THE DARKER SIDE OF ELECTRICITY
If we are to gain a new understanding of the role of EMFs in human biology, and harness them for healing, many more advocates must become involved.
In June 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft report stating that low-level electromagnetic fields (EMFs), emanating from power lines, electric blankets, video display terminals (VDTs), and virtually every other electrical appliance may promote cancer. EPA scientists based their conclusion on dozens of studies showing higher rates of cancer among people exposed to EMFs at home or on the job.
The cancer studies, together with research linking EMFs to reproductive problems and behavioral changes, represent a direct challenge to public health policy and the traditional laws of physics upon which it is based. If low-level EMFs are indeed hazardous, we are at risk from hundreds of thousands of miles of electric power lines and millions of VDTs and appliances. The issue is not only whether individuals must consider EMFs when thinking about where to live, but whether our country must redesign its entire electric power infrastructure.
EMFs and the Pioneering Scientists
When an alternating current passes through a wire, and electromagnetic field is created that exerts force on the surrounding objects. And wherever there is electricity, there are EMFs.
Alternating-current EMFs -- unlike the earth's static magnetic field in which human beings have evolved for millions of years -- came about with artificially generated electricity. As time passed, we began surrounding ourselves more and more with these artificial EMFs -- without knowing their impact on human health.
The first scientist to identify the link between EMF exposure and increased cancer risk was epidemiologist Nancy Wertheimer, who conducted an investigation on her own time and with her own money. In 1974, she began driving through residential neighborhoods in Denver, Colorado, hoping to find some pattern that might explain why a particular set of children was stricken with leukemia. Wertheimer soon noticed that the houses of the victims were often located near an electrical transformer.
Aware that EMF levels in homes can very considerably over time, Wertheimer knew that one or two "spot" measurements were not enough to accurately characterize exposures. So she worked with physicist Ed Leeper to develop a "wire code," based on proximity to power lines, that would provide a better estimate of long-term exposures. A subsequent comparison of the leukemia victims with a corresponding group of healthy children showed that the incidence of leukemia among children living closest to power lines was double that expected.
Wertheimer could hardly believe the findings. Higher frequency radiation - from X rays or nuclear reactors, for instance - contains sufficient energy to break up atoms and molecules and form ions, and was known to cause cancer. However, conventional physics had long dictated that low frequency, non-ionizing radiation from weak EMFs lacks the power to damage human health. At sufficient strength, EMFs were known to cause shocks and burns, but the levels that Wertheimer and Leeper found to be associated with increased cancer rates were thousands of times too weak to cause such obvious harm.
Wertheimer and Leeper's paper, published in 1979, attracted little more than curiosity. Many scientists questioned their estimates of exposure, suggesting that EMFs from television sets, refrigerators, and other electrical appliances would far exceed those produced by power lines. These critics overlooked the fact that an appliance's EMFs diminish rapidly with distance, exposing people only when they are close by. Power lines, on the other hand, produce EMFs that extend over much longer distances, exposing occupants of nearby homes all day and night.
Electric utility companies as well as government agencies dismissed Wertheimer's findings and refused to fund studies that would confirm or refute them. The follow-up work fell to Swedish physician Lennart Tomenius. In June 1982, Tomenius reported that he had found a significantly higher than expected incidence of cancer among people of Stockholm who were exposed to EMF levels similar to those reported in Denver. Tomenius's findings, like Wertheimer's, were largely ignored.
In November 1986, David Savitz and colleagues at the University of Colorado provided a second confirmation of Wertheimer's findings. These researchers again found an association between proximity to power lines and increased cancer risk, prompting Savitz to conclude that the EMF-cancer link had "gone from a flaky issue into the mainstream of environmental epidemiological research."
One skeptic who changed his mind at this point was David Carpenter of the New York State Department of Health. Carpenter, originally dubious of the EMF-cancer link, had funded the Savitz study as director of a $5 million research project on EMF health effects -- an investigation that grew out of a dispute between citizen groups and electric utilities in New York State over the routing of a high voltage power line. Upon completion of the project in 1987, Carpenter estimated that 30 percent of all childhood cancers may be related to EMF exposure, amounting to a total of 2,000 children per year in the United States. According to Carpenter, roughly 4,000 of the nation's adults may also be affected.
Upon publication of Savitz's paper, the utility industry's Electric Power Research Institute funded its own study of power lines and childhood cancer. One of the issues the Institute hoped to resolve was Savitz's finding of a stronger association between a cancer and wire code estimates than between cancer and spot EMF measurements. In February 1990, this study -- conducted by John Peters and his research team at the University of Southern California --
confirmed once again that Wertheimer's discovery of a wire code-cancer connection; like Savitz, however, they found only a weak association with spot EMF measurements.
In addition to these researchers, many other scientists maintain that wire codes are better predictors of long-term exposures, because the EMF strength produced by power lines can vary from day to day and from hour to hour. Still, there is more to know about EMFs than the wire code studies can tell us.
A large number of occupational studies also demonstrate and EMF-cancer link. In July 1982, Samuel Milham of The Washington State Department of Health published the results of his study indicating that workers with high EMF exposures -- such as electricians and power station operators -- have a higher than expected rate of leukemia. Over the next several years, dozens of studies supported these findings. Then, in 1989, a Johns Hopkins University report showed that male telephone cable splicers have a higher than average risk of leukemia and lymphoma, as well as lung, prostate, colon, and even breast cancer. Unlike earlier studies that analyzed cancer rates according to expected job-related exposures to high EMFs, the Johns Hopkins data were based on actual measurements. These showed higher cancer risks at very low exposure levels - consistent with the childhood studies.
