Warning: The Electricity Around You May Be Hazardous to Your Health
by Ellen Sugar
Chapter 3 : Controversy and Cover-up
"If I were a company, Id have to protect my interests by hiring people who'd get up and say there is no problem. And some scientists never testify - they feel it either puts them on one side of the issue or diminishes their credibility." Jerry Phillips, M.D., Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Hospital, Loma Linda, CA
The notion that electromagnetic fields could be dangerous to your health is not an entirely new one. Warnings began as early as 1972, when scientists in the Soviet Union reported strange health effects in switchyard workers who were routinely exposed to high levels of electromagnetic fields. According to the Russians - to whom no one seemed to pay much attention at the time - the workers experienced increased heart disease, nervous disorders, blood pressure changes, as well as recurring headaches, fatigue, stress, and chronic depression.
As you can see in the EMF Timeline, the next fifteen years produced a slow, but steady, increase in information about the possible dangers of EMF exposure. It wasn't until the late eighties, however, with the publication of a number of key reports, that a red flag went up and people around the country started voicing their concerns and clamoring for some public recognition that EMF exposures were an actual health risk. In the late nineties, the controversy really heated up - with one side assuring the public there was no danger from EMFs and the other continuing to report a public health risk.
1972 Reports from Soviet Union
1973 Navy Project Sanguine Committee
1975 Becker and Marino studies
1977 New York State PSC transmission-line hearings
1979 Wertheimer/Leeper study on childhood leukemia
1980 New York State Power Lines Project funded
1985 Texas school district wins first EMF lawsuit
1987 New York State Power Lines study reports
1988 Marcy-South class-action suit filed
1989 OTA report
1990 EPA report on EMFs as carcinogens
1992 DOE funds RAPID
1992 California EMF effects project begins
1995 NCRP report is leaked
1995 Albom meta-analysis
1995 Kheifets EPRI meta-analysis
1996 NAS-NRC Review
1996 Miller meta-analysis
1996 Fear electrical workers' study
1996 Byus & Stuchly replicate mouse tumor study
1997 N CI Study
1997 Savitz meta-study of electrical workers
1997 Repacholi mouse tumor study (MW radiation)'
1973: PROJECT SANGUINE
In 1973, a stellar committee of U.S. scientists attempted to issue a warning about disturbing biological effects of electromagnetic fields. The eight-member scientific panel had been commissioned by the U.S. Navy to review a series of studies on electromagnetic field bioeffects that were being conducted at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories in Pensacola, Florida, in conjunction with the navy's proposed Project Sanguine in northern Michigan. When completed, Sanguine would involve 22,500 miles of underground cables that would produce an enormous electromagnetic field with the capability to beam radio frequency (RF) waves through the earth to establish communication links with the U.S. submarine fleet. The first phase of the project had already been started, but it had soon become a target of protest from locals who were worried about possible health risks from the fields.
The navy expected its inquiry to help defuse the opposition. Instead, the panel reported a number of worrisome findings - among them reports of birth defects in laboratory animals exposed to weak EMF fields, decreased task performance in exposed animals, and changes in the blood composition of human subjects after EMF exposure. (Even more alarming, scientists were finding similar alterations in blood chemistry in men working on the piece of Project Sanguine that bad already been put in place.) Instead of smoothing the waters, the panel found the studies so alarming it recommended that the navy warn the administration about what appeared to be a potential major public health hazard from the 60-Hz electric power system. However, the navy ignored the recommendation, buried the report, and eventually aborted the project.
We can probably mark the year 1973, when the Project Sanguine advisory panel turned in that report, as the beginning of a trend on the part of the military, the power companies, and at times, even the government, to engage in a massive cover-up in order to keep people from learning that exposures to the ambient electric and magnetic fields produced by everyday 60-Hz power systems might be dangerous to their health. The reasons are obvious. The Pentagon itself produces a large majority of the electromagnetic fields affecting people today, in its weapons systems - which could be rendered obsolete if the magnetic field standards are revised downward and radar towers. The power companies and large communication businesses have an economic interest in maintaining the status quo insofar as EMFs are concerned, because of the costs involved in reducing fields, because of issues of liability, and because of their strong commitment to "technological progress."
The cover-up might have succeeded if it weren't for the actions of one of the scientists on the navy panel. Dr. Robert Becker, head of orthopedic surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Syracuse, New York, and a known expert on bioelectricity refused to be silent about what he believed was a serious threat to public health. Dr. Becker had been studying electromagnetic fields since the mid-sixties, in a series of experiments that began as an inquiry into the mechanisms by which electric currents promoted healing of bone fractures (the technique of applying electrical current directly to bone fractures has been used since the early fifties). He found that the electrical current promoted mitosis - that is, the current caused bones to heal by speeding up the process of cell reproduction. Early in his study, Dr. Becker had theorized that if electromagnetic fields could promote benign cell growth, they probably could promote malignant cell growth as well. This was later accepted as fact. Today, manufacturers of bone-growth stimulators, as the machines used in electrical bone healing are called, warn doctors not to use them on patients with known tumors. As Dr. Becker points out in his book, The Body Electric (Morrow, 1989), "Accelerated mitosis is a hallmark of malignancy as well as healing, and long-term exposure to extremely low-frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields has been linked to increased rates of cancer in humans."
In further experiments, Dr. Becker and his colleague, Dr. Andrew Marino, exposed cancer cells to electromagnetic fields and reported they proliferated rapidly. (Other researchers would report similar findings in later studies.) In experiments at the Veterans Hospital, they found increased stress responses in humans and animals exposed to magnetic fields. Marino went on to do a generational rat study where he found that animals exposed to electromagnetic radiation had stunted growth, increased infant mortality, and changes in their blood composition and enzyme production.
Taken together, the experimental evidence they amassed convinced the two researchers that electromagnetic fields, such as the ones commonly associated with our 60-Hz power system, were dangerous and might pose a serious public health risk. Their findings prompted them to become two of the staunchest opponents of the unbridled growth of the electrical power system that was under way in the United States during the seventies and eighties. And they weren't alone. While Becker and Marino were conducting their experiments in New York, two other researchers, in California and Colorado, were quietly pursuing their own lines of questioning about the health effects of electromagnetic fields.
