risk of
miscarriage. Nonetheless, the majority of pregnant women with such
exposures did not miscarry, the reviewers emphasized.
The policy report recognizes four value perspectives. One says, in
effect, do not incur costs unless risks are virtually certain.
A second stresses freedom for property rights from governmental
A third proposes regulation in the name of social justice if a small
percentage of the population is especially vulnerable.
A fourth, used by economists, attempts to quantify the risk of harm and
the cost of avoiding it in order to design a yardstick of reasonable
In this report, the policy analysts relied mainly on the cost-benefit
approach as one that all parties could understand and critique
objectively. They concluded, among other things, that:
.Relatively modest cost measures to add protection against EMFs from
transmission lines might cost $136 million to avoid 27 deaths statewide
over the projected 35 year life of the lines.
.The expensive option, undergrounding of the lines, might avoid 495
deaths over the 35 years but might cost $248 billion. To an economist,
how much was worth spending would depend on how many lives were seen as
otherwise threatened over the 35 years.
.For distribution lines, those bringing power to homes and workplaces,
the modest cost estimates are $234.5 million to save 47 lives over the
period, or $5.03 billion to save 1,005 lives over the period.
.Different grounding procedures within homes might cost $200 per home
and save 22 lives over the period.
"The PUC has administrative procedures for reconciling conflicting
interests and perspectives with regard to the power grid. This is
particularly important in the face of the need in California for more
capacity in generation and transmission of electricity. State and local
agencies develop policy for schools. Since electricity is so ubiquitous
many agencies have potential interest in this issue," the researchers
"People will often tolerate risks and not be anxious if there is cost to
them to remove the exposure or benefit from tolerating it," the
researchers concluded. "Therefore it will be important to provide
information to the public and to develop stakeholder agreement on how to
proceed with regard to EMF exposures."