EMFs, VDTs, and Reproductive Problems
The pioneering researcher on EMF-related reproductive problems, Jocelyne Leal, did not set out to study the hazards of magnetic field exposures. Like Wertheimer, she stumbled upon a finding that seemed to contradict traditional scientific thinking.
In May 1982, Leal and her other coworkers at the Centro Ramon y Cajal Hospital in Madrid, Spain, published a paper showing that extremely weak magnetic fields can cause malformations in developing chick embryos. Though Leal did not realize it at the time, the magnetic fields she studied were similar to those emitted by VDTs. While occupational health advocates had long pointed to VDT EMFs as a possible cause of several clusters of miscarriages and birth defects reported among VDT workers, Leal's results provided the first scientific data to support a link between VDT EMFs and reproductive problems.
Under pressure from office worker's unions concerned about Leal's findings, Swedish government scientists exposed pregnant mice to pulsed EMFs that mimicked VDT radiation. In January 1986, the investigators announced that the offspring of the exposed mice had nearly five times the rate of malformations as the unexposed mice.
No follow-up research on the EMF-related reproductive hazards of VDTs was conducted in the United States. However, Tom Rozzell at the Office of Naval Research won funding for an international project designed to test the Leal findings. Five out of six participating labs in four countries confirmed her results.
In June 1988, the possibility of VDT-miscarriage link became widely known with the publication of an epidemiological study by Marilyn Goldhaber and coworkers at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California. They showed that women who used VDTs more than half the workweek during the first three months of pregnancy had nearly twice as many miscarriages as women who performed similar tasks without using VDTs.
The Kaiser study did not demonstrate whether the higher miscarriage rate was caused by EMFs or by some other factor. Other studies on VDT work and miscarriages have yielded contradictory results. And in several instances in which VDT workers were found to be at higher risk, the authors dismissed the findings.
The interpretation of a study's results often has much to do with politics as with science. A recently published study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a case in point. It boldly concludes that "the use of VDTs and exposure to accompanying [EMFs] were not associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion." EMF measurements were not part of the original study design, however, and were not taken until years after the study began. According to the abstract, the VDT workers and the non-VDT workers received similar doses of EMFs, probably due to the electrical wiring in the office --something the researchers did not discover until they had nearly completed their work.
Critics speculate that NIOSH took the measurements after finding no link between VDTs an miscarriages, in an effort to put the EMF issue to rest as well. Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that the conclusion was stretched to include EMFs despite little variation in worker exposure -- suggesting that some federal agencies would like to dispose of the question of EMF-related health hazards without investigating it.
In the 1970s, Stephen Perry, a doctor in Shropshire, England, noted a cluster of suicides and depression among patients living near two high-voltage transmission lines. When one of the cables was moved, the problem ceased along the old route and cropped up along the new one. With the help of a group of American researchers, he began studying the relationship between measured EMFs and suicides in the English midlands. The team found a clear association. In one village with a population of 2,500, for instance, eight suicides occurred in a seven year period -- eight times the expected rate. All but one of the victims had lived in a home with higher than average EMFs.
Perry concluded that he had identified "the first demonstrated correlation between human behavior and environmental power frequency fields." Perhaps more remarkable is that to this day, nor British or American government agency has repeated this study. Still, Perry continued his investigations and, in 1988, identified an association between depression and EMFs in apartment buildings. The same year, another British study confirmed the link between power line exposure and depression.
While the possible hazards of EMFs are as diverse as the sources of exposure, the common connection between the different health effects has proven elusive. What is it about EMFs that can cause such varied and drastic changes in human health?
One clue is in the physical and mental changes produced by exposure to sunlight. Reduced exposures to sunlight for winter, for instance, can lead to what has been termed seasonal affective disorder (SAD), with its attendant symptoms of depression and fatigue. An increasing number of scientists believe that SAD is caused by disruption of the pineal gland's function, and can be remedied by daily exposure to bright light.
EMFs and visible light are part of the same electromagnetic spectrum; and though they are of differing frequencies, they share many of the same properties, including the capacity to affect the pineal gland. This gland synthesizes the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is metabolized in to melatonin -- a hormone that can strongly influence physical and mental health and can inhibit the formation of tumors. Research has proven that both sunlight and EMFs can suppress the production of melatonin. Researchers have also associated reduced concentrations of 5-HIAA -- another metabolite of serotonin that can be suppressed by EMF exposure -- with depression and suicidal behavior.
Several studies suggest a connection between EMFs, the pineal gland, and adverse health effects. This "pineal hypothesis" helps explain not only why EMF exposure might cause physical and behavioral changes, but also why such exposure is linked to a variety of cancers. EMFs rather than causing tumors directly, may promote their growth and, at the same time, decrease the body's capacity to inhibit such growth -- thus supporting the results of the many epidemiological studies showing association with cancer.
A Revolution in Biology
In the wake of Wertheimer, Leal, and Perry's findings, together with those that followed, public exposure standards are being called into question. Their premise - that non-ionizing radiation can harm only through shocks or burns -- goes the way of the geocentric model of the universe. While government and industry officials shudder at the thought of rebuilding the nations electrical grid, however, we need not turn out all the lights to reduce our risk. Electric utility companies are designing power lines that will generate lower EMFs. EMFs may be invisible and may be all around us, but with a willingness to investigate, we may find out that we they are not beyond our power to understand and control.
Written by: Matthew Connelly and Louis Slesin
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