In California, Dr. Ross Adey director of the Brain Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, has been studying electromagnetic bioeffects for most of his professional- life, having come to his electromagnetic field research by way of his research on the electrical charges that enable brain waves to pass through the cell membrane and carry messages to other cells. Up until the 1960s, it was generally accepted that only high-frequency radiation, such as gamma rays, x-rays, or microwaves, had biological effects. But, in laboratory experiments that went on for decades, Adey and colleagues Gavalas, Bawin, and Kaczmarek found that extremely low-frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields -- including electrical frequencies produced around power lines - had surprising bioeffects: Exposure caused changes in the behavior of cats and monkeys, altered their brain waves, and changed the level of calcium in chicks' brains. The intellectual excitement generated by this pioneering work is captured in an anecdote from Dr. Adey's 1991 acceptance speech when he was awarded the d'Arsonval Medal -- the highest honor conferred by the Bioelectromagnetics Society -- for his enormous contribution to the field:
The excitement grew as we discussed a suitable tissue to test these RF fields for an effect on calcium binding. Bawin strongly favored the chick cerebrum, on which she was already conducting studies. I favored the rat, and Kaczmarek held his peace with typical British stoicism.... Like Professor Higgins, I am never one to take a position from which I will not budge, particularly with such a charming member of the opposite sex. And so the die was cast. We would use the chicks. But I exacted one condition.... We would test effects of a spectrum of ELF modulation frequencies, since my "female" intuitions were that we might find a frequency sensitivity at some point in the EEG spectral range. I shall never forget the excitement that mounted as, day by day, the spectral tuning curve unfolded, one frequency bar after another.... Finally, when the curve was complete as high as 35 Hz, a curious calm, even an unaccustomed silence, fell on the group. What to do next? There were needed repetitions before we could contemplate publication, but more than that, there was the humbling awareness that, if it were valid, here was an observation of a windowed response quite different than anything in the history of a biology based hitherto on equilibrium phenomena.
In Colorado, Nancy Wertheimer was an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Health. In 1976, acting without funding and with no clear notion of where the work would take her, Wertheimer began a study of children in Denver who had died of leukemia. Her study would become the bellwether for the notion that magnetic fields from the 60-Hz power system can cause childhood cancer. Wertheimer's is a classic story of a lone investigator who intuitively believes something is wrong, and, over great opposition, with few resources and little help, determines to go after that truth. Her methodology was simple enough: She obtained names and addresses of 344 children who had died of cancer, ran up a control group of another 344 children who didn't have leukemia, then got in her car and drove around to the deceased children's addresses to investigate. Initially, Wertheimer was looking for cancer clusters that might suggest some sort of viral agent, but she didn't find anything to support such a thesis. Being a trained observer, though, she did notice something else: A lot of the "death addresses" were close to pole-mounted electrical transformers.
At first that didn't mean anything to her, but then she happened upon a magazine article that said electromagnetic fields from power lines might cause cancer. She consulted with a friend, physicist Ed Leeper, and as they discussed her data, something clicked. From then on, Wertheimer began to focus on power-line electromagnetic fields instead of a virus, and her detective work paid off: She found that a significant number of the young leukemia victims had lived in houses where they'd been exposed to high magnetic fields in the last two years of their lives.
It wasn't until 1979 that Wertheimer and Leeper were ready to publish their results in the prestigious American Journal of Epidemiology, but word had already gotten around that a study in Denver had found children with high exposure to power-system electromagnetic fields were two to three times as likely to die of cancer than children with lower exposures. Overnight, Wertheimer was met with a barrage of protest and criticism, both from scientists who honestly didn't see how low-frequency radiation from power lines could cause any bioeffects at all, and from public utility officials with a clear interest in discrediting her work-. Criticisms were leveled about her methodology - in particular, the fact that she had used a system of wiring code configurations to indicate the amount of current a line was carrying instead of measuring the actual fields.
From the start, Wertheimer said her work was only a beginning and called for additional research into what she felt was an important public health issue. However, at the time, no one seemed interested in replicating her study
Backtracking to 1973, about the time the scientists on the Sanguine panel had made their recommendations, the New York State Power Authority was proposing to construct a 765-kV transmission line (the highest voltage technology permits) from Massena, near the Canadian border, to a small town named Marcy, 150 miles to the south. The line would bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to New York State consumers. Coincidentally, Dr. Robert Becker had a summer home in a little community right in the path of the proposed Marcy-South line. "Actually, it was just because I owned this piece of land up here that it happened," Dr. Becker recalls. "I happened to get a copy of the local paper and there was a notice in it about the power authority wanting to put in the line. I never thought I would be opening such a black box."
Dr. Becker opened the black box by leaking the Sanguine panel's final report to the New York State Public Service Commission, which had the power authority proposal before it. He also wrote a letter telling of the panel's wish to warn the public via the White House and explained that he and the other Sanguine scientists believed electromagnetic fields generated by ambient 60-Hz power lines all over the country were a serious public health hazard.
"If I hadn't opened up the environmental issue on this, I wouldn't be here now," Dr. Becker said recently, indicating his rustic homestead high up in the Adirondack Mountains. "I would probably still be at Upstate (Syracuse). But I don't think I'd want to change anything I've done, looking back." Then he explained his decision to bring the danger of electromagnetic fields to the attention of the public:
You see, it wasn't a military secret. The report was never classified. I was very naive at the time. I thought I'd just give them the information and go home and they'd fix it. Well, I learned a lot from the experience. For one thing, I learned that scientists are just like anyone else - they can be bought.... The Department of Defense, the secret services, they're all involved in this. They've known for some time there's a real civilian problem and they've kept it covered up. You see, once you raise the environmental issue, once that dam is broken, reporters start scurrying around the edges and that means trouble. The military knows that.
The New York State Public Services Commission didn't hold public hearings on the proposed line until the late seventies, but by that time the EMF issue had heated up enough for the commission to ask Drs. Becker and Marino to testify. The scientists recommended that the commission disallow the line, citing their and other studies that had found dangerous biological effects from EMF exposure.
