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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Electromagnetic Fields Report

Air Date: Week of November 8, 1996

Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Charles Stevens, chief reviewer of a blue ribbon panel by the National Research Council (N.R.C.) examining summary findings on research conducted over the past 17 years into the health dangers associated with living close to power lines. The N.R.C. could not find any "smoking gun" but links to childhood leukemia persist despite some recent headlines to the contrary.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Recent newspaper headlines declared that scientists can find no health risks from the electromagnetic fields produced by power lines, utility transformers, and household appliances. This from a study by the National Research Council, which compiled 17 years of work on the subject. It was intended to settle once and for all the controversial question of whether or not EMFs cause childhood leukemia, brain tumors, and other disorders. But already the report itself is causing controversy. Several of its authors say the Research Council presented its findings in a way that minimizes the prospect of danger from electromagnetic fields. But the chair of the committee that produced the document, a physician named Charles Stevens, says his panel has come up with the best answers and advice that science can provide right now. Dr. Stevens told me that the research reached 2 important yet seemingly conflicting conclusions.

STEVENS: We looked at epidemiological studies, studies on whole animals, studies on cells and tissues, and the bottom line was that we could find no convincing, compelling, consistent evidence for a health effect of -- adverse health effect of electromagnetic fields. The second thing has to do with the epidemiological studies, and that is that our review committee concluded that the epidemiological studies have demonstrated a small but significant hazard associated with living near power lines, and the job of scientists now is to discover why living near a power line might be hazardous.

CURWOOD: Now, I'm confused a little bit by something here. What you've said is that there is a statistical relationship between people who have leukemia, childhood leukemia, and living close to power lines.

STEVENS: Correct.

CURWOOD: And yet you say that there is no health risk.


CURWOOD: Now, how can you say definitively there is -- and I'm looking at the cover of your press release -- there are no adverse health effects to be seen from residential exposure to electromagnetic fields?

STEVENS: Well, one thing you have to understand is that scientists can never prove that something is safe. All we can do is identify hazards or fail to find a hazard. In the case of electromagnetic fields, people have been looking for 17 years quite hard to try to find an adverse effect, and so far they've turned up none.

CURWOOD: So, when I pick up a newspaper like the Boston Globe, for example, and I see a headline talking about this story it says electromagnetic research review finds no danger, that's accurate? There's no danger from EMFs and public health?

STEVENS: No. What's accurate is that we found no danger. That's what the story says and that's what we said. We found no evidence that it's dangerous.

CURWOOD: Well, is this misleading the public to think that there is no danger? Because that headline says, "Finds no danger." Now, if I'm reading that I say hey, that's got to be safe.

STEVENS: Well, you know, there are a lot of things in life that we don't know if there's a hazard associated with them or not. A lot of, sometimes we find that things are actually beneficial in the long run. Sometimes we find they're neutral. Sometimes we find that there's a hazard associated with them. You see, there's an association, a statistical association between living near a power line and an increased incidence of childhood leukemia. That's for sure. The question is, what caused that association? Did the power lines cause the association? Or was there something in addition that are associated with power lines? Maybe power lines are markers of old homes on busy streets that have some other hazard associated with them, has nothing whatsoever to do with power lines.

CURWOOD: I understand that argument perfectly well, but what are we to do with that information? If in fact there is this correlation, and you can't tell us what causes it, does it mean that we can give EMFs a clean bill of health and say there is no health risk? There are no adverse health effects?

STEVENS: In order to make reasonable public policy, what you have to do is you have to identify what the hazard is, and in this case we know that there is something about the neighborhoods where those kids were living, but we don't know it was the power lines. And maybe it was their income level, maybe we should tell them not to be poor. I think that would be a better thing to avoid than the power lines.

CURWOOD: Should we be doing more research on whether or not EMFs are associated with childhood leukemia, brain tumors, and other problems that have been linked to them or associated with them?

STEVENS: Well, you know, most of the -- a lot of studies have been done already.

CURWOOD: So we should stop? We know enough on this, do you think, at this point?

STEVENS: Well, now, exactly when, exactly how research priorities in a society like ours are set is a very complicated thing.

CURWOOD: Understood, but do you think that we know enough now? That we really don't need more studies?

STEVENS: Well, we certainly need to know why it is that proximity to power lines is associated with childhood leukemia. We definitely need research for that. And there are a number of other open questions. Some of them are noted in the report where we called for additional research. But our job wasn't to set research priorities; our job was just to evaluate the health effects of electromagnetic fields.

CURWOOD: What is a prudent behavior to have? Knowing the association but not having the proof. What should we do? Should we assume that the EMFs pose no risk and just ignore them as a problem, unless and until it's demonstrated that they are?

STEVENS: Well, you know, this is something that everybody, I think, has to decide for themselves. For my personal, the way I decide these things, is that I try to avoid risks that I know and understand. That I know that it's actually a risk. And I don't worry about things that haven't been identified, because there are going to be risks there and I'm sure that I could avoid some of them, but I have no idea what they are. And so, since I don't know what to avoid I don't worry about it. And that's just the way I would do it. But other people, if they see these studies, they see the association, that association worries them, then they should, those people should not live near power lines.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you. Charles Stevens is a doctor of medicine and a professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Thanks for joining us.

STEVENS: Well, thank you for having me, Steve. I enjoyed it.



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