On the other side, however, the power authority was able to mount a strong defense, using paid "experts" who were completely without experience in EMF research, but were nonetheless eager to assure the public there was no cause for concern. (Three of these scientists were on the staff of the National Institute of Health, Drs. Aaronson, Sinks, and Tucker. They received a total of $125,000 from the power authority for testifying at the hearing and were eventually reprimanded by their director for ignoring agency rules about outside compensation for consulting. At the time, Dr. Adey questioned whether the agency would be impartial in future EMF research when their scientists had received so much money from a utility)
The power authority was able to get Governor Hugh Carey to disregard the commissions concerns and, late in 1977, a permit for the Marcy-South line was issued. Once again, politics prevailed over public health. The controversy surrounding the project, however, was to result in the largest research study to date about the bioeffects of electromagnetic fields: the $5 million, five-year New York State Power Lines Project Study
1980: THE NEW YORK STATE
POWER LINES PROJECT
Luckily, the power authority wasn't able to stifle the commission entirely, and it attached several requirements to the permit for the line because of members' concerns about the possible dangers of EMFs. The commission went on record with a proviso to the permit warning that "Electromagnetic fields had been shown to produce bioeffects on animals and it is possible they might do the same in humans." A second provision established a 350-foot right-of-way along the power line route. Finally, the commissioners required the power authority, in conjunction with the New York State Department of Health, to finance a major research study to find out whether there were human health risks from electromagnetic fields produced by overhead power lines.
The Power Lines Project got off the ground in 1980, when a body of scientists and engineers was chosen for the Scientific Advisory Panel. The panel was selected on the basis of both professional expertise and lack of financial or professional conflicts of interest. In turn, the panel awarded contracts to scientists all over the country to carry out a total of sixteen studies on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields.
A $355,905 study, "Childhood Cancer and Electromagnetic Fields," conducted by Dr. David Savitz, an epidemiologist at the University of Colorado Medical School, turned out to be a milestone. Savitz was charged with replicating Wertheimer's "flawed" study, and it was well known that everyone expected him to discredit her. A lot of people were very surprised when Savitz supported Wertheimer's findings. To the scientific community and the utilities, the Savitz study was a bombshell.
According to the Scientific Advisory Panel's final report, "Biological Effects of Power Line Fields," released in July, 1987,
Several areas of potential concern for public health have been identified.... Of particular concern is the demonstration of a possible association of residential magnetic fields with incidence of certain childhood cancers.... A more serious concern comes from a study of cancer in children suggesting that children with leukemia and brain cancer are more likely to live in homes where there are elevated 60-Hz magnetic field levels than are children who do not have cancer.
The Savitz study found a positive association between wiring configuration and increased cancer risk, just as Wertheimer had. This held for all childhood cancers, especially leukemias and brain tumors. There even appeared to be a dose-response relationship, something that had been missing from the earlier work. Savitz estimated that as much as 15 percent of the childhood cancer in the United States is caused by EMFs from power lines. Though the Savitz study reported a slightly lower risk ratio - one and a half times - than the Wertheimer study, his findings were taken much more seriously than Wertheimees had ever been.
Another experiment on the clonogenicity (reproduction) of tumor cells by two scientists, Wendell Winters and Jerry Phillips, proved most interesting. Their findings came about almost by accident, and the final report of the Scientific Advisory Panel is careful to state that they were not part of the official Winters research project studying the effects of 60-Hz EMFs on human and canine cells. Dr. Winters had a state-of-the-art magnetic field laboratory in which to do his research. Dr. Phillips was working in another lab - not under the auspices of the Power Lines Project - studying cancer cells. The scientists got an idea to try something: "We were growing cancer cells in my lab,- Dr. Phillips explains, "and we brought them over to Wendell's lab to expose them to EMFs. Then we brought them back to my lab to see what had happened."
When they exposed Dr. Phillips' cancer cells (they were human colon carcinoma cells) to Dr. Winters' magnetic fields, they proliferated like crazy Furthermore, exposed cells became increasingly resistant to the body's immune system cells. These cells that normally fight tumors (natural killer cells) exhibited both structural and chemical changes. 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.
Whereas the Savitz study had been met with consternation, the Winters and Phillips study was met with derision. It took nearly a decade of EMF research - with Dr. Phillips at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center in San Antonio and Dr. Winters at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center - for that early experiment and others like it to be taken seriously.
Winters recalls, "When we first reported bioeffects, they challenged us as scientists and as people. Over the years, the bioeffects of magnetic fields have become a fact. Today it's accepted. There's no question now that magnetic fields have bioeffects. Across the spectrum, in all species and animals, there are responses to power-line frequencies."
The Power Lines Project was the first in a series of major studies to alter scientific perceptions about EMF risks. The effects are most clearly seen in the experience of the project administrator, Dr. David 0. Carpenter, then director of the Wadsworth Center for Laboratories and Research of the New York State Department of Health. Today, Dr. Carpenter is the dean of the State of New York (SUNY) School of Public Health in Albany, New York. In the eighties, Carpenter was, for want of a better description, radicalized by Savitz' findings:
At the beginning of the project, I did not think there was anything to it. I thought the whole area seemed like one filled with kooks and charlatans. In fact, everyone on our expert panel was equally skeptical, It didn't seem possible that 60-Hz power, which is of much lower frequency than visible light, could cause any harm. But our scientific conclusions changed my mind. No scientist can have that kind of experience without changing his mind.
Another thing to remember, Carpenter says, "was that these studies only dealt with the child's exposures when he (the child) was at home. All the other possible sources of exposure were not taken into account, so the danger is probably grossly underestimated." Carpenter continues:
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 tumors, 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.
And you have to remember, ifs neighborhood distribution lines that are the concern. The (Savitz) investigation said it was likely that 10 to 15 percent of all childhood cancer came from exposure to distribution lines. Everyone worries about high-voltage transmission lines, but the study was about neighborhood distribution lines. What most people don't realize is current in a high-voltage line is often no higher than in neighborhood lines and the EMFs are about the same. There's a 50- to 100-mG field under neighborhood distribution lines.
For years, Dr. Carpenter has been one of the most vocal advocates of immediate and strong regulatory action to protect people from exposure to magnetic fields:
We need to really raise some red flags on this. I believe we had enough information three years ago to make changes. It's time to stop pussyfooting around. The evidence is very good right now. Some forty studies of electrical workers (see Appendix A for a review of the studies) show great increases in deaths from leukemias and brain tumors. That supports the childhood studies. We public health professionals should be telling people there are a few things you can do to reduce exposure and reduce the chance of you and your family getting cancer.
One of the main issues Dr. Carpenter is grappling with is: "How do we communicate problems where there is controversy in the scientific community, but where the public health community feels there's an exploding public health problem?" From the moment the Scientific Advisory Panel published its report, it should have become impossible for any conscionable person in the field to deny the health risks of electromagnetic fields. Yet, many continued to do so. in Dr. Carpenter's words, "One of the major problems here is that the few people who are highly visible on this have conflicts of interest. I think that everyone who has a thing to say publicly about the dangers of EMFs should have his income sources checked. And we need to make sure studies are financed by individuals who do not have any financial interest in the outcomes."
By the early eighties, despite the face they were showing to the public, the power companies themselves had begun to worry about possible health risks of electromagnetic fields created by their lines. Here and there around the country, utilities had started to fund their own research - studies about measuring fields, bioeffects, even mitigation studies designed to develop technologies to reduce the magnetic fields coming from their lines. Unfortunately, many of the positive studies - experiments that prove the relationship between EMFs and bioeffects - never saw the light of day. In this way, the people controlling the purse strings have also controlled the flow of information.
One EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) scientist explains he's very disappointed with what's been going on:
With the cutback in federal funding, researchers are being funded by vested interest groups, like EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute). These researchers are more inclined, because of subtle pressure, to only represent negative results when it comes to EMFs or not to report positive results. They're afraid to get painted into a corner as being environmental activists and then they'd have difficulty getting funded. That's why discussion in scientific circles is so muted.
The question of funding is crucial. On the one hand, there's a great hue and cry for further research - often used as a delaying tactic, or to suggest that there isn't enough information about EMF exposure to take any action. On the other hand, there's a dearth of government money available for EMF research, Agencies like the EPA that once had such research programs had them closed down as funds were withdrawn during the Reagan administration. The majority of current EMF research is under the auspices of the utility companies or the Department of Energy - hardly unbiased funding sources.
According to Andrew Marino, who was the editor of the journal Bioelectromagnetism for ten years,
The question of funding EMF studies in the United States today is critical. Virtually all the money comes from sources that want negative information (proving the dangers of EMFs) covered up. That serves to put a cap on the research. You give me enough money, I can fill a courtroom with so-called experts who'll say whatever I want the jury to hear. There are a litany of well-crafted arguments against the positive research. Sophistry. Equivocal use of the word cause. Badly obscured data, all used to obfuscate and confuse.
Having seen the handwriting on the wall, the utilities started to surreptitiously make changes in the circuitry or siting of transformers and power lines to reduce the levels of public exposure. Citizen activists have reported instances of utility workers sporting gaussmeters who appeared around a questionable neighborhood electric facility, worked for a few days, then disappeared. Afterward, television reception - poor TV reception is a common marker for high magnetic fields - would suddenly improve or people would finally find relief from the recurring headaches and other physical problems they'd been experiencing for years.
1985: EMF LITIGATION
Court cases around the country also had the utilities' attention. One in particular, in Texas, was to cause them a great deal of consternation. The utility official who decided to file that suit is probably still reeling from the outcome of the case. In 1985, Houston Lighting and Power sued the Klein Independent School District because the school board had refused to grant the utility a right-of-way for a 345-kV transmission line that would run close to three schools.
The school districts attorney, H. Dickson Montague, was able to muster enough credible scientific evidence about the dangers of power-line fields to not only convince a jury to direct the power company to remove the line but to require it to pay the school district $104,000 in compensatory damages and an addition $25 million in punitive damages for its irresponsible behavior in siting the line so close to children's facilities. (The utility appealed and damages were reduced to $140,000.)
According to the appeals court, "At issue in this case is a relatively new scientific concern - the possible health effects or risks associated with exposure to high-voltage power lines. A related legal issue concerns the forum that should consider those effects." Three EMF researchers testified on behalf of the school district. Nancy Wertheimer told the jury that the children in each of the schools would probably experience an increased risk of cancer and that it was "indefensible" to expose them to that risk. Dr. Jerry Phillips testified that his laboratory studies indicated that EMF exposure causes cancer cells to grow faster than nonexposed cells and to become more resistant to immune system destruction. And Dr. Harris Busch, chairperson of the Department of Pharmacology at Baylor College of Medicine, said the energizing of the line had been an "inadvertent prospective experiment" about EMF effects on the health of the children. According to Montague, the case would have tremendous repercussions:
I believe the utilities are in serious trouble. We proved there was a potential for personal injury from power lines. There's a burgeoning area of EMF litigation now; more and more people want to file personal injury suits. Although, as you might expect, it is extremely expensive to fund a case such as this. it is fortunate that Klein independent School District had the financial wherewithal to stand up to the utility company and present a full and complete picture to the jury on the potential adverse health consequences of prolonged exposure to electromagnetic fields. It is rare that a person is given this opportunity. However, when one is given this opportunity, the results are obvious.
Three years later, 143 property owners filed a pair of class-action suits against the New York State Power Authority, claiming the Marcy-South line had destroyed the value of their property by setting up a "cancer corridor" along its path (see Chapter 1). And a year later, in Seattle, Washington, Robert Strom, a longtime employee of the Boeing Co., filed a lawsuit that claimed his leukemia was due to on-the-job electromagnetic radiation. (The Strom case was settled for $500,000 in the fall of 1990, with the added stipulation that Boeing had to provide a medical program for its workers and monitor the health effects of EMF exposure.)
1989: OTA REPORT
In 1989, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) commissioned a study on "Biological Effects of Power Frequency Electric and Magnetic Fields" (to use as a background paper for OTNs assessment of "Electric Power Wheeling and Dealing"). The authors of the 102-page report were Granger Morgan and Indira Nair, two highly respected physicists in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy of Carnegie Mellon University, and H. Keith Florig, a researcher in the department. After reviewing the existing EMF research, the authors concluded, "The quality of the science that is now available is remarkably high" and "The emerging evidence no longer allows (emphasis added) one to categorically assert that there are no risks."
The OTA report should have put the utilities on notice that a big change in the tide of public opinion was imminent and that they couldn't continue to do business as usual. in fact, the power companies continued their conservative policies, insisting there was nothing about their power lines for the public to worry about.
Another important milestone occurred in 1989, when epidemiologist Genevieve Matanowski from Johns Hopkins University reported on a four-year study of 50,000 New York Telephone Company employees with varying EMF exposures. The study found workers with high exposures had higher rates of cancer - for some as high as seven times the expected rate - particularly leukemia and lymphoma. Perhaps the most important finding of the Matanowski study was that of a dose-response relationship: Workers with the highest exposure had nearly twice the amount of cancer of any other group.
That same year, Savitz and Loomis reported on a major study of occupational mortality from sixteen states showing that workers in the electrical professions had a much higher risk of brain cancer. (Back in 1985, Savitz had reviewed eleven occupational studies and reported one and one-half times the risk of leukemia for workers with EMF exposures, with evidence that linked the amount of exposure to the incidence of disease.)
But 1990 was to be the real turning point, the year when the public finally began to realize that a critical mass of experts was warning that electromagnetic fields were dangerous to their health. And it began to dawn on people that the danger came not from some far-off source but from the electric power lines all around them. A comprehensive New Yorker article about EMFs by investigative reporter Paul Brodeur, published in the summer of 1990, was an eye-opener for many readers. Brodeur's work broke the ground for a spate of articles in newspapers and periodicals and the occasional television show. By that time, studies were being reported that made the subject of EMFs - and their possible health risks - news.
1990: THE EPA REPORT
Perhaps the single most devastating development, from the point of view of those who were still trying to persuade people they had nothing to fear from electromagnetic field exposure, came in 1990, when the Environmental Protection Agency decided to embark on a comprehensive review of the available EMF literature. (This investigation was actually prompted by pressure from Congress to find out whether RF and microwave radiation were dangers to the public. EPA scientists decided to include research on ELF radiation in their review.)
The EPA is the federal agency charged with warning the public about health problems in the environment. Upon completion of its "Evaluation of the Potential Carcinogenicity of Electromagnetic Fields," a 150-page review of the available EMF studies, concerned EPA staff members tried to warn the people, But their efforts were blocked by a concerted group of detractors that went all the way up to the White House itself.
In December, 1990, frustrated by what he viewed as an attempt on the part of the administration to keep the report from the public, David Bayliss, a veteran EPA staff scientist who was one of the authors of the EMF review, leaked a draft of it to the press. Bayliss told reporters that the Pentagon and the White House had interfered with the document twice in the past year; once when science advisor E Allan Bromley forced the agency to delete an early designation of EMFs as a class BI carcinogen (a probable cause of cancer in humans - cigarettes are a class 131 carcinogen); then, again, when Bromley took the report, ostensibly for review, and kept it under wraps for nearly six months (Bromley has defended his actions by explaining that he "didn't want to alarm people"). Bayliss and other staff scientists felt their warning was never going to be made public.
Others felt the same. In an article in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet (vol. 337, March 2, 1991, p. 544), author J. B. Sibbison wrote:
A major objection was that the report "might be unnecessarily alarming to the public." That is a public relations, not a scientific, problem. The U.S. Air Force, for one, must deal with public opposition to nonionizing radiation from the emergency communications network it is building. "If published, the (EPA) report will contribute to public anxiety and have serious impacts on capabilities and costs of air force programs," says an air force report. The power industry has similar public relations problems.
If it hadn't been for Bayliss, the public might never have learned of the EPA's concerns about electromagnetic fields. Bayliss, who was widely quoted in the press, made public both the results of the largest review to date on EMF research and the ongoing federal cover-up of the issue. That cover-up, in fact, is still very much in effect, for the agency has never officially released the report in its final form.
Dr. Doreen Hill, of the U.S. EPA EMF Group, and co-author of the draft review, said later,
In one sense, the report is out to the public anyway. This has turned out to be quite a political and scientific controversy One good thing about the controversy surrounding the report is that finally the subject has gotten someone's attention. Now, maybe this will get the research funding it deserves. When you get these high-level people involved, things are bound to start to happen. Before this, EMFs were tr6Ated as a non-issue.
The EPA reviewed studies that had been completed prior to 1990 that examined the correlation between EMF exposure and cancer. These included six residential studies of children and adults, over thirty studies of workers in electrical occupations, two studies of the relationship between children's cancer rates and their fathers' EMF exposures, as well as hundreds of laboratory studies. In part, the review found:
The several studies showing leukemia, lymphoma, and cancer of the nervous system in children exposed to magnetic fields from residential 60-Hz electrical power distribution systems, supported by similar findings in adults in several occupational studies also involving electrical power frequency exposures, show a consistent pattern of response that suggests, but does not prove, a causal link.... Evidence from a large number of biological test systems shows that these fields induce biological effects that are consistent with several possible mechanisms of carcinogenesis.
The strongest evidence that there is a causal relationship between certain forms of cancer, namely leukemia, cancer of the nervous system, and, to a lesser extent, lymphoma, and exposure to magnetic fields comes from the childhood cancer studies. ... In two of these studies, cases were observed in those exposed above 2-3 mG, but not in people exposed below that level.
Using what the authors describe as an "overall weight of evidence approach," the review concluded, "The evidence for a causal relationship (between EMFs and childhood cancer) is too strong to dismiss as chance and not strong enough to be regarded as proof of causality"
The national press was united in reporting that the EPA felt that electromagnetic fields cause cancer. The Boston Globe stated (January 14, 1991):
A federal survey that calls magnetic fields from electric power lines a "possible" cause of cancer has given heightened urgency to a growing national effort to settle the issue.... The EPA concluded that several studies "show aconsistent pattern of response that suggests a causal link" between power lines around homes and cancer. The draft said flatly that "there is a link between EM fields and certain forms of site-specific cancer."
Paul Raeburn reported (Associated Press, Washington, D.C., January 14, 1991):
An Environmental Protection Agency report linking electromagnetic fields to leukemia and brain cancer in children will be released next week after being held up by the White House science advisor.
Time magazine said (December 24, 1990, p. 67):
The EPA has put forward what amounts to the most serious government warning to date. The agency tentatively concluded that scientific evidence "suggests a causal link" between extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields and leukemia, lymphoma, and brain cancer. . . (the report) does identify the common 60-Hz magnetic fields as "a possible, but not proven, cause of cancer in humans."
Bayliss, who has been reprimanded for talking to the press, explained,
You should know that some of the scientists here at the agency don't agree with the way the administrations handling this. We're under pressure from the White House. You have to realize, the power companies are some of the biggest backers of this administration. And the air force is building a string of radars across the country, so they're afraid they'll be stopped. They all must feel their economics are being threatened.
Bayliss says other scientists at the agency share his concerns about the apparent EMF health risks:
I'm particularly concerned with the epidemiological data that show an elevated risk for children who are exposed to EMFs in excess of 2 mG. Even though we dodt have conclusive causal data, in my opinion the thrust of the data warrants concern. The public must be made aware there is a risk involved in exposure to EMFs.
What sort of a risk are we talking about? Critics of the review say that the identified risks aren't large enough, statistically, to warrant concern. They also suggest that misclassification of actual exposures may have "biased" the results. But, the review points out that random exposure misclassification tends to bias relative risks toward the null, meaning that with more precise measurements, the risks would actually be higher.
When we only see a slight excess, that doesn't mean there's no risk. It means we haven't yet been able to isolate the risk. Right now, we see a slightly elevated risk in the cases of childhood cancer. I think it's irresponsible for people to go around saying it's safe. To me, it's not a public health position at this point not to urge caution.
Speaking of exposure measurements, Dr. Carpenter reminds us, "All these studies have ignored the child's experience when he's not at home, so we're probably grossly underestimating the danger."
That was hardly the end of the battle over the EPA report, however. Since then, it's been subject to continuous review, by committee after committee, as the government and the power companies delay its release or try to bury it. In the spring of 1992, when a scientific review panel was being named, Bromley tried to stack the deck by recommending a majority of
conservatives and scientists who had historically testified on the utilities' side of the issue. After a struggle, a neutral review board was named. In July, the panel of experts concluded that the report was excellent. But, in August, at a White House Appointed Science Advisory Board meeting in Texas, with Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and conservative members of the . advisory board dominating the meeting, the report was denounced as "biased," and its authors were directed to rewrite it. At the meeting, attention centered around a fifty-page review, by Dr. George Hutchison, that had been commissioned by EPRI. Dr. Hutchison concluded there was no evidence that EMF exposure was connected with cancer.
"I find it amazing that Bates (David Bates from Vancouver) and Clark Heath, who never did anything in the EMF field, and Pat Buffer, who's on the EPRI payroll, accuse us of bias! " says Bayliss. "They had direction all the way up to the White House, from F Allen Bromley. They've been told by the White House to tone it down." Prior to the San Antonio meeting, the EPA staff had no knowledge of the Hutchison paper. Bayliss explains:
What we finally found out had happened was that EPRI paid Hutchison to write this review. We never even got it until after the meeting. It's very difficult to review the studies and deny the connection - there's so much evidence. We did get a copy He treated all the rotten negative studies as valid. A lot of industry-sponsored studies are done so that they'll turn out negative, then they're used to evidence that there are no effects. We hired Charlie Poole (of Epidemiological Resources of Massachusetts) to review Hutchison's paper. He was quite critical of what Hutchison did.
Dr. Poole said he questions the usefulness of the type of statistical analysis Hutchison used. "My view of that paper is that it was mostly a statistical exercise. He aggregated all the studies and came up with a finding."
According to Martin Halper, director of the Radiation Studies Division of the agency, the advisory board report actually strengthened the EPA document, stating: "A weakness often found in such studies is confounders. But since no common confounders can be identified, the existing evidence cannot be dismissed." (A confounder is an extraneous factor that distorts the true relationship of the variables being examined in a study)
Bayliss thinks it's time for the cover-up to end:
They've got to get rid of the connection between the White House and the regulatory agencies. We sit here now and we work on this stuff and we realize it's not going to go anywhere. In this group, right now, practically all the staff scientists are Ph.D.s. We used to sit on the carcinogen board, but all that power's been taken away from us. It's the political appointees, many of them just B.A.s with no scientific background, who are now speaking for the agency I'm really very disappointed in what's going on.
At the very minimum, people in this country should be told there may be a danger living in magnetic fields. And that caution should be exercised. Utilities should remove the fields from around children. The EPA should be on the forefront of warning that any community wishing to build a school should not build it under overhead lines and should be careful to measure the fields first.
But that is far from what's happening. The authors were instructed to revise the document and have it reviewed by "all interested parties." "If we have to get the power companies to agree, it'll amount to a whitewash of the subject," Bayliss contends. "They'll move heaven and hell to get us to alter what we've said. I've seen it before. it happens any time you say a product is dangerous. "
When the revised report finally went out in 1994, it was entitled, "The Relationship Between Power Vrequency Electric and Magnetic Field Exposures and Human Cancer," and the authors had dropped the earlier recommendation that power-line EMFs be classified as a carcinogen. But the authors still clearly believed there was a real association between EMFs and cancer. The report emphasized that new, stronger studies linking childhood cancer to EMF exposures were appearing all the time,
But, while the EPA controversy was still brewing, something unexpected happened: A utility-funded study took the existing EMF cancer data a giant step forward.
1991: JOHN PETERS
The key study everyone in the scientific community was waiting for in the nineties had been funded in 1986 by the Electric Power Research Institute. It was a large-scale, epidemiological study of childhood leukemia and electromagnetic fields that was being conducted by Dr. John Peters of the University of Southern California (USC) School of Preventive Medicine, The Peters study was expected to take the Wertheimer and Savitz data a giant step forward because of the size of the study population, its careful design, and the fact that the researchers took twenty-four-hour field measurements in the children's homes. (it turned out that Wertheimer's wiring code configurations were still a better indicator of the risk.)
Early in 1991, not long before Dr. Peters was due to give a preliminary report at a closed-door EPRI session in Carmel, California, word on the street had it that he was going to replicate the earlier studies. The news caused quite a stir in the scientific community: Despite his power company connection, Dr. Peters was known to be a careful scientist and a man of great integrity (A story about him had made the rounds earlier that year. At an EPRI meeting in Texas, everyone had been polled as to whether or not they would buy a new home near a high-voltage transmission line. Dr. Peters was the only one in the room to say "no." This had been preceded by an incident at a 1986 conference in Canada, where Richard Phillips, an EPA scientist, announced to a roomful of people that he'd never buy a home near a high-voltage right-of-way.)
At the Carmel meeting, Peters did exactly what he'd been expected to do: He reported that exposure to high magnetic fields increased childhood leukemia risk up to two and a half times. He also reported that children who frequently used hair dryers and watched black-and-white television had double the risk of the disease.
EPRI is the largest conglomerate of utility companies in the world. Its headquarters is in Palo Alto, California, and it has the financial wherewithal to endow an enormous amount of EMF research. But sometimes EPRI doesn't like the results of the studies it funds, and it also has a history of spending a lot of money obfuscating the EMF health risk issue by publishing misleading claims and withholding potentially damaging data. Dr. Carpenter and other scientists have gone on record repeatedly stating that EPRI should not be allowed to finance or report on any EMF research.
At the Carmel meeting, EPRI was true to its colors, barring the press from the meeting and preventing Dr. Peters from granting interviews. The "gag order" on Peters held until November, 1991, when his report came out in the Journal of Epidemiology. Dr. Peters' reluctance to discuss the subject can perhaps be better understood in light of the bombshell that he dropped in early November at the annual Department of Energy (DOE) review on nonionizing radiation.
Dr. Peters and Dr. Joseph D. Bowman of the National institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had done a separate analysis of Peters' data and made an exciting discovery The risk of childhood leukemias increased from exposure to certain combinations of the earth's DC magnetic field and manmade 60-Hz AC magnetic fields. By combining the two measurements, Drs. Bowman and Peters had obtained a dose-response curve for leukemia risks. The risks they reported when static and AC field measurements were combined were far greater than any that had ever been obtained before: The increased risk for childhood leukemia went from the previously noted two or two and a half times to six and even nine times. This was the first time a dose-response relationship had been established for EMF exposure and cancer.
Interestingly, none of this appeared in the Peters report that was published that November, which omitted any mention of the earth's magnetic field measurements. It's not difficult to speculate that this had something to do with EPRI, which, from the start, has tried to downplay the results of the study. Right after the spring meeting in Carmel, when Peters released his preliminary findings, EPRI had distributed a conservatively worded press packet. But that didn't prevent the press from sounding an alarm, as headlines like the following appeared the next day all over the country: STUDY SHOWS MAGNETIC FIELD EXPOSURE MAY INCREASE RISK OF LEUKEMIA; MAGNETIC FIELDS CAUSE LEUKEMIA; MAGNETIC FIELDS RESULT IN TWO AND A HALF TIMES THE CHILDHOOD CANCER; LEUKEMIA AND HOME APPLIANCES.
The press packet contained a summary entitled "EPRI Commentary on Initial Results from the USC Study of Childhood Leukemia and Exposure to Electric and Magnetic Fields." That paper provides an excellent model of the techniques that vested interest groups employ to do damage control on a potential "hot potato" like this one.
The opening paragraph warns that "interim results" given in the Carmel workshop "should be considered preliminary and are subject to revision." A common means of misrepresenting scientific data is to reorganize and restructure it statistically until it comes out the desired way.
Throughout the paper, negative findings - where no correlation was found between EMF exposure and cancer - are given emphasis, while positive findings - where the link between EMFs and cancer is shown are downplayed. The strongest finding of all and the most potentially damaging to the utility industry - the finding that establishes a relationship between fields as measured by wiring configuration and leukemia risk - is buried in the middle of the list:
We conclude that our data offer no support for a relationship between measured electric field exposure and leukemia risk, little support for the relationship between measured magnetic field exposure and leukemia risk, some support for a relationship between wiring configuration and leukemia risk, and considerable support for a relationship between children's electrical appliance use and leukemia risk.
The information about measured electric field exposure and leukemia is misleading, since nobody has ever implicated electric fields as causing cancer; only magnetic fields are a cause of cancer. (The term electromagnetic fields refers to electric fields and magnetic fields taken together.) The unsuspecting reader might easily be tricked into thinking that electromagnetic fields (that is, both the electric fields and the magnetic fields) had been given a clean bill of health in the report, which is not the case.
This misleading statement is repeated on the following page: "The USC team found no association between childhood leukemia and measures of electric field exposure." Obviously, this material is meant to be confusing.
The report also confuses by understatement: "There have also been observations in several studies of an increase in cancer in workers in electrical occupations." In fact, by the time this report was written, over thirty occupational studies had found a significant increase in cancer in electrical workers, with many of them reporting as much as twice the number of cancer deaths in workers with high EMF exposures than in any other occupation.
The EMF cover-up continued into the nineties. The utilities took a page from Big Tobacco's playbook using the tactics of disseminating misinformation, belittling the EMF health effects research with cries of "junk science," and calling for a cut in EMF research spending.
In the late nineties Science by Public Relations took hold of the EMF issue. just when most people were beginning to understand that EMFs had genuine health risks, two major reviews were published that assured the public, wrongly, that EMFs were safe. The vested interests had pulled a fast one on the media. All it took was a skillfully worded press release.
THE NAS-NRC REVIEW
In November of 1996, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS-NRC) reported on a three-year meta-analysis of eleven EMF epidemiological or epi-studies. (A meta-analysis combines data from a number of studies and examines them in new ways.) The widely reported NAS findings stand in direct contrast to the long-standing EPA EMF report, which has still never been released. Authors of the EPA report criticized the NAS for misleading the public.
A headline in Newsweek (Nov. 11, 1996) is representative of coverage of the NAS report. "ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS BEAT THE RAP." The full page article goes on to trumpet the fact that the prestigious NAS-NRC found "the current body of evidence does not show that (EMF) exposures present a human health hazard." The mood of the Newsweek coverage was reflected overall in the nation's press, which reported unanimously that the NAS had found no evidence of an EMF-cancer link.
One publication did mention that the NAS had detected some weak connections between EMFs and childhood leukemia, in the form of high-current configuration (HCC) Wire Code houses in the residential studies and went on to mention that "doubters did remain." What no one mentioned was that the doubters were several well- known scientists on the NRC panel, who stated publicly that the committee did not, in fact, find that EMFs are safe - and that the committee did not write the NAS-NRC press release.
Three scientists in particular, researchers with impressive EMF backgrounds - Drs. Luben, Stuchly, and Anderson - went public with their criticism of the report. "We don't think the EMF issue is settled," Dr. Luben stated unequivocally, pointing out that some important studies were expected to report in the near future, studies that, if included, might change the analysis of the NRC review
In a press release dated October 17 and published in the November, 1996, Bioelectromagnetics Society (BEMS) newsletter, the three scientists pointed out that the NAS-NRC found a link between EFMs and childhood leukemia and recommended further studies. The NRC had found an EMF-cancer link when EMF exposures were rated by the Wertheimer HCC Wire Codes surrogate - but the committee chose to dismiss it. Their reason, apparently, was that there was no clearly established link between measured fields or a dose/response finding, and the lack of CONSISTENT AND CONCLUSIVE proof. The committee also ignored the myriad positive occupational studies linking EMFs and cancer.
Dr. Luben wrote: "This report documents that EMF exposure produces a number of biological effects, both on cells in the lab and on animals, that could play a role in cancer development" and warned against taking this to mean EMFs are safe. He pointed out that it took fifty years to prove cigarettes caused cancer, even though there was plenty of epidemiological and statistical evidence of the relationship.
The scientists called for more research - as had the NAS review Far from calling for an end to EMF research - as most of the media coverage, driven by the press release, implied - the NAS report had made a number of specific recommendations for further EMF studies.
THE NCI STUDY
On July 3, 1997, the National Cancer Institute reported on a study of EMF/Leukemia (Linet et al.). The NCI press release, headlined "Study Finds Magnetic Fields Do Not Raise Children's Leukemia Risk," provides a fascinating study in the art of spin control.
Although the study itself clearly states in four places that increased cancer risks are associated with EMF exposure, the press release begins with: "A comprehensive study by researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Children's Cancer Group (CCG) found no evidence that magnetic fields (EMFs) in the home increase the risk for the most common form of childhood cancer."
The press release continues, "Researchers found that, in general, children who lived in homes with high measured magnetic fields were not significantly more likely to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) than children living in homes with low MFs. Nor was ALL found to be more likely among those whose homes were classified in high categories of 'wire code' . . . " The press release was a smokescreen, but one that worked. News that the NCI had reported that EMFs were safe was widely reported by the national press, prompting papers like The New York Times to report "Big Study Sees No Evidence Power Lines Cause Leukemia." The news coverage of the study's release came straight from the press release, not from the study itself. Even the New England Journal of Medicine, where the NCI study was published, reflected the PR version of the research. Accompanying the Linet report was a letter by the associate editor of the journal, Dr. E. Campion, calling for an end to EMF research.
Dr. Raymond Neutra, commissioner of the California EMF program, wrote to the state Public Utilities Commission and the Journal to object to the editorial. Neutra pointed out that a number of large, important EMF childhood leukemia studies - a Swedish study, two German studies, two Canadian studies, and a British study - are in the pipeline and will be reporting in the near future. So the EMF issue has hardly been put to rest. His own California Health Department EMF program will be conducting a meta-study in 1999.
"I disagree with Dr. Campion's assessment that the study by Linet et al. was so superior in QUALITY and SIZE that it has, on its own, laid to rest the hypothesis that EMFs cause childhood ALL. Linet et al.... show results for 408 cases and controls."
Dr. Kjell Hansson Mild, Dr. Barry Wilson, and Cindy Sage (an EMF consultant) issued a press release that said, in part, "On the basis of this new study, some scientists and media ... have repeated the questionable claim that the link between EMF exposure and cancer risk is no longer an issue and that further research is unnecessary Such statements, based on a single study, are disturbing. More disturbing still is the fact that the data presented in the Linet study do not support the assertion that no link exists. Even a cursory review of the main data set shows a 53% increase above 3 mG and a more than 600% increase at exposures between 4 and 5 mG."
Ross Adey pointed out that, if they had included the 3-mG level in their cutoff, the conclusions would have been EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE that there IS a significant risk. David Savitz used 3 mG in some of his work. Selection of 2 mG is "completely arbitrary," according to Dr. Adey
In fact, the study data found that the cancer patients as a whole had higher EMF exposures: Compared to children living in homes with a field of less than 0.65 mG, children exposed to fields of 2 mG or more had a cancer rate twenty-four percent higher, while those living in homes with a field of 3 mG or more had a seventy-two percent increase in risk. (The second finding was statistically significant.) The NCI study does indicate that children with magnetic field exposures below 2 mG do not have an increased risk of developing leukemia.
But why did Dr. Linet's team choose the cutoff point of 2 mG - the point at which the effects disappeared - as the cutoff point in their study? It is impossible not to question this decision. Why mislead the public by ignoring the point at which there were clear risks? Why did the National Cancer Institute fail to warn the public about the hazard?
One answer is competition for a limited amount of research money But, another is the existence of NCI hidden agendas that have been known to influence policy decisions. The NCI's entire history has been marked by the agency's unwillingness to make full public disclosure on any number of public health issues.
The public has a difficult time sorting out the complexities and politics of the EMF issue, so it's no surprise that efforts to mislead it are often successful. The handling of these two big studies did its damage; right now, many people really believe they don't have to worry about EMFs - when, in fact, a number of com